Sunday, 18 March 2018

Avodah Zara 61: How Close Can We Get to Those Who Practice Idolatry?

Yesterday's daf focused on when we can benefit from - or drink, in some cases - something touched by an idolater in different scenarios.  Today's daf offers us a new Mishna with new information: The Jew who claims that a Gentile's wine is permitted -because he treaded on the grapes himself - may store the wine in the Gentile's domain in a house open to a public thoroughfare until it is sold.  If this happens in a city with Gentiles and Jews living together, the wine is permitted (the Gentile will not touch the wine, knowing that Jews might see this and declare the wine forbidden).  If this happens in a town of all Gentiles, the Jew must sit and safeguard the wine or else the wine is forbidden.

The Watchman is not required to sit and guard the wine; even if he leaves and returns many times, the wine is permitted.  Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar say that the domain of Gentiles is all one.  

When the Jew who renders the wine of a Gentile permitted by treading on the grapes himself so that the wine can be sold to Jews and then puts the wine in the Gentile's domain until it is sold, the halacha is different.  If the Gentile writes for the Jew that he received money from him as payment for the wine, even if he did not yet receive payment, then the wine is permitted.  If the Jew wants to remove the wine and the Gentile does not allow it until the Jew gives him the money owed, the wine is deemed forbidden.  The Gentile believes that a lien has been placed on the wine and thus he might touch it and cause it to be forbidden.  This last example is based on a case in Beit She'an. 

The Gemara explores what is meant by a "Gentile city".  They compare what is forbidden in similar cases - one where a palm tree's top is cut off, another where a Jew buys or rents a house where he stores barrels of wine in a Gentile's courtyard.  

The Gemara continues with questions about whether or not it matters who holds a key or a seal to the barrels of wine. And a watchman would have to visit without a schedule so that he would witness the true behaviour of the Gentile with the wine.  Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar's words in our Mishna might refer to the Gentiles being as one because they will collude with each other.  The rabbis argue whether Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar is stringent or lenient in his rulings.  They note that people might collude with each other if one has more power than the other, for example, a person might cover up for a vizier.

The very end of today's daf is also the end of Perek III.  We learn that if a Gentile is found alone with many barrels of wine, if he is tried as a thief, all of the wine is permitted.  Why?  Because in his haste to steal, there is no way that he would have time to make libations with that wine, and thus it has not been sullied.  

This final point is critical.  It is easy to forget that we are supposed to be learning about idolatry.  Most of our learning has been about contact with wine.  However, the larger questions are about idolatry.  Jews have always lived together with Gentiles; with people who worship idols.  That foundational difference was emphasized by focusing on halachic rules about contact.  We know that we don't believe in the powers of idols. But how closely are we permitted to associate ourselves with this different set of beliefs?  Can we be best friends with idolaters?  Can we share our meals?  Our homes? As the Jewish community continues to struggle with 'continuity', we should remember that isolating ourselves was never the solution of the rabbis.  We were and we are forced to live together across our differences.