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.  

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Avodah Zara 59: Transfer Through Still Water

Today's daf offers another extension of the rabbis thoughts regarding the transfer of impurity through the touch of an idolater.  

We are told that a Gentile bowed to water and Jews drank from that water, which was subsequently forbidden.  But can public water be forbidden?  If the water was private, could it be forbidden? Was the water attached to the ground?  How did the Gentile behave near the water?  What if the Gentile put his hand into the water?  

The rabbis ask whether or not a Gentile is permitted to help a Jew carry grapes.  They also ask whether a Gentile who puts his hand into a Jew's wine to retrieve an etrog that fell into the vat.  Rav Ashi teaches that his hand should be held still so that the wine does not move.  He says that we should drain the wine from beneath the Gentile's hand, allowing that liquid that has not been touched to be permitted.  

It's this kind of logic that encourages me to see the rabbis as full participants in the thinking of their time and place.  The notion that water is still; that we could avoid water that has touched a person's immersed hand, seems almost ridiculous today.  However, in that time, it was reasonable to assume that water was a "block".

Avodah Zara 58: Rava's Rulings; Interacting with Gentiles

Rav Huna son of Chinena made a ruling that contradicted Rava's ruling regarding the viability of wine that was touched by a Gentile.  In today's daf we are told the story of what happened when Rav Huna son of Chinena came to Rava's town.

Rava learned of this visit and ordered the doors to his town closed.  Eventually, he allowed Rav Huna to enter and speak with him.  Rav Huna son of Chinena said that Rava was contradicting his own earlier ruling.  Rava tried to defend himself by suggesting that his ruling applied only to the remaining liquid and not all of the wine.  Part of the profits would be thrown away.  Rava rescinded this decision.  Different versions of this story are shared.

Another case describes a Gentile who put his hand into a barrel of wine thinking that it was oil.  The rabbis debate whether that wine is permitted for drinking or for libations.  Similar cases, like that of a Gentile who tastes a spoon that is returned to the barrel are debated as well.  In this case, the rabbis focus on the man's intention.  

Why are the rabbis so concerned with the minutiae of these bizarre cases?  My thinking is that the rabbis are not actually concerned with the law regarding purity and impurity.  Instead they are helping us understand how we should consider our interactions with other peoples.   Even small interactions are not mundane.  We should think through the ways that we present ourselves to others and how we receive from others as well.  Idolatry is one of the most serious transgressions.  When these actions are discussed within the context of avodah zara, the importance of each interaction is heightened for us.


Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Avodah Zara 57: Permitting Touched Wine for Libations, for Drinking

Today's daf is a detailed exploration of who may drink from wine touched by a Gentile and who may use that wine for libations.  For each different category of person, the rabbis consider the possible outcomes.  The people mentioned include Gentiles, Gentile minors (those who do not understand idolatry), Gentile infants (those who have not been exposed to idolatry), Jewish slaves, Jewish maidservants, Gentile slaves, Gentile  maidservants, the sons of Gentile slaves and the sons of Gentile maidservants.  The acts include touching wine intentionally, touching wine unintentionally, touching wine with a hand, touching wine with a foot, touching wine with something else (a robe or a stick).  

Sometimes, the wine is permitted for libations and for drinking.  In other cases, the wine is only permitted for libations.  Rav holds lenient responses and Rav Chuna is more stringent regarding this issues. 

Monday, 12 March 2018

Avodah Zara 56: When Do We Tithe Wine?, Hands or Feet

The rabbis begin today's daf with their conversation about when exactly one should tithe in the process of making wine.  If the hands of a Gentile touch the grape product before this time, perhaps the wine can still be used for libation.  We learn that the rabbis were particularly stringent about consecrating wine.  The rabbis speak of the wicker basket that was used to strain through the wine and grape product left after most of the wine had fallen through to the collection vat.

In their discussion, the rabbis note that there was a six year-old boy who learned this very tractate, Masechet Avodah Zara.  The child was asked whether or not a Jew could benefit from his work together with a Gentile, treading on grapes at a particular time.  The child said that this was permitted in accordance with the Mishna.  He explained the contradiction regarding the forbidden touch of a Gentile by noting that the touch of a Gentile's foot is different from the the touch of his hand. 

Today's daf ends with the beginning of another case example.  Here we learn that a Jew and Gentile trod on wine together.  Shmuel delayed his ruling on whether or not the Jew was permitted to benefit from his wages.  Tomorrow's daf begins with the his reasoning behind waiting for so long to rule on this case.

Avodah Zara 55: G-d's Jealousy, Benefitting from Other's Foolishness

Why isn’t G-d jealous of idols?  Another parable is used to explain this concept: When a man takes a second wife, his first wife is only jealous if the second wife is less distinguished that she.  She is not jealous of a second wife who is more distinguished than she, and she is not angry at her husband.

The Gemara asks why people come back from idol worship with their bodies healed.  Two parables are offered to explain this occurrence.  One man was trusted by everyone to hold their belongings without proper witnesses present.  One man did not trust him and brought witnesses to his transaction.  Later he did not require witnesses for a second agreement.  His wife suggested that they make demands.  The man replied that he should not benefit from this trusted man’s foolishness.

A new Mishna teaches that we are permitted to buy a winepress from a Gentile even though the grapes have gone through the machine and the Gentile’s hands touched the grapes in the winepress and puts them into the vat to be trodden upon.   The grape juice only takes on the status of ‘wine’ once it is in the vat.  Only that wine is prohibited.  Stepping on the grapes together with Gentiles is permitted.  Harvesting is not permitted by some of the rabbis.  It is permitted by Rav Huna.   Similarly, a baker who is in a state of ritual impurity cannot knead or arrange bread, and others are not permitted to do so beside him.  However, it is permitted to carry the bread with him to the bread seller.

The Gemara takes note the details of winemaking and the reasons that rabbis belive that wine or juice might be permitted at different points in the process.  They quote a baraita that reinterprets a mnemonic so that it reflects a more stringent ruling.  That means that a Jew who is paid to tread on grapes with a Gentile is benefitting from a prohibited action.

Avodah Zara 54: Idols as symbols; G-d's Option to Destroy Idols

Some ideas that are discussed in today’s daf:
  •    If an animal is worshiped because of coercion, what are the repercussions?
  •    None – just like the betrothed maiden who is raped is not punished further
  •   “You shall not bow down to them nor shall you worship them” – is this intended to include coercion? Those words are followed by “You shall not profane my holy name”, suggesting that the Sages were speaking of coercion and of a public display of idol worship
  •    If one worships an idol in privacy, the “idol” is not forbidden
  •    The rabbis discuss the necessity of a kosher shemitah if that animal was worshiped privately (forced)
  •    How do the rabbis determine whether such an item is excluded if it is the exchange of an exchange of an item that was worshipped?
  •    Two verses that come as one  - teaching the same principal – do not dictate halacha to other similar cases
  •    Consecrated items exchanged for money do not transfer their status and the money is not sanctified

A new Mishna asks why G-d does not destroy objects of worship.  The rabbis answer: people worship the sun, moon and stars.  Should G-d destroy those objects and also destroy his entire world?  Of course not.  So why, ask the rabbis, does G-d not destroy only those items that are not required by our world?  The answer is equally simple: because those who worship nature would use this as proof of their belief.  Their idols were not destroyed, and thus they must be valuable.

The Gemara discusses the liability of those who are “fools” and worship idols.  How can they have multiple pregnancies, which seem to be a sign of G-d’s favour?  They will be punished later, the rabbis surmise.

Why doesn’t G-d punish the idols? A parable is used to explain the G-d’s reasoning.  A king had a son who named his dog after his father.  When he swore, he would swear on the life of his dog, the king.  The king was angry with the son and not the dog.  The son has the ability to choose whom to worship; the idol/dog do not have this ability.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Avodah Zara 52: Vessels, Idols, Ritual Purity, Changing Status

Brief points from today's daf:

  • the rabbis compare vessels and their status of ritual purity when they belong to Gentiles with idols
  • they discuss when the vessel/idol becomes forbidden, where the vessels/idols are located compared to the mountains (up high) and closeness to "the gods", whether one is cursed from the time that s/he fashioned the vessel/idol, etc.
  • the rabbis discuss the importance of a learned judge hearing these cases
  • they wonder what should happen if one finds pieces of a broken idol
  • they discuss who owned the idol before it was broken, its status when reassembled
  • does the state of ritual purity of an idol ever change?
  • the rabbis wonder if a vessel that might have been used for idolatry can be later used in the Temple
  • these vessels are compared with other things that might be forbidden in the Temple including stones, rocks and coins
  • can idols that were nullified be used in the Temple?  Could they be reannoited with oil?
  • the rabbis assert that Gentiles can nullify their own or another Gentile's idolatry
  • no one human being can nullify a Jew's idolatry

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Avodah Zara 51: Near/On Idols, Decorating Idols, People Who Worship Idols

Some brief notes about today's daf:

  • the rabbis continue their conversation about found items that might have been signs of idolatry and whether those things are permitted or forbidden
  • slaughtered grasshoppers, broken sticks, thrown stones are discussed at length
  • we are reminded of some of the halachot regarding the Temple, like the required state of an animal that is consecrated (intact limbs, able to reproduce, etc.)
  • other details about offerings are discussed and repeated
A mishna teaches that if clothing, coins or kelim, vessels, were found near idols, they are permitted.  If clusters of grapes, ears of grain, wine, oil, or fine flour were found, they are forbidden.
  • The Gemara considers what might be on the idol and what might be near the idol
  • Examples include garments, gold, silver, stray coins, whatever is behind a curtain
  • bags of coins are permitted
Another new Mishna teaches that if there is a bathhouse or a garden dedicated to idolatry, we may benefit from it only if we do not give benefit.  This means that if it belongs to worshippers, we may benefit and they may give or not give benefit.  A Gentile's worship of an idol is forbidden immediately.  A Yisrael's worship is only forbidden once the idol is actually worshipped. 
  • the rabbis consider which people we can support - priests of idolatry? Commoners who worship idols?  
  • the mishna might be referring to vessels that are prepared for use in idolatry but they have not yet been used 
The rabbis are clearly looking to balance the need for people to work with Gentile communities while keeping halachot based on biblical direction.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Avodah Zara 50: When Idols are Worshipped by Throwing Things (Rocks, Sticks, Urine, Diarrhea, etc.)

  • Brief thoughts about today's daf:
  • the rabbis discuss specific idols that have stones thrown at them in worship
  • found rocks might have been thrown at these idols
  • the rabbis consider coins that feature the face of idols
  • consideration is given to the distance between found stones and an idol
  • during shemita we cannot remove worms or put fertilizer on a tree where bark fell off; we cannot prune a tree to encourage growth or apply oil to a pruned tree
  • the rabbis are challenged to interpret different baraitot
  • on shemita, work is forbidden; on intermediate days, even exertion is forbidden
  • we may prevent deterioration; we may not improve
    • A Mishna taught that we may put fertilizer on young trees, wrap branches together so that they will not droop to the ground or wrap something around the tree to protect it from the sun or cold, cut the ends of the branches or put ashes on them, make a fence around them, water them between erev shemita and Rosh HaShana.  Thus these things are forbidden on shemita itself.
  • example are given about sustaining plants without improving them
  • The rabbis consider idols that are served with sticks
  • breaking a stick or throwing a stick should be fine
  • are those actions done in worship of an idol?
  • throwing something that splits up is forbidden because it is like the spraying of blood in the Temple
  • urinating near an idol is forbidden because urinating is like throwing something that splits up; defacating is liable when it is diarrhea for the same reason

Monday, 5 March 2018

Avodah Zara 49: Stringencies or Leniencies re:Items Related to Idolatry

A brief look at today's daf:

  • the rabbis discuss grafts and shoots of an asheira, a tree or pole that is part of an idolatrous practice 
  • the rabbis consider examples of sometimes fantastical situations that might involve benefitting from an asheira, including fertilizer, parts of cow feed, wood for burning, redeemed items, and others.  
  • to help them determine whether or not an item is forbidden, they consider similar circumstance, like soil that is fertilized by the blood splashed by a priest
  • the rabbis lean toward being less stringent
A new Mishna tells of wood from an asheira that was used to heat a new oven.  If the wood was used to heat an old oven, it must cool down.  If one baked in the forbidden oven or with the forbidden heat, the bread is forbidden.  If the bread mixed with other bread, all are forbidden.  The rabbis argue about whether or not the bread might be redeemed.  If wood from an asheira was used to make a tool for weaving, we cannot benefit from it.  The resulting item is forbidden, and all items are forbidden if more are mixed together.  The rabbis ask about exceptions.  Wine is considered but then dismissed as an item one could compare with the forbidden items.
  • the rabbis describe other things that are forbidden because they are associated with idolatry, including shavings from an asheira or leaves from the tree
  • three rocks close to the asheira, fragments of a broken idol, other items are considered
A new perek and we continue with this discussion. The rabbis argue about whether or not the fragments of an idol are worshipped.  

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Avodah Zara 48: Use of an Ashera, Three Types of Trees

We begin with a new mishna.  It teaches that there are three different types of ashrim, trees that are used for idolatrous practice.  Each of these is permitted (to benefit from this tree in some way) or forbidden in different ways:
  • a tree initially planted to be worshipped - forbidden
  • a tree where parts were cut off to be worshipped - those parts that have regrown from those spots are burned and disposed of, at which point the remainder of the tree is permitted
  • a tree that held an idol beneath it - permitted once the idol has been removed
The Gemara wonders about whether or not new growth from a tree with branches removed for worship is permitted.  The rabbis question whether we might benefit from trees planted without intention of idolatry, but where one bowed to it.  Is this tree permitted?  What about a tree where the branches bow or break on their own?  Are there cases where only the trunk remains and where that is permitted?  They determine that as long as the act of worship was not presented to the entire tree, parts of the tree may be used at some point.

Three more mishnayot in today's daf!  

1) Trees with idols beneath them are forbidden.  Rabbis found piles of rocks beneath on particular tree.  They looked carefully and found the image of an idol on the rocks.  They determined that the rocks were worshipped, not the tree, and they disposed of the rocks leaving the tree available for use.

2) We should not sit in the shade of an ashera.  If we do, we are still ritually impure.  However, one who walks under the branches of an ashore is ritually impure.  But one who walks under the branches of an ashore when those branches reach out into the public domain are still ritually impure, even if s/he knowingly takes this action.

The Gemara wonders whether we are permitted to sit in the shade of the shade of an ashera.  We learn that shade refers to the shadow produced up to the height of the object itself.  Any shade beyond that is called the shade of the shade.  Then the Gemara questions the notion of imparting ritual impurity.  The answer is that one who walks under a tent carrying a corpse contracts ritual impurity.  An ashera is assumed to have idols beneath it and its branches serve as a tent.

Finally, we are reminded of class differences.  Rabbi Shmuel was permitted to pass under an ashera very quickly and without consequence because he walked quickly to ensure that people would not think that they were permitted to do so.

3) The rabbis assert that we may plant vegetables under an ashera only in the winter season, for the shade of the tree will not benefit the plants.  But in the summer, we cannot plant vegetables under the tree because they will benefit from the shade.  Further, we are not to plant lettuce under an ashore in any season, for lettuce will always benefit from shade.  Rabbi Yosei adds that we can never plant vegetables, because in the rainy season the water will fertilize and thus benefit the vegetables after it runs down the tree.

Interesting learning today about asherim, something we know very little about in old times.  They are connected to spirituality and worship and usefulness.  Today, asherim do not exist... or do they?  Beyond idolatry in religious contexts, which is significant, and a number of cultural practices.  For example, if there was good wifi reception beneath a tree,  and checking one's phone is considered to be a form of self-worship, is the tree/that spot tainted?  Should we do all that we can to blot out that spot where the tree stands?

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Avodah Zara 47: Exceptions to Houses, Walls, Rocks Which Were Once Idolatrous

Some brief notes on today's daf:

  • the rabbis wonder whether we can use a shinuy, an unusual manner of performing an otherwise forbidden task, to permit the offspring of an animal that might be disqualified from use in the mikdash (due to rules around idolatry)
  • the rabbis question whether something can be used by Jews if a Gentile worshipped it
    • bowing to a date tree; can we use it to make a lulav?
    • worshipping an animal; can we use its wool to make holy clothing?
    • praying to a stream; can we use its water?
A new mishna teaches that we cannot rebuild a house if its wall is adjacent to a house of idolatry. Instead, the house should be rebuilt four amos into the person's property.  If the wall is owned jointly with the house of idolatry, half of it counts toward the four amos.  Its stones and earth are considered to be tainted, similar to rules of ritual purity.  The Gemara teaches that one might use that space to be filled with idol worship; urination at night.  We then learn that modest people should urinate in the same place both morning and night and it should be away from people.  
  • A second new mishna teaches that there are three halachot of houses that are forbidden due to idolatry:
    • if the house was intended to be built for idolatry from the start
    • if one plastered or illustrated the walls for the sake of idolatry - in this case, the house is permitted after the addition is removed
    • if idolatry was brought in and removed, the house is permitted
The Gemara notes that if one bows to a house, Rav forbids that house.  He believed that something was dented and later attached is considered to be detached regarding idolatry.  The rabbis ask about a house that was not built to be worshipped but was worshipped.

A mishna stated that there are three halachot of rocks forbidden due to idolatry:
  • if a rock was quarried to be a base for idolatry and the rock will be worshipped, it is forbidden
  • if one plastered or illustrated it for the sake of idolatry, when the addition is removed the rock is permitted
  • if idolatry was put on and removed, the rock is permitted
The Gemara suggests that the rock should be chiseled with reference to idolatry to be forbidden.   The rabbis argue about whether or not the illustration or plaster might seep into the walls.  They suggest that the plaster or ink could enter the wall through cracks between the bricks.  Rabbi Ami taught that even those rocks could be used once the design is removed.  

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Avodah Zara 45: Praising Mountains, Trees, Idols, or Praising G-d Who Created the Mountain

A new mishna teaches us that if Gentiles worship mountains and hills, the mountains and hills are permitted.  However, we are forbidden to benefit from what is on them.  Rabbi Yosi HaGalili teaches that "their gods are on the mountains, but the mountains are not considered/forbidden like their gods".  

What about trees, the mishna asks.  Trees are attached to mountains.  The answer is that it is because people had a role in planting each tree.  We learn that anything that people have helped to create becomes forbidden. Rabbi Akiva says that we should not automatically forbid whatever is under every fresh tree; the trees themselves are not worshipped as gods.  Rather, on every high mountain, hill and fresh tree, the Cana'anim have place idols.  It is our duty to find and destroy them.  The Gemara teaches that what covers a mountain is not forbidden for it is not the same thing as the mountain itself.  

The rabbis consider a seed, a sapling and a tree that first grows and then dies.  What is permitted and what is forbidden?  Certainly an asherah, a tree or pole that is worshipped, is forbidden because people had a role in its existence.  Anything that we have developed becomes forbidden, including a tree that was planted and then dies. 

The rabbis further question what is forbidden and what is permitted when considering trees on a mountain.  They ask about the age of the tree, how it came to be, whether it is alive or dead, whether it has been used as something to worship or not, whether it is a stump, whether something has grown - or could grow - from the stump, and much more.

In looking at particular phrases, the Sages believe that they have learned that the children of Israel were commanded to cut down Ahseirot before they conquered the land and to burn them after the conquest.  Or perhaps they have learned that they should leave their own broken altars and then leave the others.  Without burning them? the rabbis counter.  Rav Huna says that the alters can be left while they are pursuing the Cana'anim.  The altars will be burned after the conquest.  

The rabbis suggest that the larger lesson is that we must tear out all of the roots of idolatry.  In fact, they use a proof text, v'Ibadtem et shemam, to learn that we should make nicknames for idolatry.

Today's daf is a pointed reminder that Judaism offered an alternative to paganism, among other spiritual and religious beliefs.  There is a clear difference between praising a mountain, praising a tree on a mountain, praising an idol placed under a tree on a mountain, and praising G-d who created the mountain itself.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Avodah Zara 44: Idols and Sexual Behaviour; King David's Crown

The rabbis continue to determine how one should depose of items used for idolatry.  Items that are ground up might make their way into the fields which could benefit the crops (depending on the makeup of the tool of idolatry).  We are not permitted to benefit in any way from the practice of idolatry.  As part of this discussion, Rabbi Yosef suggests that the definition of an unknown term leads him to believe that it referred to an idol with a phallus attached to it that women would have relations with every day.  Most of this discussion offers cases where idolatrous items were destroyed without fear of benefiting from the idol's decomposed state.

We are taught that King David placed a heavy golden crown on his head; that crown may have been used as an idol.  The rabbis try to understand how he could benefit from this idol when we are strictly prohibited from such behaviour.  The rabbis consider how much the crown might have weighed.  They question whether or not he would wear such a heavy item.  Such a crown would only be fitted for a king's head.  The rabbis consider that King David might have worn the crown as tefillin, for one could wear two sets of tefillin.

At the end of our daf, the rabbis discuss Rabban Gamliel's visit to a bathhouse.  An idol shaped as Afroditi was in that particular bathhouse.  When challenged about his choice to bathe in an idolatrous bathhouse, Rabban Gamliel replied that he did not enter a bathhouse dedicated to Afroditi.  Instead, Afroditi was used as decoration in this bathhouse.  In response to their claim that he might have had seminal emissions while looking at Afroditi, Rabban Gamliel notes that Afroditi was placed near the urinals and thus this idol is not at all honoured in the bathhouse.  The rabbis go on to discuss other cases of bathhouse decoration and how people and idols might be honoured - or, more often, disrespected in the urinals.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Avodah Zara 43: Forbidden Images/Objects - in Case They Might be Used for Idolatry

Some brief notes about today's daf, which focuses on things that might be used for purposes of idolatry and are thus forbidden:

  • forms of nursing women are forbidden because these represent Eve who nursed the entire world via nursing her children who in turn created all people
  • forms of nursing women could also represent Yosef who fed - or, perhaps, nursed - the entire world through years of famine
  • the form of a woman should be permitted unless she is nursing
  • the form of a man is forbidden only if he is portrayed handing out food from a bucket
  • found objects might be turned into idols by Gentiles
  • because we are commanded to make nothing in the form of things that serve G-d,
    • are we permitted to use wood for a candelabra, like the menorah? We cannot make a seven-branched menorah
    • can we use iron or metal, wood or gold?
    • can we make things in different dimensions than those made for the Mishkan?
    • only one face of the cherubim is permitted; four faces are forbidden
  • can we create things in the form of the sun, moon, stars?
  • can we create things in the form of a human face?  Did the cherubim have human faces?
The rabbis discuss other items that might be thought to be symbols of idolatry including worms, signet rings with an extruding part, seas, rivers, or mountains.  They note that images might be used if they are tools for learning.  Images might be kept in parts and put together only during the time that they are used as teaching tools.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Avoda Zara 42: Forbidden Items, Disposing of Found Idols

We are introduced to an example of possibly forbidden things focused on a miscarriage.  The rabbis speak of a case where a slave miscarries and drops the miscarriage into a pit where rats or muskrats might have taken it away.  The rabbis wonder if it was not a miscarriage but a fetal sac that was discarded.*

The rabbis discuss protocols when one finds a part of an idol.  While even part of an idol could be worshipped, does that require the base of the idol to be found as well?  If a Gentile punches it in the face, we can assume that s/he is renouncing the idol.  Nor so for a Jew, for Gentiles might believe the the idol chose not to defend itself.  Disposing an idol requires that we grind it up and throw it into the sea.**

The rabbis discuss idols that come in the form of trees, as well.  And we are not to take eggs from a nest that is sitting in a forbidden tree.  That would be benefitting from possible idolatry.  The rabbis ask many questions about found items and their potential connections with idolatry, from twigs taken from other trees to a nest built in a forbidden tree to finding an image of the sun or the moon and throwing it into the sea.  

It is clear that the rabbis are attempting to draw a line between being hospital, open, welcoming and being fiercely and stringently loyal to our one G-d.  

*Although this is not the discussion at hand, what would a slave be expected to do if she miscarried?  It might be impossible for her to bury the fetus and/or the placenta.

** Such an extreme reaction would suggest that the Jews found these idols threatening on some level. 

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Avodah Zara 41: Parts of Idols

The rabbis determine how ordinary people can live with potential idols in their midst.  They have to be wary of finding broken idols.   A statue of anyone holding something in his/her hand might have been worshipped, as well.  When a person is up above others and/or is holding things, this might symbolize its dominion over the world.  

The rabbis' last questions are not answered.  How should we interpret finding a statue that is a potential idol holding excrement?  Perhaps the rest of the world is like excrement; perhaps the entire being is worshipped.

A new Mishna teaches that unidentifiable parts of statues are permitted to us. In contrast,  hands, feet, and other parts of broken statues might have been worshipped as part of idols in the past and thus we cannot benefit from them.  We must distance ourselves from these.

The Gemara discusses these found fragments.  Might they be other things?  And what if they were not properly prepared as tithed objects?  One of the notes we learn is that a chaver, a reliably halachic Jew, would always have prepared such items in advent not wishing that we should mistakenly use something forbidden.

Our daf ends with the beginning of the story of a maidservant.  This story is shared to explain that an uncertainty cannot be used to change a certainty.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Avodah Zara 40: On Gentile Fish, Images, and Statues of Kings

The rabbis debate about the kashrut of fish sold to us by Gentiles.  They want to ensure that the fish are ritually pure and permitted based on numerous halachot:

  • how many fish are in the barrel?  
  • do the fish have both fins and scales?  
  • are the heads and tails of the fish both visible?  
  • in which manner have the fish been dissected? 
  • which rabbis have claimed that the fish are ritually pure or ritually impure?  
  • are those decisions based on similar patterns of logic?
  • how do we evaluate fish eggs?
    • are they spherical on one end and pointy on the other?
    • are they hatched outside of the mother's body?
    • is the yolk is on the inside and the white on the outside?
  • is there a mumcheh, an expert on supervising kashrut practices, present?
  • do we rely on a seller who claims to have salted the fish himself?
  • we assume that Gentiles will not cut something permitted with their ritually unclean knives, or pour their ritually unclean wine on any item sold to Jews
A new Mishna teaches that all images produced by Gentiles are not to be acquired by Jews.  These images are said to be served or worshipped once each year.  The rabbis argue over whether all images are prohibited or only those with a person carrying a staff, a bird, or a ball.  

The Gemara considers why any image would be permitted if it is worshipped even only once each year.  The rabbis note that images could portray kings.  They begin what becomes a longer discussion about statues of kings and where those might be placed.  Clearly Jews would be expected to worship the statue of a king just like any other citizen, and we are told that these statues often were placed at the entrances of cities.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Avodah Zara 38: Specific Foods Prepared by Gentiles

Some points from today's daf:

- we were forbidden from eating food cooked by Gentiles
- exclusions

  • foods that can be eaten raw
  • anything that could be eaten with bread at a king's table
  • small fish, mushrooms, porridge are not eaten raw nor proper for a king's table (argued)
  • foods that are primarily oil can be eaten raw
  • foods that are primarily flour cannot be eaten raw
  • roasted grasshoppers or a Gentile's roasted head of an animal might be allowed perhaps because it was not intentionally roasted
  • one can eat one's steak turned by a Gentile so that it will not burn; the steak is cooking itself on the new side
  • similar examples: A Jew leaving soup,meat on coals may allow a Gentile to turn it until the Jew returns from shul or the studyhall - the Jew must finish or end the cooking
  • the Rabbis differ in their opinions on what foods are permitted when prepared by a Gentile:
    • salted fish prepared by a Gentile
    • roasted egg roasted by a Gentile
    • a Gentile's oil
    • caper fruit
    • matalya, seeds
    • hot water and dried grain
  • drinking vinegar might sometimes be used as idol worship
A story: when the Jews left Eygpt, they brought seeds of celery, flax and clover.  They were soaked in water and planted in a keli of water, then in clay.  Rav Ashi denied that this could be true, then said it must have been witchcraft to make the plants grow so quickly.

The daf ends with an extended discussion about different Gentile dishes and their preparation.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Avodah Zara 37: Permissive Yosi

At the very start of today's daf, Rabbi Yehuda Nesi'ah says, "Last night we permitted Gentile oil".  Putting the content aside, it still feels exciting when a rabbi refers to himself and the process of Gemara.  What we are reading is an actual translation of what was said two thousand years ago. Rabbi Simla'i then says that Rabbi Yehudah Nesi'ah would even permit Gentile bread.  The response again captures the reflexive questioning of our ancestors.  Rabbi Yehudah Nesi'ah says, "No, because we would be called a permissive beit din".  

A new Mishna teaches that Yosi ben Yo'ezer testified that ayil kamtza, a type of grasshopper, is permitted, that blood and water as liquids in the mikdash's courtyard are ritually pure, that one who touches a corpse is ritually impure, and that they called him "permissive Yosi".   This turns into a much longer conversation about Rabbi Yehudah Nesi'ah permitting a conditional get.  The conditions discussed are meant to ensure that the process of giving the get is actually completed within a reasonable amount of time - perhaps less than one year.

We learn more about Yosi ben Yo'ezer and his lenient rulings.  He permitted the grasshoppers, said that liquids in the courtyard were ritually pure, and that one who touches a corpse is ritually impure.   

The rabbis wonder whether the grasshopper in question is a long-headed insect, whether it is permitted, and whether the wingspan covers the grasshopper.  The Sages forbade those insects. Then they discuss liquids like blood and water in the Temple's courtyard.  If they are ritually pure, do they impart ritual impurity?  Can they become ritually impure?  Were these Torah-based or rabbinically-based halachot?  Then the rabbis note that contracting ritual impurity from touching a corpse is a stringency and it is based in Torah text.  They wonder whether the question might refer to the ritual impurity contracted by one who touches one who touched a corpse.  That status only lasts one day and not one week.

Finally the rabbis look at bishul alkum, a forbidden food cooked by Gentiles.  We know that we are not permitted to drink Gentile water that has not been changed - food could be similar.  But we are allowed to eat Gentile wheat that was dried in an oven.  Also, we are permitted to drink their water in its natural form - perhaps we may eat their food in its natural form.  Similarly, changes could be made through fire.