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.  

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Avodah Zara 36: Oil, Jewish/Gentile Intermingling

A brief summary of today's daf:

  • Gentile's oil may be forbidden because it is held in ritually impure vessels
  • Oil may absorb the impure tastes from ritually impure vessels
  • Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (Rebbi) permitted this oil
  • How could one beit din overrule another?
  • Perhaps the ruling was meant to apply only to himself in one circumstance
  • Perhaps this argument of which Gentile products were permitted/forbidden was among the great arguments of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai
  • Torah law forbids seclusion with Gentile women of the seven Gentile nations; they are considered ritually impure at all ages
  • David's Beit Din forbade seclusion with unmarried Gentile women
  • Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai forbade seclusion with any Gentile woman
  • Decrees regarding seclusion followed Amnon's rape of Tamar
  • Gentile boys are considered to be ritually impure as well and thus Jewish boys should not play with them
  • The text hints that Jewish boys could be turned toward homosexuality if they spend time with Gentile boys who are ritually impure; zavim
  • Gentile boys might be ritually impure from birth, from age 3 or from age 9
  • Seduction might be possible at age 3 and intercourse could be possible from age 9
  • Some rabbis note that girls would have to be much older than three years old to be seductive
  • Regardless of when children might become capable of seductive behaviour or having sexual relations, decrees against Jewish and Gentile children intermingling were thought to be stringent and wise
  • How could one Beit Din overrule another?
  • A ruling that cannot be met by the majority of a community should not be carried out

Monday, 19 February 2018

Avodah Zara 35: Cheese, Milk, Bread and Perfumed Sages

Some basic items from today's daf:

  • we may not eat cheese made by Gentiles
    • the process may involve a non-kosher mixing of milk and the stomach of a calf
    • it may sit out and be made non-kosher by the venom of a snake, etc.
    • lard from pigs may be used to smooth the cheese
    • vinegar or sap from fruit may be used to curdle the cheese

  • Rav Nachkann brei d'rav Chisda says that a Sage is compared with a flask of perfume
    • if open (teaching others), it gives off a nice scent; if closed, it does not
    • if open, hidden things are revealed to him
    • the angel of death loves him
    • he inherits this world and the World-to-Come
A new Mishna:
  • We are forbidden to eat but benefit from 
    • milk that a Gentile milked without being overseen by a Jew 
    • a Gentile's bread 
    • possibly a Gentile's oil
    • cooked foods
    • pickled foods using wine or vinegar
    • diced fish, 
    • brine if kalbis, a fish, swims in it
    • chilek, a fish late to grow fins and scales
    • a koret, cut piece, seek or stalk of chiltis, a spice
    • shalkundis salt
  • the milk could be switched with the milk of a tamei animal
  • the milk could be mixed with the milk of a tamei animal
  • milk could be tested by seeing whether or not it curdles (kosher milk curdles)
  • the milk could be tainted by the remaining whey of tamei milk in the cracks after the kosher milk curdles
  • bread is forbidden because it could lead to socializing and then to intermarriage
  • bread may be permitted in the field where there is no risk of interaction

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Avodah Zara 34: 12 Month Hiatus, How Pure is Pure?

Today we learn more about our traditions at Pesach.  Rabbis who are lenient regarding the use of shared earthenware or bottles with non-Jews during the year are stringent over Pesach.  One reason is because Torah law directs stringency on Pesach but only the rabbis teach us about stringencies over the regular year. Hot liquids are thought to absorb into a vessel, and most cups hold only cold liquids like water or wine.

As part of three questions asked of Rabbi Akiva, we learn that partial-day fasts are permitted, that Moshe wore a plain white garment for the seven days when he built and served in the mishkan, and that bottles belonging to Gentiles can be kashered by leaving them unused for one year and then submerging them in water three times.  

Within twelve months a number of items may not be used nor are we permitted to benefit from them.  The rabbis decide that the following items are permitted after leaving them sit for twelve months:

  • dry grape pits
  • dry grape skins
  • food made from the dregs of a Gentile's wine
  • empty vessels
  • a Gentile's thick leather pouch
  • arch (a food made of flour, spices, milk and wine)
  • grape pits belonging to Gentiles
  • specific white or black vessels belonging to Gentiles
  • fish oil
  • chilak, fish who have not grown their fins or scales yet

The rabbis discuss whether or not cheese from Beit Unaiki is permitted or forbidden.  They argue that most calves there are slaughtered for idolatry*.  Or perhaps a minority of calves there are slaughtered for idolatry.  And if calves are a minority of the animals there, then we should not rule for all based on a minority of a minority.

Rabbi Yochanan says that an animal is forbidden if it was slaughtered so that its blood would be poured or so that it would be burned in the name of idolatry, the animal is forbidden.  Those acts are ways to serve idols.  Reish Lakish argues that the animal is permitted because the acts of pouring and burning are requisite acts of service that are also done in the name of idolatry.  He concludes that the slaughterer must say in his heart that he intends to serve an idol by finishing the slaughter for the animal to be forbidden.

At the end of our daf, the rabbis consider whether or not a woman is betrothed to a man if the fluids of the intestine of an ox sentenced to be stoned is used; if the same of a calf offered to idolatry.  The rabbis wonder about whether only the meat of an animal is forbidden or whether we must not benefit from any part of an animal bound for idolatrous purposes.

* The stomach of a calf used for idolatry could have been used to hold the milk made into cheese.

Avodah Zara 33: Storing and Selling Liquid, Absorption and Earthenware

The rabbis discuss the risks surrounding doing business with a Gentile who is either on his/her way to serve idols or who is returning from serving idols.  Perhaps s/he will not in fact honour an idol.  Or if the Gentile is going to a fair, idolatry may not be part of that trip.  The rabbis consider whether one might sell or buy wine or other items.  The age of the product might indicate whether or not the Gentile is going or has been to serve an idol.

We learn about different ways that wine was stored and transferred.  The rabbis speak at length about whether wine is stored in a leather pouch or a bottle.  They speak of the residue of wine which soaks into the sides of a pouch and cannot be removed.  

The rabbis then consider which other cold liquids might be stored in a Gentile's leather pouch.  Some rabbis say none.  Others suggest that beer might be permitted.  Earthenware vessels can be washed with water.  But would that washing be enough to return the pouch undamaged?  The rabbis speak of pouches that are filled with dung and whether or not that can be properly cleaned without breaking the pouch.

Who took the first sip, the Gentile or the Jew?  Does this information help us understand the ownership of the container?  The liquid?  Does it matter if the container has been rinsed once? Twice?  Certain types of earthenware are forbidden to use because they come from a ruler who destroyed Jerusalem.

Finally, we hear about Pesach.  If an earthen ware cup is used around the year, can it be used on Pesach?  The rabbis want to know whether or not the matter will absorb its contents.  Anything cracked or broken cannot be used on Pesach.  Anything that absorbs liquid cannot be used on Pesach.  One of the reasons that certain types of earthenware are permitted for use on Pesach is that it does not 'sweat' when it holds cold liquids.   If it does sweat, the rabbis believe that the cup has absorbed liquid and thus it cannot be used on Pesach. 

Friday, 16 February 2018

Avodah Zara 31: wine, beer, venom and Gentiles

The rabbis suggest that we avoid wine that was offered to idols, and thus we should avoid taking any wine from Gentiles.  The rabbis also share their concerns about Gentiles who might exchange their own things with Jewish things that have been left in their care.  They argue about things - including wine - that might be stored in a corner separated from the things of others.  And what about things like homes - or sealed barrels?

Gentile beer is forbidden, and the rabbis say that his is because Jews and Gentile might intermarry after meeting over beer.  The rabbis also mention guards and their usefulness in keeping items kosher.  Beer in the end is deemed kosher for Jews to drink, even when taken from Gentiles.

At the end of our daf, the rabbis note that people who ate forbidden foods might also be hurt by the venom left in those poorly supervised foods.  Particularly susceptible would be those who are ill.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Avodah Zara 30: Snakes, Venom, Exposed Food and Drink

A brief review of today's daf includes forbidden cooked wine, mixed wine, exposed water, and exposed food.  These include cooked wine with aluntis (mixed old wine, clear water, balsam oil and/or honey and peppers).  The rabbis are concerned about wine being exposed to the venom of snakes as well as poisoning whether on purpose or inadvertently.

The Gemara describes the rabbis' fears of being poisoned.  Some rabbis trust just about everyone.  Others are wary of Gentiles, widows, and anyone else who might have left their food or drink in a place where a snake could find it.  These comments lead me to believe that the bite of a snake was very dangerous and somewhat common.  

Rav Safra teaches that there are three types of venom.  A young snake's venom sinks; a middle-age snake goes to the middle.  The venom of an old snake stays on the top of a liquid.  Older snakes are understood as weaker than that of younger snakes.  A baraita teaches that three thins get stronger with age: fish, snakes and pigs.  But perhaps this indicates only that the venom of an older snake is weak while the snake itself is strong.  The rabbis prove this by describing situations where the water at the bottom of a barrel is poisonous. They question whether or not we should permit a non-kosher animal, at cat for example, to drink from possibly poisoned water.

Avodah Zara 29: Medical Remedies, Healing recipes, Distancing Ourselves from Gentiles

A very brief outline of today's daf:

The rabbis continue their descriptions of medical remedies.  These include cold water for facial wrinkles and hot water for the cut caused by a thorn.  Vinegar helps bloodletting.  Small fish will help a fast.  Bloodletting should not follow eating cress, having a fever, or having an eye ache.  Often a remedy is drinking vinegar and wine together. 

A mixture of cumin, mint, horehound, savory and hyssop are drunk with wine to help tonsillitis, and beer to help a chilled pregnant woman.  We are told that cabbage, beets, dry mint/pennyroyal, stomach, womb and diaphragm (and sometimes small fish) are curative.  Ox meat, chelev, roasted meat, fowl, roasted eggs, cress, shaving, a hot bat, cheese and liver hinder healing.  

After thinking more about haircuts - we are forbidden to receive haircuts from Gentiles - we learn that we are not permitted to benefit from many other things belonging to Gentiles.  These include their wine, vinegar, Hadriani earthenware, hides with a hole from which the heart was removed (perhaps only if the hold is round), meat to be used for idolatry, grape skins and pits (perhaps only it they are wet beyond the 12 month marker), fish oil or cheese.  

One of the rabbis' conversations suggests that cheese is only forbidden because it may be processed using the stomach of an animal being used for idolatry.  This must be connected to today's laws regarding rennet in cheese.  If the animal is not being used for idolatry, perhaps the cheese could be kashered.

Our daf ends with a conversation about items forbidden due to fears about benefiting from idolatry.  The deeper meaning of today's daf seems to be that same message: we must distance ourselves from idolatry and from the appearance of idol worship.  Again we see our ancestors accentuating and creating barriers between themselves and other communities. 

Monday, 12 February 2018

Avodah Zara 28: Ancient Remedies, Healing on Shabbat, Healers

The rabbis debate which symptoms would be so distressing that one could treat them and break the halachot of Shabbat.  Some of the discussion includes:

  • burning fever
  • internal injury
  • gums/teeth/lips are similar to internal organs
  • painful gums/teeth rather than being concerned about gums/teeth
We learn that Rabbi Yochanan did not keep his word.  A matron gave him a remedy for tzafdina for Thursday and Friday.  He asked what to do on Shabbat and she said that he would not need the remedy at that time.  But what if I do, he asked.  She had him swear that he would not reveal the remedy and then told him the ingredients.  The next day he shared them.  Not with G-d, he argued, but with the Jewish people. 

Tzafdina refers to gums that bleed with pressure.  The rabbis say that it is caused by eating very cold wheat foods and very hot barley foods, and fried fish remains.  The remedy might be be water with leaven steeped in it plus olive oil and salt.  It might have been a cream for the gums made of goose fat with a goose feather.  Abaye says that he learned the true remedy from an Arab.  It was olive seeds that are less that one-third ripe tuned in a fire on top of a new hoe.  These seed should be stuck along the row of gums.  

We learn about rabbis licking each other's legs to remove poison.  We also learn that many of these healers were women, and they were called 'expert physicians'.   The Gemara lists a number of ingredients for different remedies.  Some remedies are for sword wounds and others are for abscesses.  Others are for hemorrhoids.  Hemorrhoids are treated with special care - three different remedies are recommended.  We are given medical tips - when to lance; how to recognize healing.   

Earaches are given much attention as well.  We learn that the eyes and the heart are linked by tendons, and that blue eye shadow should be used with caution.  The rabbis also consider remedies for eye infections, hornet stings, scorpion bites, and stuck thorns.  These are fascinating, time-consuming (possibly impossible) and might have provided people with optimism and something to do while one was still ill.

Avodah Zara 27: Gentiles & Circumcision, Haircutting, Healing

The rabbis continue to question the lines between Jewish and Gentile community at the most natural sites of intermingling.  Today they discuss who is permitted to circumcise a Jew, who is permitted to cut a Jew's hair, and who is permitted to heal a Jew who is dying.

The wording of the mitzvah of creating a covenant with G-d through circumcision is somewhat ambivalent.  Do the words mean that only one who is circumcised himself is permitted to circumsize an infant?  What about one who could not be circumcised because his two older brothers died after circumcision?  What about a woman, who cannot be circumcised?  What about a Samaritan or a Gavnuni, hill person,* who is circumcised but not in honour of G-d's covenant?

The rabbis debate up and down.  In the end, they are willing to use the skills of a woman or others who were not traditionally circumcised but only if no-one else is available.  Notably, two arguments are present regarding women as mohelot.  First, women are all circumcised already.  In fact, all Jews are born circumcised and thus it is permitted for any Jew to circumcise an infant.  Second, women may have circumcised men in the Torah: Zipporah raised the flint to circumsize her and Moses's son when Moses was not present to do his duty.  The rabbis argue that the words might translate as "Zipporah called another to raise the flint" or even that Moses finished the circumcision himself.  They are reluctant to allow women to do exactly what women are said to have done.

The Gemara considers healing, as well.  A new Mishna teaches that one may be treated by a gentile provided that it is paid for and not a personal favour.  One may not have his hair cut in private, either.  

Why can't a Jew have his** hair cut by a Gentile when alone?  Not because of xenophobia and not because of a sense of superiority.  Jews are afraid of Gentiles.  Gentiles could easily kill Jews while cutting their hair.  This point is helpful when we consider the exclusivity of Judaism and the existence of antisemitism over thousands of years.  Jews are thought of negatively; Jews are hurt by Gentiles.  Do we as Jews encourage negative stereotypes because of our ever-present fear of persecution?

When are Jews permitted to be healed by Gentiles?  We are told the story of a Jew who dies because a rabbi does not wish for people to believe that a Gentile, in particular, Jesus, has healing powers beyond those of G-d.  But if a Jew's life is in danger, should we not turn to anyone who has a potential remedy?  The rabbis distinguish between heretics and other Gentiles who heal.  Heresy is said to be enticing, and the rabbis also fear that people might follow the heretic over their Jewish teachings.

*Possibly descendants of Keturah, Avraham's wife after Sarah's death, known as nomadic mountain dwellers who are not in the covenant but circumsize themselves anyway.    Or possibly nomadic people descended of those dwelling near the Golan who practiced circumcision.

** it is unclear whether or not women's hair was cut or styled by other people.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Avodah Zara 26: Jews & Gentiles, Midwives & Wet-Nurses

We begin with a new Mishna: Gentile women should not be midwives for Jewish women nor should they be wet nurses for the babies of Jewish women.  Jewish women can be midwives for Gentile women and Jewish women can be wet-nurses for the babies of Gentile women.

It becomes clear almost immediately through the Gemara that Gentile women are treated with suspicion.  Either they will kill Jewish babies in ways that cannot be proven, or they will tell other Gentile women that they are doing so.  Gentile wet-nurses might even put poison on their breasts before nursing in attempts to kill Jewish babies.  This Mishna is in place to save Jewish babies from the evil that rabbis imagine is in the hearts of Gentile women.

A Jewish midwife who births a gentile baby is helping to bring an idol worshipper into the world.  However, Jewish women are permitted to be midwives for Aramean women because Jews would be held in contempt if we refused to midwife their babies for payment.  But what about babies born on Shabbat?  We are permitted to break Shabbat to birth Jewish babies but we are not permitted to break Shabbat to birth other babies.  

Regarding wet-nursing other babies for payment, how would Jewish women avoid this?  The rabbis suggest that unmarried women can decline offers by saying that they wish to get married.  Married women can walk away from such offers by saying that they do not wish to become "repulsive" to their husbands.  Aramean and other women will understand rationales like these and not hate the Jewish people.

The Gemara extends this discussion to questions related to the relationships between Jews and Gentiles in other areas.  The rabbis discuss whether Jews can help Gentiles rescue small animals from a pit.  Some Gentiles may not be lowered into the pit nor raised up from the pit.  Other Gentiles - heretics, informers, apostates - can be lowered into the pit but not lifted from it.  The rabbis try to clarify the difference between apostates and heretics.  Rabbi Abbahu says that one who eats non-kosher meat out of insolence is a heretic.  Rabbi Acha and Ravina add: one who eats non-kosher meat out of appetite is an apostate; one who eats non-kosher meat out of insolence is a heretic.  But one who worships idols is actually a true heretic.

The rabbis consider circumcision.  They argue about who might be permitted to circumcise a Jewish infant if not a Jew.  Again we are told that Gentiles are thought to enjoy bloodshed, and thus we cannot trust them with this task.  Jews are permitted to circumcise Gentiles for reasons of conversion.  Jews are not permitted to circumcize Gentiles in order to 'heal' them.  In a pinch, the rabbis have different opinions on whether Arabians or Samaritans should be in this role of mohel.  It is noted that Samaritans are considered to be somewhat Jewish.  

At the very end of our daf the rabbis present their proof for the exclusivity of the mohel job.  One word, beriti, my covenant, is similar to brit milah, circumcision.  Thus when we learn that G-d spoke with Abraham about the covenant (Genesis 17:9), we learn that Jews are responsible for circumcising their offspring.  In my estimation, this would be interpreted differently.  Only Jews would be responsible for being circumcized, but the circumcision could be performed by a Jew or a Gentile.  Then again, I am lucky enough to live in a time and place where Gentiles are not thought of as loving bloodshed.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Avodah Zara 24: Cows, Gentiles, Sacrifice & Song

For much of today's daf, the rabbis continue to discuss challenges between Gentiles and Jews when it comes to buying animals to be consecrated and sacrificed.  Must a Jew have guarded an animal belonging to a Gentile from the day the animals was born to ensure that it had not endured bestiality?  And what about before the animal was born - what if its mother was violated?  Wouldn't this hinder the baby animal's ability to be consecrated?  The rabbis suggest that a Jew must guard the mother of an animal to be consecrated from the time the mother was born.  But what about the mother's mother?  That, say the rabbis, is taking things too far.

How would anyone know that one particular mother would birth a red heifer?  Rav Kahana says that a red cup was passed in front of the mother during mating.  The child would then be red.  But if it is that easy to produce a very expensive red heifer, why wouldn't we all do that?  Because, we learn, even two non-red hairs disqualify a potential red heifer.  And why would we try to create red heifers from Gentile and not Jewish livestock?   The Gemara asserts that Dama's cows in fact were bred to become red heifers through this method.

Perhaps in the future everyone will understand that idolatry is forbidden, the Gemara argues.  In that case will we be able to accept animals that were raised by Gentiles?  Well, just because they have given up idolatry, how would we know that they have given up bestiality?  And perhaps bestiality did not disqualify animals from being consecrated before we were given the Torah.  The rabbis discuss how this might have worked in practical terms.

Our discussion ends with commentary about the age of a potential red heifer when it is bought.  Three years the magical age between infant and child, baby and adult, sapling and plant - depending on the species. When an animal turns three, it is able to have its first child.  That child's gender determines whether or not it is eligible to be used for different purposes - the firstborn, unblemished male is sacrificed in a particular way, for example.  

We learn a fun interpretation of the words, va'yisharna haparos baderech, the cows went straight down the road (carrying the arc back to the Jewish people).  The rabbis use the word va'yisharna's connection with the word shira, song, to posit that the cows actually sang as they carried the arc.  What did they sing? Ask the rabbis.   A number of verses are listed, suggesting songs that the cows might have sung.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Avodah Zara 23: Gentiles, Hostages, Red Heifers, Offerings, Mitzvot

A few brief thoughts from today's daf:

  • A woman taken hostage and secluded with a Gentile is not assumed to have been raped if the captor wanted money
  • One reason is because the husband might not pay for her release, believing she was raped, and thus the captor would get less money
  • A red heifer cannot have laboured under a burden (just standing under the burden is not a problem) to be eligible for sacrifice
  • A Gentile would only get mild pleasure from bestiality but much money to sell it to a Jew as an animal that is eligible for sacrifice
  • Offerings are less valuable than red heifers, but offerings may still be assumed to be eligible for sacrifice if bought from Gentiles 
  • the red heifer and other offerings may be considered sin-offerings if a blemish is discovered after they have been consecrated
  • being born through a cesarian section does not disqualify a red heifer from sacrifice because the same type of birth does not taint a human child
  • other offerings might be required to have been born vaginally
  • the story of one Gentile's exemplary behaviour toward his parents teaches us that if Gentiles can uphold a mitzvah without the requirement to do so, we Jews should be able to honour our parents even more spectacularly

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Avodah Zara 22: Gentiles, Animals, Fields, Widows, Bestiality and Seclusion

Today's daf ends Perek I and begin Perek II.  We have been discussing ways in which Jews separate ourselves from Gentiles regarding idol worship and business relationships.  Today the rabbis begin to advise us about personal relationships with Gentiles.  

It is helpful to have read Steinsaltz's notes about these teachings.  He suggests that these  recommendations to distance ourselves from Gentiles have been in fact debated by many rabbis since the canonization of the Talmud.  When these most ancient laws were discussed, it is understood that people without Judaism were often without the rule of law.  Jews were fearful for their lives.

First, the rabbis teach us about owning land in partnership with a Gentile.  Clearly this was practiced, and it was expected that both parties would contract to share their earnings without sharing the earnings of a Gentile who works the land on Shabbat.  As an aside, this particular argument is interesting to me because I had assumed that there was an environmental or biologically based need for the land to rest.  Animals and people, for example, work better when we have time to rest over the course of a week.

Our new Mishna teaches that we are not to keep our animals in Gentiles' inns because we suspect Gentiles of bestiality. This would be like putting a stumbling block before the blind (Leviticus 19:14).  A woman may not seclude herself with a Gentile because Gentiles are suspected of immoral sexual behaviour.  Finally, no Jew should seclude him/herself with a Gentile for Gentiles are suspected of bloodshed.

The Gemara tackles these points one at a time.  First, we learn more about the rabbis concerns about Gentiles and bestiality.  The rabbis can site verses that suggest that Gentiles regularly sodomize their animals and other verses that teach us that Gentiles would not defile their animals.  It seems that an underlying tension is the need for Jews to do business with Gentile partners.  

Our daf concludes with examples of restrictions that face Gentiles and Jews; Jews and animals.  Jewish women are said to be more appealing to Gentiles than their own wives.  The rabbis speak of Eve's contamination by the snake.  Further, Jewish widow were not to house Talmud students for they would know the students' discretion would allow them to have illicit relations with these tenants.  Even worse, Jewish widows were not to own dogs, for they would be suspected of bestiality.

Widows were in a bind.  They would have more difficulty than others with gaining a much needed income through being landlords.  Further, they would be less safe and more lonely than others because they would not be permitted to have dogs.  The rabbis thought very optimistically about the sexual appetites of older women.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Avodah Zara 21: Renting, Selling, Gentiles, Kutim, Mezuzot, Houses, Fields

A new Mishna teaches that we may not sell or rent houses to Gentiles wishing Eretz Yisrael, and all the more so, fields are off limits.  In Surya it is permitted to rent houses only.  Outside of haAretz we may rent or sell houses and rent fields.  Rabbi Yosi says that in Erez Yisrael we are permitted to rent but not sell houses and we may not even rent fields.  Further, in Surya we are permitted to sell houses and rent fields, and outside of HaAretz we are permitted to sell houses and fields.  When we rent houses, we are forbidden to rent to Gentiles who would bring idols with them.  Finally, in all places we are not permitted to rent bathhouses to Gentiles, for they are called "the Yisrael's bathhouse" and thus Gentiles will think that Jews authorized heating water on Shabbat.

The gemara considers the mitzvah of mezuzah.  It is only required by Jews who live in a home; a mezuza is not a mitzvah on the house.  Thus no laws are uprooted if a Gentile lives in a house owned by a Jew with or without a mezuza.  Forbidding renting to a Gentile might be a decree rather than a halacha.  The rabbis note that we should note whether we are potentially uprooting one or two forbidden practices when we consider questions of sale and rental.  We also learn that a neighbourhood is considered to be an area including at least three people.  The rabbis are wary of promoting a Gentile neighbourhood on Jewish land.

The rabbis speak about the concept of renting and selling.  Some rabbis agree that one should never rent to a Gentile, regardless of the place.  Others, like Rabbi Yosi, permit Jews to rent houses in any place.

In their discussion of bathhouse rentals, the rabbis question whether or not we are permit to rent to Kutim.  The quick answer is yes, for Kutim work on chol haMo'ed and even Jews heat water for bathing on those intermediate days of the Festivals.  

At the end of our daf, the rabbis express their concern about people believing that Jews are breaking halachot if Gentiles or Kutim are permitted to work their fields, live in their houses, etc.  The creation of halachot through interpretation of verses is also informed by the rabbis' fear of both violence and assimilation.  Judaism is exclusionary.  Talmudic debate that is concerned with Jewish continuity has strengthened that isolationist leaning.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Avodah Zara 20: Clothing, Animals, Angel of Death, Creating the "Other"

Shortly into today's daf, the rabbis speak about the importance of distancing ourselves from Gentiles in our midst.  We should not praise them.  We should not compliment the beauty of one of their women.  On this particular topic, the rabbis speak of the relationships between men and women - when those women are Gentiles and also when those women are Jews.  A man should not speak with a woman unless the conversation is purely utilitarian.  A man should not look at a woman even if she is unmarried, unless it is just for a moment so that he can decide whether or not he will marry her.  He cannot look at a beautiful woman and he cannot look at an ugly woman.  Simply put, men are to distance themselves from women at every opportunity.

Certainly not all men agreed with this way of living.  Of course many men must have spoken freely with members of their families who were women.  And friendly men must have made eye contact, even occasionally, with women they knew through business or family.  But to create an ideal that distances men from woman was to ensure that women did not understand a 'male' world.  And, of course, men did not understand the world of women.  Such extreme separation allowed men to create law relatively unfettered by the lived wisdom of women.  We learn rarely about women whose voices influenced the men who contributed to the Talmud.  However, when many rabbis idealized the almost complete separation of women and men, those voices could not temper the 'masculine' nature of the halachot that affect all of us to this day.

Taking this concept further, the rabbis argue that men should not look at the coloured clothing of women.*  How could a launderer not look at women's clothing?  He is different, the rabbis argue, because his thoughts are consumed by his work, like one who inserts an animal's member into another animal to mate the two.  That person would not have lewd thoughts, for he is focused on his work.  

In addition, a man should not look at a male and female donkey or a pig and sow or fowls while they are mating.  This is even if they are "full of eyes", like the Angel of Death.  We then learn that the Angel of Death is said to stand over a person before s/he dies holding a sword with a drop of poison on its edge.  When a person is about to die, s/he opens his/her mouth with a start at the sudden vision of the Angel of Death.  The drop then falls into his/her mouth, causing both death and the green pallor of a person after death.**  

Further discussion introduces the notion that Shmuel's father spoke with the Angel of Death, who described fascination with the incision which caused a human to be slaughtered.***  A dead person should be turned onto his/her face, we are told, so that the poisonous drop will not fully putrefy him/her.  

This is a wonderful example of our rabbis use of logic and deduction to explain natural phenomena.  While they present their findings as somewhat evidence-based and scientific, certainly they were missing critical pieces of information.  And, of course, the evidence that they found was always consistent with their previously held understandings of Torah and G-d.

Rabbi Pinechas ben Ya'ir teaches that Torah study leads to care with mitzvot which leads to diligence in observance which leads to cleanliness of the soul which leads to abstention from evil which leads to purity and elimination of base desires which leads to piety which leads to humility which leads to fear of sin which leads to holiness which leads to the Divine Spirit which leads to the resurrection of the dead.  And piety is greater than all of them, for Psalms (89:20) states "Then You did speak in a vision to Your pious ones".  Other rabbis argue about different traits being the most valuable.

While we are not permitted to sell to Gentile anything attached to the ground, we are permitted to sell grains, trees, etc., once they have been cut down.   The rabbis disagree about whether one must sell an animal to a Gentile after or before it has been slaughtered.  

*Steinsaltz's notes teach that men's garments were one colour, that of the fibres (brown or black) and women's were also one colour but were decorated brightly, especially for festivals, and meant to attract attention.  In antiquity, women were allowed to put a stumbling block before the blind?  I would love to learn more about these records.

** The drop of poison might have severed the trachea and esophagus so that humans were ritually slaughtered in the same way that we slaughter animals

***The Angel of Death's concern for human dignity stopped him from uncovering that incision.

Avodah Zara 19: Learning Torah; Selling Plants Attached to the Ground

Today's daf teaches a number of verses or parables and justifies their meanings.  Briefly, we learn:

  • it is best to study Torah slowly over time
  • either one study's one's heart's dire or one receives one's heart's reply when studying
  • Torah study should be split into three parts: Torah, Mishna, and commentary
  • perseverance is a large part of Torah study
  • we cannot receive money from any form of work regarding idolatry
  • a new Mishna: Should different items be sold to idolaters?
  • The rabbis discuss selling plants that are attached to the ground

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Avoda Zara 17: On Prostitution, Heresy, and Roman Courts

We learn tales of rabbis who faced the Roman courts.  This includes a number of interesting points, including:

  • While we are supposed to distance ourselves from prostitutes, the rabbis seemed to walk near prostitutes on a number of occasions
  • we are not supposed to have physical intimacy with close relations, though mothers/sons and fathers/daughters are permitted to show affection to each other
  • one rabbi argues that while we cannot have intercourse with family members or many others, that does not include other sexual acts
  • *my take on this is that we could extend this argument to gay and lesbian couples, where only heterosexual intercourse is forbidden unless married - thus gay and lesbian intercourse should be permitted
  • Jews who participate in heresy might be killed immediately
  • Then again, there may be reasons that those same Jews were allowed to live
  • Rabbi Eliezer ben Durduyya was promiscuous with prostitutes; a tale is told about his visit with one last prostitute and his repentance
  • Rabbi Elazar ben Parta and Rabbi Chanina ben Tardyon were said to walk by a house of prostitution; later they were captured and tried by the Romans
  • These two rabbis argued about which was more righteous and deserving of life than the other
  • Both rabbis were challenged about their study of Torah, teaching, and stealing