Introduction to Avodah Zarah
“Avodah Zarah” is the Hebrew word for idolatry. It literally means “foreign worship”. Tractate Avodah Zarah discusses the prohibition of Jews using objects that non-Jews may have used while worshipping idols. The central idea is that once an object has been used in idol worship the object is forbidden to be used by Jews. There are many passages in the Torah which strictly forbid Jews from worshipping idols and enjoin them to destroy any of the objects used in idol worship (see for instance Exodus 23:24, 32-33; 34:12-16; Deuteronomy 7:1-5, 25-26; 12:1-3). The Rabbis went further in these prohibitions and created an entire system of law meant to keep Jews away from non-Jews and their idolatrous practices. Throughout Jewish history these laws aided in preserving the distinct identity of the Jewish people. However, they also were a primary cause in anti-Semitism, with non-Jews frequently scorning Jews for their separatist practices.
Rabbi Menahem Meiri, a Talmudic commentator who lived in Provence in the 14th century recognized that Christianity and Islam were not the same as the pagan religions that existed in the time of the Mishnah and the Talmud. Christianity and Islam are both monotheistic religions with systems of law and many shared values with Judaism. He therefore stated that most of the laws regarding non-Jews do not apply to the members of these religions. Other Rabbis disagreed with Rabbi Menahem Meiri. Even the Meiri often insisted that the Jews had to continue to distance themselves from non-Jews, based on Talmudic law.
Whether or not we agree with Rabbi Menahem Meiri or with his detractors, while learning this tractate I think we should keep in mind the vast differences between the circumstances in which we live and in which the rabbis lived. The Rabbis were surrounded by a hostile culture from which they wanted to keep as great of a distance as possible. Oftehn times they were creating a “straw” non-Jew, one whose behavior does not reflect how non-Jews actually acted. This is often a strategy adopted by a group that wishes to differentiate itself from other groups.
In today’s world our surrounding culture is thankfully much more respectful of Jewish differences. We do, and should, celebrate and learn from our contacts with people from all cultures, and certainly, I believe we should be respectful of the customs, practices and beliefs that differentiate Jews from non-Jews. However, we should also keep in mind that the ultimate goal of the Rabbis was to preserve Jewish identity and religion. The problem of how we accomplish this today when most of these laws are no longer observed and contact between Jews and non-Jews is great, is probably the greatest problem that modern Jews face.
Exodus 23:13 states, “Make no mention of the names of other gods; they shall not be heard on your lips.” From the last part of this verse, “they shall not be heard on your lips” the Rabbis created a midrash that a Jew should avoid giving a non-Jew a reason to bring a sacrifice or libation to his foreign god. Therefore, during the three days preceding pagan holidays, Jews should avoid any business transactions with non-Jews, lest the non-Jew thank his god for this transaction. According to the first opinion in the mishnah, this prohibition works in both directions. It is forbidden for Jews to sell, lend or repay non-Jews and likewise it is forbidden to buy, borrow or receive repayment from them. According to this opinion, all of these transactions may potentially cause the non-Jew to celebrate and therefore should be avoided. Rabbi Judah dissents with regards to receiving repayment from non-Jews. Since repaying a debt causes sorrow to a person, it is permitted to receive repayment during this time, since the non-Jew will not thank his god after having done so. The Rabbis respond to Rabbi Judah that repaying a debt can indeed be a cause of celebration, even if the immediate parting with the money is depressing. Therefore it too is prohibited three days preceding a holiday.
We should note that although this mishnah seems to be of a restrictive nature, it does indeed allow business transactions at any time that is not three days before their festivals. In other words, by forbidding the conduct of business on certain days the mishnah tacitly permits conducting business with non-Jews on other days. This was of course an economic necessity; even before the modern “global economy” no people could survive without conducting business with other peoples.
The tractate opens with a lexigraphical discussion of the word I have translated “festival”—איד, whether it is spelled with an aleph or an ayin. While today Ashkenazim and Sephardim do not distinguish in pronouncing these letters, originally they were pronounced differently. Jews of Yemenite descent still pronounce the ayin as a guttural letter, closer to the Arabic sound of “gh.” This is why Aza in Hebrew became Gaza or Amora (and in Sodom and Amora) became Gemorra.
Rav and Shmuel disagree as to the exact word that appears in the Mishnah which I have rendered “festivals.”
To support both readings in the Mishnah, the Talmud quotes verses that use both words. We should note that the words have different meanings and neither means “festivals.” Most scholars do not think that the rabbinic word is actually related to the biblical Hebrew. Rather, it comes from a different origin altogether (and is related to the word Ides, as in “the Ides of March.) The sugya presents midrash on the biblical word—it connects two words that sound the same but originally had different meanings.
The one who related the word to Deuteronomy, where it is found with an aleph, chose that verse because there the word has the connotation of calamity. It is as if he says that the festivals of the idolaters are actually calamities.
The reading of the word with an ayin connects it to the verse in Isaiah. There it means testimony brought before God. This reading is preferable because the testimony brought before God is what will bring about their calamity.
The problem is that the verse from Isaiah does not refer to idolaters. The word “testimonies/witnesses” refers to Israelites.
Huna son of R. Joshua finds another verse that uses the word “edehem” with an aleph and clearly refers to idolaters.
This section begins a long aggadah in which the nations come in front of God at the end of days and God judges them for their failings. In a sense, the aggadah’s purpose is to explain why the Torah was given to Israel and not to the other nations.
At the end of days God will invite all of the nations to come forward and justify themselves in front of Him for having observed the Torah.
At first all of the nations come in front of God all mixed in together. But then they separate such that each comes one at a time. As we shall see, each kingdom will come in front of God, one at a time.