Masechet Avodah Zarah 48a-54b

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06 Oct 2010

The Coming Week’s Daf Yomi by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim (original ideas) of Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud.

Avodah Zara 48a-b: Trees as the representation of false gods

We have learned (daf 45) that one natural formation that is considered to be avodah zara is an asherah – a tree set aside for pagan idol worship.

The Mishnayot on today’s daf focus on the asherah, and attempt to define what such a tree is. According to the Mishnah, there are three types of asherah

  1. A tree planted specifically for avodah zara
  2. A tree that was sculpted or pruned in the name of avodah zara
  3. A tree where an idol was placed underneath it.

In the first case, there is nothing that can be done. Such a tree is an asherah and must be destroyed. In the second case, although the tree that is formed is forbidden, if the tree continues growing, what grows anew is not considered to be avodah zara and is permitted. In the final case, according to the tanna of the Mishnah, if the idol was removed, the tree is permitted.

In the following Mishnah we learn that there is a difference of opinion regarding the third case. Rabbi Shimon believes that when an idol is placed under a tree, it has no effect on the tree – it is only if people worship the tree itself that it is forbidden as an asherah. The Mishnah relates that there was a tree in Tzaidan where Jews refrained from benefiting from a tree because it was known as an asherah. Rabbi Shimon suggested that they check a mound of dirt and rocks that was under the tree, and, in fact, they discovered an idol buried within it. Rabbi Shimon ruled that the tree was permitted, since the pagans had been worshiping the idol, and not the tree.

As a general rule, the Gemara explains that a clear indication that a tree is an asherah is when the pagan priests guard the tree and do not allow the fruit to be eaten, clearly indicating that it is set aside for those who worship it.

Avodah Zara 49a-b: Throwing rocks at Mercury

Perek “Rabbi Yishmael,” the fourth chapter of Masechet Avodah Zara, begins on today’s daf, and it continues the discussions of the last chapter, whose focus was on defining what might be considered to be forbidden Avodah Zara. For example, the first discussion in this perek is about the deity Markolis – the Roman god Mercurius, or Mercury – whose representation was not a formal statue in a house of worship, but was a simple pile of rocks built up out in the open air. In this case, even thought there was no statue, nevertheless, the recognizable pile of rocks represented the deity. Even the method of worship was out of the ordinary, inasmuch as travelers would throw rocks on the pile, and they would become part-and-parcel of the idolatrous representation themselves.

The discussion about this deity and its unique method of worship serves as a basis for the basic questions – what is considered to be avodah zara and what is viewed as a contribution or donation to avodah zara that becomes forbidden.

The Roman god Mercurius parallels the Greek god Hermes, although some suggest that the deity referred to in the Mishnah was Mercurius Helipolitanus, which was a local Syrian idol, influenced by Greek and Roman traditions.

This deity was viewed by its worshippers as the protector of travelers generally, and of traveling merchants, specifically, which is why the representation of the deity appeared most often at crossroads. Oftentimes, the idol was not a full statue, but was just its head on a base. Worship consisted of throwing a stone or pebble at the statue, and over time a pile of rocks was formed that served as the deity, itself. From the Mishnah it appears that sometimes there was no idol at all, and the representation was simply a symbolic pile of stones – two stones side-by-side with a third stone placed on them.

Avodah Zara 50a-b: Watch where you walk!

Following the destruction of the second Temple, the house belonging to King Yannai was abandoned and fell into disrepair. Ultimately, pagans entered the house and placed an idol dedicated to Mercury in it. Later on, other non-Jews who did not believe in Mercury as a deity removed the stones from the building and used them to pave the paths and streets of the city.

This led to a disagreement among the Sages. Some of them refused to walk on the newly paved streets, lest they benefit from the stones that had been consecrated to the worship of Mercury. Others had no such compunctions and walked on them without concern. Rabbi Yochanan ruled: The “son of the holy one” – referring to Rabbi Menachem the son of Rabbi Simai – walks on these streets, how can we do otherwise?

The Gemara explains that Rabbi Menachem the son of Rabbi Simai was referred to in this way because he would refrain from even looking at the idolatrous images stamped on coins.

The Gemara explains that the reasoning behind refraining from walking on the stones followed the opinion of Rav Giddel quoting Rav Chiya bar Yosef in the name of Rav who taught that the passage in Sefer Tehillim 106:28 should be interpreted to mean that any contribution made to avodah zara remains forbidden forever. Those who disagreed believe that only a contribution that parallels a halakhic sacrifice will become forbidden in that way.

The idea that any contribution made to avodah zara remains forbidden forever is grounded in a Biblical passage, but a number of explanations have been put forward to rationalize it. The Me’iri argues that since such a contribution is viewed as similar to a sacrifice, just as sacrifices remain consecrated forever, so these contributions are, as well. The Maharal is quoted as saying that such a contribution is more problematic than an idol, since the idol is not actually a god, but is only the representation of the deity; a contribution, however, which was actually consecrated to the god itself, remains forbidden forever.

Avodah Zara 51a-b: Benefiting from Avodah Zara

Can you pay membership to the YMCA? Make purchases at the Salvation Army store?

According to the Mishnah on today’s daf, if there is a park or bathhouse attached to the ground of avodah zara, one is permitted to benefit from them she-lo be-tovah – if he does not have to pay for that benefit – be-tovah, however, that is, if he has to pay for it, then it would be forbidden. In the Gemara, Abayye explains that that be-tovah and she-lo be-tovah refer to tovat komarim – whether the money will go to pay the idolatrous priests. If the money simply will go to people who are worshippers, then it is of no concern to us.

Translating she-lo be-tovah as making use of it without payment follows Rashi‘s approach to the Mishnah. According to Rashi, the Mishnah is teaching that even though the payment that is being made will go to the priests and not to the actual avodah zara, nevertheless it is forbidden to give money that will benefit the idolatrous priests.

Although this approach is found in the Talmud Yerushalmi, as well, nevertheless Tosafot offers an alternative approach to the Mishnah. According to Rabbeinu Tam, the question is whether the person who benefits from use of the park or the bathhouse will owe a favor to the priests and to the avodah zara. If he will not owe them anything like that, then we view it as taking advantage of something that is ownerless, and it is permitted. The Ra’avad adds that owing a favor to the priests may lead to some level of social intercourse that may offer an opportunity for the priests to influence the person religiously.

According to this approach, there would be no problem if payment is made, since we do not perceive him as benefitting from avodah zara, since he has paid in full for the privileges that he is given.

Avodah Zara 52a-b: The Jewish Temple in Leontopolis

Aside from the first and second Temples in Jerusalem, the only other Jewish Temples where sacrifices were brought were built by Jewish priests in Egypt. Rabbi Yossi ben Shaul asked hadassim whether the utensils used in Bet Chonyo – the Temple of Onias – could be used in the Jewish Temple, as well.

The Gemara in Menachot (109b) quotes a baraita that brings two opinions about the Temple of Onias. According to Rabbi Meir, that temple was a place of pagan idol worship; Rabbi Yehuda rules that only Jewish sacrifices to God were brought there. Rashi explains that according to Rabbi Meir’s opinion it is obvious that the utensils used there cannot be used in the Temple in Jerusalem, since they are avodah zara, which is forbidden for ordinary use, and certainly for use in the Temple. Thus, the question is posed only according to Rabbi Yehuda. Although the priests who performed the sacrificial service in the Temple of Onias were disqualified from serving in the Temple in Jerusalem, perhaps that is only because they should have been aware of their indiscretion and are penalized for it; the utensils, however, have no free will, and therefore may remain permitted.

Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi answered that such utensils cannot be used.

According to Josephus, the Temple of Onias was built in Leontopolis in Egypt by the son of the High Priest Onias III, sometime around the year 155 BCE. This temple was modeled after the Temple in Jerusalem. According to the Talmud (see Menahot 109b), Onias fled from Jerusalem to Egypt following a serious dispute with his brother. According to Josephus, the matter was connected with the Hellenists in Jerusalem, and, after a time, with the Hasmonean dynasty that claimed the High Priesthood in Jerusalem.

As we have learned, there is a disagreement about how to view the Temple of Onias, where the priests who served were all true priests – descendants of Aharon ha-kohen. It appears that the accepted position is that this was not a house of pagan worship; the most serious problem with it was the fact that a temple where sacrifices were brought that existed at the same time as an operating Temple in Jerusalem is forbidden, and participating in the sacrificial service there was punishable by karet (a serious heavenly punishment).

According to Josephus, Vespasian closed the Temple of Onias about three years after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, but it is possible that the service there was revived at a later time, in Rabbi Yitzchak’s time.

Avodah Zara 53a-b: Nullifying idols

According to the Mishnah (52b), a non-Jew has the ability to nullify his idols. The source for this is brought in the Gemara in the name of Rav Yosef, based on the passage in Sefer Devarim (7:25) that obligates us to destroy the graven images of foreign gods. Basing himself on the Rambam, the Tosafot Yom Tov explains that since the Torah emphasizes that graven images of their gods must be destroyed, we can conclude that only those idols that serve as gods are included, but if the non-Jew has rejected them as gods, they are permitted.

The Mishnah on today’s daf explains what must be done in order for the idol to be considered nullified as a god. The Mishnah requires that an ear or nose be cut off, or that the idol is disfigured in some other way, even if nothing is broken off of it. If, however, the non-Jew merely behaved towards the idol in an offensive manner – e.g. if he spit at it or urinated before it, it is still considered to be avodah zara. If the non-Jew sold it or pawned it, we find a difference of opinion between Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi who permits it and the Chachamim who believe that it remains forbidden.

A number of rishonim (Rashba and Ritva among others) point to an earlier Mishnah (44b), in which Rabban Gamliel states clearly that urinating before an idol shows a level of degradation that would indicate that it is not considered a deity. They suggest, therefore, that our Mishnah is talking only about someone who urinated before the idol once, but if that was done on a regular basis it would be enough to nullify the idol. The Me’iri rejects this, since in that case the idol was originally built to be used in this manner, and it was common practice to do this. In our case, where the idol was originally set up as a deity, a single individual urinating before it will not remove its status as avodah zara.

Avodah Zara 54a-b: Sages and philosophers

Our Gemara relates:

Philosophers asked the elders in Rome, “If your God has no desire for idolatry, why does He not abolish it?”

They replied, “If it was something of which the world has no need that was worshipped, He would abolish it; but people worship the sun, moon, stars and planets; should He destroy the universe on account of fools! The world pursues its natural course, and as for the fools who act wrongly, they will have to render an account.

Another illustration: Suppose a man stole a measure of wheat and went and sowed it in the ground; it is right that it should not grow, but the world pursues its natural course and as for the fools who act wrongly, they will have to render an account.

Another illustration: Suppose a man has sexual relations with his neighbor’s wife; it is right that she should not conceive, but the world pursues its natural course and as for the fools who act wrongly, they will have to render an account.”

The Gemara parallels this discussion with the statement made by Rash Lakish: The Holy One, blessed be He, declared, “It is not enough that the wicked put My coinage to vulgar use, but they trouble Me and compel Me to set My seal thereon against my will!”

The “philosophers” who engaged the Sages in conversation – both in Rome and in Greece – did not truly believe in pagan gods as divine. Nevertheless, since they lived in cultures that were steeped in avodah zara, they did consider the possibility that there was some measure of truth in it. The conversation/debates that we find recorded were part of an attempt to ascertain the truth of the matter by means of engagement with the Jewish Sages.

In addition to his monumental translation and commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Steinsaltz has authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles on a variety of topics, both Jewish and secular. For more information about Rabbi Steinsaltz’s groundbreaking work in Jewish education, visit or contact the Aleph Society at 212-840-1166.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.