Masechet Sanhedrin 56a-62b

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08 Apr 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.

Sanhedrin 56a-b

We usually think of the Torah as commanding the Jewish People to live according to its laws. What responsibilities and obligations does the Torah command non-Jews to perform?

The Gemara on today’s daf quotes a Tosefta that teaches the laws of the sheva mitzvot B’nei Noach – the seven Noachide laws, including:

The source for these seven commandments is presented by Rabbi Yochanan as stemming from the first commandment given by God to Adam. In Sefer Bereshit (2:16-17) we find that God commanded Adam to eat freely of any of the trees in the Garden of Eden with the exception of the etz ha-da’at tov va-ra – the tree of knowledge of good and evil – which was forbidden to him. By means of a series of homiletical interpretations, the words in these pesukim are understood to refer to the various actions and behaviors that are forbidden.

In the Midrashic compendium Lekach Tov another suggestion is raised regarding the source of the sheva mitzvot b’nei Noach. Aside from the homiletical interpretation of the verses in Sefer Bereshit, we also find a number of specific references in the Tanach to punishments given to non-Jews for these types of transgressions. Thus we find that Kayin is punished for killing Hevel (Bereshit chapter 4), Avimelech is punished for attempting to engage in sexual relations with Sarah (Bereshit chapter 20), the generation of the flood were punished for hamas – for stealing (Bereshit 6:11) – and we find in Sefer Iyov (31:26-28) that idol worship was forbidden to them.

Sanhedrin 57a-b

One contentious issue in the contemporary world is whether a society that rejects the taking of life can condone aborting an unborn fetus. In the debate that surrounds this question, it is often the Christian religious community that publicly takes the position that abortion should be viewed with the same severity as the taking of human life.

It is interesting to note that the Gemara on our daf takes a clear position on this question in the context of sheva mitzvot bnei Noach – the seven Noachide laws. According to Rabbi Yishmael, if a non-Jew were to abort an unborn fetus it would fall under the category of murder, and the person would be liable to receive the death penalty. The source brought for Rabbi Yishmael’s teaching appears in Sefer Bereshit (9:6), where we find shofech dam ha-adam ba-adam damo yishafekh – God declares that whoever sheds another man’s blood will be killed. The expression ba-adam is understood to mean “within a man,” that is even in the course of pregnancy.

Although Rabbi Yishmael teaches this law regarding non-Jews, it should be noted that the halacha is different for Jews. According to Jewish law, a Jew who aborts an unborn fetus will not be liable for the death penalty for doing so; until the fetus is born and is recognized to be a viable, living birth, there can be no death sentence.

This does not negate the principle that Jewish law does not forbid an activity to non-Jews that remains permissible to Jews, since halacha recognizes that it is also forbidden for a Jewish person to perform abortions. The difference between them relates to the punishment that is given. Although it is forbidden for a Jewish person to perform an abortion, there is no death penalty for doing so; regarding non-Jews, however, aborting a fetus would be treated like murder.

Sanhedrin 58a-b

While the Torah anticipates that non-Jews will also follow a legal code of behavior consisting of the sheva mitzvot bnei Noach – the seven Noachide laws – the Torah neither requires nor condones non-Jews mimicking the behaviors of Jews.

According to Reish Lakish, nochri she-shavat chayav mitah – a non-Jew who keeps the laws of Shabbat is liable to receive the death penalty. Ravina clarifies this statement by explaining that this rule applies even if the non-Jew were to keep the Shabbat laws on Monday, i.e. any other day of the week.

Furthermore, Rabbi Yochanan teaches that nochri she-osek ba-Torah chayav mitah – that a non-Jew who involves himself in Torah study is liable to receive the death penalty, based on the passage (Devarim 33:4) Torah tziva lanu Moshe morasha – Moses commanded the Torah to us as an inheritance. This is understood to limit the Torah to “us,” that is, to the Jewish people.

These two statements clearly demand explanation. Regarding Shabbat, the Me’iri suggests that the problem is a concern lest Jews see the non-Jew keeping the laws of Shabbat and mistakenly believe him to be Jewish, which may lead them to follow his behaviors in other areas. According to the Ramah, such a person is considered “stealing” since by taking an “unauthorized” vacation he is not fulfilling his obligation to the world.

As far as Torah study is concerned, the Me’iri limits the prohibition to a non-Jew who studies Torah for the purpose of arguing and disproving it. If someone chooses to study Torah in order to learn the moral values contained in it and keep its ethical rules, then such study would not be forbidden. The Rambam, in fact, differentiates between Christians who believe in the written Torah and would be allowed to learn it and Moslems who reject the sanctity of the Torah who would not be allowed to learn it. In any case, a non-Jew who keeps the sheva mitzvot bnei Noach will surely be allowed to study those laws that he must keep.

Sanhedrin 59a-b

As we learned in the discussion on yesterday’s daf, aside from keeping the sheva mitzvot bnei Noach – the seven Noachide laws – non-Jews are also prohibited from keeping Shabbat or from studying Torah. The latter prohibition is based on the passage (Devarim 33:4) Torah tziva lanu Moshe morasha – Moses commanded the Torah to us as an inheritance.

On today’s daf the Gemara asks why the prohibition forbidding non-Jews from learning Torah is not included as one of the sheva mitzvot bnei Noach. Two answers are suggested, both of them based on the source of the prohibition, the verse Torah tziva lanu Moshe morasha. Some understand the word morasha homiletically to mean me’orasa – like an engaged woman. Thus, the Jewish people have a relationship with the Torah that is special and unique – like an engaged woman who is permitted to a single individual and forbidden to all others. Others understand the word morasha in its ordinary meaning, that is, it is an inheritance. Thus it has been given to the Jewish people as a family heirloom that cannot be taken by anyone else. Both of these explanations would have the prohibition included among the existing sheva mitzvot bnei Noach.

The Gemara points out that the ruling forbidding non-Jews from studying Torah stands in apparent contradiction with the teaching of Rabbi Meir who teaches that a non-Jew who studies Torah should be treated like a kohen gadol – like the High Priest. This is based on the passage (Vayikra 18:5) that says that we must perform the laws of the Torah that a person does – asher ya’aseh otam ha-adam – and the terminology used is the generic ha-adam – “a person” – rather than Jewish people, like kohanim, Levi’im and Yisraelim. Thus the credit given to someone who studies apparently applies even to non-Jews.

The Gemara responds that a non-Jew receives such honor and credit only if he studies those parts of the Torah that apply to him, i.e. the sheva mitzvot bnei Noach themselves.

Sanhedrin 60a-b

When discussing idol worship, there are certain activities that are considered to be objectively an act of worship and will be forbidden, while other activities may be specific and limited to a certain type of idol. According to the Mishnah on today’s daf a person will be held liable for avodah zara – the prohibition against idol worship – when he performs any one of a number of acts of worship. These activities include commonly used methods of veneration including sacrificing or burning incense, offering a libation or bowing down, and even simply saying “you are my god.” Other types of obsequiousness, such as hugging and kissing the idol, washing or cleaning it and so on would be forbidden, but would not serve as true idol worship.

There are other modes of worship that ordinarily would not constitute an act of avodah zara, except with a specific idol or deity for which that act is a unique form of worship. Thus ha-po’er atzmo le-ba’al pe’or – someone who relieves himself in front of the idol Pe’or – or ha-zorek even le-markolis- someone who throws a stone to the idol Markolis – will also be held liable for performing an act of avodah zara, since this is the unique method of worshiping these idols.

Markolis is the name given by the Sages for the Roman god Mercurius, who was also known as the Greek deity, Hermes. Among his many responsibilities, Mercurius was the patron of the highways and travelers. This position led many to erect statues of him on crossroads. Oftentimes, these representations presented just the head of the idol and passersby would place stones at the foot of the statue. On occasion the representation was simply a pile of rocks, and travelers who passed by the pile would toss their own stone on it as an offering to the god.

Sanhedrin 61a-b

As we have seen on the previous dapim, avodah zara – idol worship – is a serious prohibition, one that could make one liable to receive a death penalty. The Gemara on today’s daf raises a question about someone who performs idol worship me-ahavah u’me-yirah – because of love or because of fear. According to the Gemara, Abayye believes that such worship is considered to be ordinary worship for which a person would be held liable, while according to Rava he would not be held responsible.

Many approaches are offered to explain what worship me-ahavah u’me-yirah might mean.

According to Rashi, we are talking about someone who loves or fears the person who is encouraging him to perform this worship. That is to say, the person doing avodah zara does not truly believe in it as a deity, rather they are doing it for another reason.

The Rambam raises the possibility that this refers to a situation where the person does not actually believe in the idol as a god rather, for reasons of superstition, he likes it or he believes that it can harm him in some way if he does not worship it. The Me’iri points out that this is a very difficult position to take, since someone who worships an idol because he believes that it has the power to help or to harm him is effectively performing avodah zara.

Another suggestion made by the Rambam is that me-ahavah means that the person worships the idol because he is entranced by the beauty of its figure.

Some suggest that worship based on fear means that he performs acts of worship because he is threatened to be killed if he does not worship this idol. Although halacha ordinarily recognizes that a person cannot be held responsible for acts that he is forced to do, perhaps he added additional forms of worship that he was not specifically forced to do. The Ramban suggests that we may be talking about a case where the worshiper fears a penalty of some sort, but he is not in fear of death.

Sanhedrin 62a-b

If someone performs several different acts of avodah zara – idol worship – and he was unaware that they were forbidden – will he be obligated to bring a single sin-offering or one for each act that he performed?

The Gemara on today’s daf relates that Rabbi Yochanan was presented with a baraita that discusses this question in the context of a similar discussion regarding Shabbat. Hearing the baraita, Rabbi Yochanan responded pok teni libara – “go teach that outside” – please do not bring unreliable baraitot into the study hall.

The Gemara succeeds in reconciling the two clauses of the baraita by determining that the first part of the baraita was comparing avodah zara to Shabbat while the second part was comparing other mitzvot to Shabbat. The Gemara explains that Rabbi Yochanan rejects this approach to explaining difficult baraitot, quoting him as saying that “if anyone can explain the Mishnah of havit according to a single tanna, I will carry his clothing after him to the bathhouse.”

This statement refers to a difficult Mishnah in Masechet Bava Metzia (41a), where the Gemara explains the discrepancy in the Mishnah by saying that the first half of the Mishnah follows the opinion of Rabbi Yishma’el while the second half of the Mishnah follows the opinion of Rabbi Akiva.

The question of how to reconcile two clauses of a given Mishnah is one of the most common issues dealt with in the Talmud. On occasion the Gemara succeeds in working out an apparent contradiction, but when it cannot, there are two methods that most often are suggested:

  1. That there are two different authors of the Mishnah, one who wrote the first half and the other who wrote the second half, or
  2. That the Mishnah is really talking about two different cases.

Rabbi Yochanan’s position was that dividing up a Mishnah or baraita in either of these ways was not an acceptable method of interpreting such a text.

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.