Masechet Avodah Zara 13a-19b

hero image
26 Aug 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 13a-b: A pine-cone sacrifice

Among the things that the Mishnah prohibits selling to a pagan idol worshiper are:

All of these are forbidden to be sold since a Jew is not allowed to assist a non-Jew in performing pagan idol worship. As one of the seven Noachide laws, such worship is prohibited to the non-Jew, and therefore forbidden to the Jew because of lifnei iver lo titen mikhshol – the prohibition against putting a stumbling block before the blind (see Vayikra 19:14).

Unlike the items that are mentioned as being forbidden to sell to pagans specifically around festival time, these cannot be sold to them throughout the year. These are items that are used specifically for pagan sacrifice, or else they are things that are difficult to find that are used for such sacrifice. For these reasons we fear lest they will be sacrificed even though it is not the holiday, or else that they will be held for use at the next holiday. The Ra’avad notes that we do not have such concerns when we sell an animal to the pagan, since animals are available at all times, as opposed to these things that are more difficult to find.

The term itztrubol comes from the Greek strobilus that refers to any round object, but specifically to the fruit of one of the different types of pine tree. Pine cones, which were used for medicinal purposes as well, were used to sacrifice to Asclepius, the Greek god of healing.

The idea of sacrificing a tarnegol lavan­ fits in with a common priority in many religious ritual practices that favored white animals. White roosters were also used in sacrifices for Asclepius.

Avodah Zara 14a-b: Would you buy a used goat from this man?

According to the Mishnah, there were places in Israel where Jews sold behemot dakot – sheep and goats to their non-Jewish neighbors, while in other places they did not. Behemot gasot – large cattle – however, were not sold to non-Jews in any place.

The Gemara explains that the source for these restrictions is not because they were worried about pagan idol worship, rather they stem from other halakhic concerns. Behemot gasot were used for field work that would be done on Shabbat as well as during the week. Since Jews are obligated to ensure that their animals do not work on Shabbat, they cannot lend their animals or rent them to non-Jews if they will be used on Shabbat. Since we are concerned that people would mistake purchase for renting or lending, even selling such animals was prohibited.

The reason given for restricting the sale of behemot dakot is a different one. The Gemara explains that bestiality was commonplace among some of the non-Jews who lived in Israel in the time of the Mishnah. Since sexual relations with animals is forbidden to non-Jews as one of the seven Noachide laws, it would be forbidden for a Jew to aid and abet such behavior. Understandably, in places where such behavior was unheard of among the non-Jews, sale of these animals was permitted.

The Talmud Yerushalmi offers a different approach, suggesting that behemot dakot cannot be sold to non-Jews since that takes away from them the ability to be involved in mitzvot (e.g. sacrificing the first-born or offering the first shearings to the kohen). Ultimately, this suggestion is rejected by the Yerushalmi, since then it could be argued that even produce should not be sold to non-Jews, since mitzvot like tithes would be lost to the crops. Nevertheless, the Me’iri writes that such reasoning should be considered and that we need to distinguish between common animals that can be sold out of concern for the livelihood of the Jewish cattlemen, and those that are less common.

Avodah Zara 15a-b: Kutim – Samaritans

Parallel to the laws taught in the Mishnah on yesterday’s daf (=page), the Gemara quotes a baraita that teaches a similar halacha regarding Kutim. Thus, there were places in Israel where Jews sold behemot dakot – sheep and goats – to Kutim, while in other places they did not.

The term Kutim refers to those people who were brought to Israel in a population exchange during first Temple times, when the kings of Assyria exiled the Northern kingdom and replaced them with other nations – not all of whom were truly Kutim. They settled in the area around the city of Shomron (Samaria), which is why they are also called Shomronim or Samaritans.

In II Melakhim, or Kings (chapter 17) the navi describes how these nations accepted upon themselves some of the Jewish laws and customs out of fear after they were attacked and killed by lions – which is why they are often called gerei arayot – converts because of lions. At the same time they did not renounce their own gods and religious traditions.

At the beginning of the second Temple period, when Jews of the Diaspora began returning to the land of Israel, the relations between the Jews and the Shomronim became tense, with the Shomronim trying to bring down the efforts to rebuild the wall surrounding the city of Jerusalem and the bet ha-mikdash. At the same time, there were Jewish families – including families of kohanim – who intermarried with the Shomronim and assimilated with them.

During some periods, the relations between the two groups reached levels of overt warfare; Yochanan Hyrcanus even attacked and destroyed their temple on Mount Gerizim. During other periods, however, there was cooperation between the groups – during the Bar Kochba rebellion, for example.

Generally speaking, the Sages believed that the Kutim were scrupulous in keeping those mitzvot that they accepted, and our Gemara argues that Kutim were not known to engage in acts of bestiality. Nevertheless, places where such behavior was commonplace among the local non-Jews the tradition was to avoid selling animals to Kutim lest they sell them to the pagan idol worshipers.

Avodah Zara 16a-b: Dangerous building projects

The Mishnah on today’s daf discusses building projects that should not be done in partnership with non-Jews. Such projects include building a basilica, a gardom – a scaffold, an itztadya – a stadium, and a bima – a platform. Nevertheless, one may join them in building pedestals and bathhouses, although when they reach the cupola in which an idol is placed, the Jew must not build.

The Rambam and Ra’avad explain the prohibitions as based on the general concern with Avodah Zara. All of the buildings that are forbidden included stages and altars built for idol worship, which would make it impossible for Jews to play a role in their erection. Other rishonim view the prohibition differently. The Ritva writes that these were places of judgment, and since the pagan legal system killed people without proper reason, Jews should not assist them in building such courts. Rashi argues that there is even concern that Jewish people will be killed so that helping to build these buildings may play a role in the murder of Jews. According to the Me’iri, different parts of legal proceedings took place in each of these buildings. He adds that the Talmudic rule dina d’malchuta dina – that “the law of the land is the law” – notwithstanding, that applies to monetary judgments and not to capital crimes.

According to Rashi, the pedestals that can be built in partnership with non-Jews were not directly built for idol worship, as they could be used to hold any object. Most of the other rishonim have other readings for this word, including a different type of bathhouse (Tosafot, Ramah), palaces (Rambam) or other building used for leisure activities or entertainment (Re’ah, Ritva). Such public buildings often included cupolas in which idols were placed which made the niche for the idol considered to be a place of actual avodah zara.

Avodah Zara 17a-b: The dangers of learning from Yeshu ha-Notzri

Following the description of Roman law courts that appears in the Mishnah on yesterday’s daf (=page), the Gemara on today’s daf tells of a number of Sages that were tried by the Roman government for a variety of alleged crimes. Somewhat surprisingly, Rabbi Eliezer was imprisoned and taken to the gardom – the scaffold – for sentencing, because he was suspected of minut – of belonging to an unrecognized cult. During the time of the Mishnah, the Romans accepted, recognized and tolerated certain religions, but unrecognized cults – including Christianity – were viewed as superstitions, and participation in them was a crime. We do not know why Rabbi Eliezer was suspected as belonging to such a cult, although it is possible that his ascetic lifestyle and the fact that he was somewhat removed from the other Sages, led to the charge against him.

The Gemara describes that Rabbi Eliezer avoided punishment when the Roman judge misunderstood his statement ne’eman alai ha-dayyan – “I rely on the Judge” – which he said regarding God, but the Roman understood as referring to himself. Nevertheless, Rabbi Eliezer was upset that he had been accused of this behavior. His student, Rabbi Akiva suggested that perhaps he had heard a teaching of the minim and got pleasure from the teaching. Rabbi Eliezer then recalled an incident in the marketplace in Tzippori where he met one of the students of Yeshu ha-Notzri who asked him whether an etnan zonah – payment made to a prostitute – could be used to build a bathroom in the Temple for the kohen gadol, given that the Torah forbids bringing such money to the Temple (see Devarim 23:19). Although Rabbi Eliezer did not respond to Yeshu’s student, he did admit to having enjoyed the teaching that the student related in Yeshu’s name, which argues based on a wordplay in the passage in Micha (1:7) that such money would appropriately be spent in an unclean place.

In standard printings of the Talmud, this story appears without the name Yeshu ha-Notzri, which was removed by censors for reasons of sensitivity to the Christian society in which they lived.

Avoda Zara 18a-b: Rabbi Me’ir as one of the “Most Wanted” criminals

One of the greatest of the Sages of the Mishnah was Rabbi Meir, who was married to Brurah, the daughter of Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon, one of the asarah harugei malkhut – the ten Sages who were martyred. During this period of upheaval, Bruriah’s sister was taken captive by the Romans and placed in a brothel. Encouraged by his wife, Rabbi Meir made his way to the brothel in order to negotiate her release. Her guard explained to Rabbi Meir that he was afraid of being punished were he to release her, at which point Rabbi Meir gave him a large sum of money, some for himself and some to pay those who questioned him about her disappearance. When the guard asked what he should do in the event that his money ran out and he was caught, Rabbi Meir told him to simply say elaha d’Meir aneini – “The God of Me’ir answer me!” – and he would be saved. Unconvinced, Rabbi Meir suggested that he try it in the face of attack dogs, and it worked, so the guard turned Bruriah’s sister over to Rabbi Meir.

The Gemara relates that the guard was ultimately caught and was sentenced to be hanged. When he was at the gallows he said elaha d’Meir aneini and they were unable to kill him. Demanding an explanation, the soldiers found out what had happened and put up “wanted” posters with a picture of Rabbi Meir, which forced him to flee Israel and move to Bavel.

Rashi explains that the money that Rabbi Meir originally gave to the guard was to bribe the officials who came looking for the missing girl, while Tosafot suggest that it was to pay whatever taxes or expenses were involved in the transfer. The Maharal explains that Rabbi Meir did not tell him to use the magical statement elaha d’Meir aneini in the first place because the money that was paid at the beginning needed to be paid, while any additional demands were clearly unreasonable and should not be paid. The Maharsha writes that Rabbi Meir did not want to suggest that he rely on miracles as long as he could be protected by ordinary means.

Avodah Zara 19a-b: A lifetime of Torah study

Basing himself on the passage in Sefer Tehillim (1:3) Rabbi Tanchum bar Chanilai taught that Torah study should be divided into three parts, and a person should divide his years so that one third of the time is spent studying mikrah (the written Torah), one third studying Mishnah (oral traditions) and one third Gemara (underlying concepts and discussion of the Mishnah). The Gemara objects to this suggestion, arguing that a person cannot possibly know how long he will live, and will not be able to divide up his time properly. In response the Gemara concludes that a person should divide up his days, rather than his years.

Rashi understands the suggestion of dividing days to mean that the days of the week should be devoted to different areas of study. Tosafot disagree, and rule that every day should be divided up. This appears to be the source for the Gaonic tradition – one that appears in our prayer books to this day – that includes korbanot, a section of readings culled from the written Torah, the Mishnah and the Gemara, whose focus is on the daily sacrifices. Traditionally, people rely on a different suggestion raised by Tosafot in the name of Rabbeinu Tam, that the standard Babylonian Talmud includes a mixture of mikra, Mishnah and Gemara, and its study fulfills the requirement of dividing the days between these different areas of Torah study.

In his Likutei Torah, Rav Shneur Zalman mi-Liadi suggests that the categories should be viewed more broadly, and that mikra refers not only to the written Torah, but also to the midrashim and commentaries written about it, while Mishnah refers to the halakhic part of the Torah. This allows a person to keep a schedule of dividing Torah into three parts even as his develops intellectually and needs less time for “simpler” aspects of Torah study.

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.