Masechet Avodah Zarah 20a-26b

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02 Sep 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 20a-b: Traditional values

Traditional values regarding sexuality seem somewhat old-fashioned in the modern age. Nevertheless, the Gemara on today’s daf shows a deep understanding of sexual drives and the need to avoid situations that will lead to inappropriate thoughts and actions.

The Gemara quotes a baraita that interprets the passage in Sefer Devarim (23:10) that warns people to avoid all evil things – venishmarta mi-kol davar ra – to be referring specifically to issues of sensuality. Thus the baraita forbids a man from gazing at a beautiful woman, even if she is unmarried, or at any married woman, even an unattractive one. Similarly, the baraita forbids watching animals engage in sexual relations or even looking at the colorful clothing worn by women. In the Gemara, Rav Yehuda quotes Shmuel as extending this prohibition to the clothing itself, even if the clothing is hung out and is not being worn; Rav Papa limits this prohibition, however, only to cases where the man knows the woman to whom these clothes belong.

The emphasis on colored clothing should be understood in the context of the times of the Mishnah. From the limited archaeological evidence that we have, together with information that we find in histories of the time, men’s clothing was usually a single color – either the original color of the fibers or else yellowish brown or black. Special clothing would have stripes of a brighter color, like blue or purple. Women’s work clothing also was ordinarily a single, plain color. Clothing that women wore for celebratory purposes – or for purposes of intimacy – were specially made to be colorful (see Sefer Shoftim, Judges 5:30).  Such clothing was, therefore, considered to be sexually “suggestive” in-and-of itself.

Thus we find that the Gemara attempts to limit activities that will lead a man to gaze upon out-of-the-ordinary sights that may be sexually stimulating.

Avodah Zara 21a-b: Syria in Bible and Mishnah

According to the Mishnah on today’s daf, there are a number of restrictions on selling or renting houses or fields to non-Jews. These restrictions may stem from concern that the places that are given to the non-Jews may lose the opportunity for fulfillment of mitzvot – e.g. that tithes will no longer be separated from the produce of the field – or that there is a prohibition against giving a non-Jew a stake hold in the land, based on the interpretation of the passage in Sefer Devarim (7:2) that concludes with the words lo techanem.

Rabbi Yossi distinguishes between three different areas:

The area of Suria mentioned in the Mishnah is the Biblical area to the north of Israel, known as Aram Damesek and Aram Tzovah. We find that Suria has a unique status in halacha with regard to many halachot, not only because of its proximity to the Land of Israel, but because it was part of the northern Kingdom of Israel under several kings during the period of the first Temple. Furthermore, some opinions suggest that the northern border of Israel extends well to the north of the Jewish settlement in Israel during the second Temple period. There was also a large Jewish population center there, and some of the political leaders there were descendants of Jews (like the grandchildren of King Agrippas) or were closely allied with them.

All opinions in the Mishnah agree that houses should not be rented as dwelling-places, since the pagan will bring his idols into the house, and the Torah forbids allowing such gods into one’s house (Devarim 7:21). The rishonim are aware that it is common practice to rent houses to non-Jews, and they differentiate between Israel and the Diaspora, arguing that the passage in Sefer Devarim really forbids only a Jew from bringing idols into his home, and that there is no prohibition against allowing others to do so.

Avodah Zara 22a-b: The Torah of the Samaritans

As we learned above (daf, or page 15) 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 gere arayot – converts because of lions. At the same time they did not renounce their own gods and religious traditions. Furthermore, they have their own version of the Torah, which they believe and present as the true Torah. This creates a situation where the Kutim are meticulously careful with those mitzvot that are found in their Torah, but will not accept other commandments that they do not find written there.

This becomes important when the Gemara explains the difference in attitude that we have towards a Kuti and a non-Jew with regard to renting or leasing to them workplaces that others will perceive as belonging to the Jewish owner. Thus, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel teaches that a bathhouse cannot be rented to a non-Jew, since he will operate it on Shabbat. The Gemara discusses whether it can be rented to a Kuti, since he will not work on Shabbat, although he will heat the water on chol ha-mo’ed – the intermediate days of the festivals – when work unrelated to the festival should be avoided. Once the Gemara concludes that even Jews are permitted to operate a bathhouse on chol ha-mo’ed it becomes obvious that it can be rented to a Kuti. On the other hand, Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar teaches that a field cannot be leased to a Kuti, since he will work the field on chol ha-mo’ed. Interestingly, the Gemara concludes that Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar would permit renting the field to a non-Jew, since the Jewish owner can insist that the field not be worked on chol ha-mo’ed and the non-Jew will listen to him. The Kuti, however, cannot be trusted to accept such a limitation, since he is convinced that his understanding of the Torah is better than the Jew’s.

Avodah Zara 23a-b: The highest level of honoring one’s parents

Rabbi Eliezer forbids purchasing a Parah Adumah – a Red Heifer used in the process of purifying someone who was ritually defiled because of contact with the dead (see Sefer Bamidbar chapter 19) – from a non-Jew. The Sage, Sheila, explains that Rabbi Eliezer’s ruling is based on his reading of the passage (Bamidbar 19:2) that commands that Jewish people must “take” the animal, which is understood to mean that they must take it from a fellow Jew.

This explanation is challenged because there are other similar passages, for example when the Torah commands that contributions be taken from the people to build the mishkan – the Tabernacle – the same language is used, yet we know that some of the components used in the Temple were purchased from non-Jews. The specific example referred to is the famous story of Dama ben Netina, a non-Jew in Ashkelon, who had stones that were needed for the breastplate of the High Priest. When the Sages came to purchase them his father was asleep and the keys to the safe were under his father’s pillow. Dama ben Netina chose to lose the opportunity for a lucrative business deal, rather than wake his father, a decision that so impressed the Sages that they used this story to illustrate how far a child must go to fulfill the commandment of “Honor your father and your mother.”

Dama ben Netina was one of the leading members of the non-Jewish community in Ashkelon during Second Temple times, and he served as one of the representatives on the city council. It appears that he was a very wealthy individual who was well-respected in his community and beyond. The story related in our Gemara is just one of many that appear in the Gemara describing the respect and honor that he showed his parents.

Avodah Zara 24a-b: Jews, pagans and sacrifices

As we learned on yesterday’s daf Rabbi Eliezer forbids purchasing a Parah Adumah – a Red Heifer (see Sefer Bamidbar chapter 19) – from a non-Jew. The Gemara on today’s daf brings a number of Sages who believe that Rabbi Eliezer applies that same limitation to all sacrifices. Thus all animals used for sacrifices must be purchased from Jews.

This ruling seems to be contradicted by a list of stories throughout Tanach where animals belonging to non-Jews were brought as sacrifices. For example:

Regarding the first cases, the Gemara explains that this rule did not apply before the Torah was given. In King David’s case, Rav Nachman suggests that Aravnah was a ger toshav – someone who accepted the laws incumbent upon him in order to live among the Jews (in his commentary on this story in Tanach, the Abarbanel quotes our Gemara as saying that Aravnah was a ger tzedek – a righteous convert. It appears that he had a variant reading in the Gemara). The Talmud Yerushalmi suggests that King David did not actually bring these animals as sacrifices, rather it was his prayer that brought an end to the plague.

In a side comment, Ulla explains that the morigim donated by Aravnah were boards that were used to thresh the grain. In the time of the Mishnah these implements were still in use – as they still are today – albeit in a more developed form that allowed the animal driver to sit while the wheels of the morigim threshed the grain.

Avodah Zara 25a-b: For whom the sun shines

The Gemara refers to the well-known story of Nakdimon ben Gurion, who is known from a number of stories that appear about him in the Talmud as one of the wealthy Jews who lived in Jerusalem at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. (There appear to be references to him in Josephus‘ works, as well.) While his Hebrew name was Boni – as is mentioned in the Gemara – it was common for members of the upper class to have Roman names, as well. His Roman name – Nakdimon – is the subject of a Rabbinic midrash, as is related in the story related by the Gemara in Ta’anit (19b-20a).

One year, during a drought, there was no water available for the Jewish pilgrims who were coming to Jerusalem for the holiday. Nakdimon ben Gurion approached one of the Roman officers with an offer. He wanted access granted to twelve Roman cisterns on behalf of the Jewish pilgrims. He personally guaranteed that the cisterns would be refilled by a certain date, or else he would pay him twelve talents of silver. When the day arrived, the Roman officer demanded to receive either the water or the silver. Nakdimon ben Gurion responded that the day was not yet over. The officer ridiculed the notion of Nakdimon ben Gurion expecting the cisterns to be refilled in a year of drought. Laughing, he went to the bathhouse, looking forward to his windfall. Nakdimon went to the Temple and prayed to God that his concern for the Jewish people should not lead to financial ruin. The skies filled with clouds and rain began to fall, filling the cisterns. Upon completing their missions, Nakdimon and the Roman officer met outside in the rain. Nakdimon pointed out that the cisterns were not only filled, but were overflowing, and he claimed that the Roman owed him the overflow. The Roman admitted that God had brought the rain on behalf of Nakdimon, but he argued that the debt had not been paid on time, for the day was over! At this point, Nakdimon prayed and the clouds dispersed, allowing the sun to peek through – nikdera chamah ba’avuro – proving that the day was not over.

On a literary note, the Maharsha points out the contrast in the story, of the Roman officer entering the bathhouse – the bet ha-merchatz – to bathe while people are desperate for water, whereas Nakdimon exits the Bet HaMikdash and demands that the excess water be made available to the people.

Avodah Zara 26a-b: Recognizing the consequences of truth

The Mishnah (22a) warned that a Jew should not allow himself to be alone with a pagan, since they are suspected of killing without compunction. On yesterday’s daf the Gemara quotes a baraita that warns a Jew who is traveling among pagans to be careful in their presence, and to refrain from giving clear information about his ultimate destination. The model for this behavior is the Patriarch Yaakov who tells his brother, Esav, that he planned to continue to Se’ir (see Bereshit 33:14) when, in fact, he did not plan to continue past Sukkot (see Bereshit 33:17).

To support this teaching, the Gemara tells two stories of Jews who found themselves in these types of situations. Rabbi Akiva’s students were traveling to Keziv and found themselves amongst a band of robbers. Telling the robbers that they were planning on going to Akko – which was further south – they left the road at Keziv, leading the robbers to praise them and their teacher for their care in traveling. The Gemara on today’s daf tells of Rav Menashe who was traveling to Be Torta and told the thieves who he met that his destination was Pumbedita. When he left the road at Be Torta the thieves ridiculed him, calling him the student of Yehuda Rama’ah – Yehuda the trickster. In response, Rav Menashe declared a ban on the thieves, who were unsuccessful in their endeavors for years until they begged his forgiveness. The Gemara concludes by pointing out the difference between robbers in Israel who showed respect and admiration for those who protected themselves, and thieves in Babylon who could only insult those who they could not take advantage of.

The Midrash, as well as many of the later commentaries, asks how Yaakov, who is seen as a man of truth, could be the archetype of the man who uses subterfuge to save himself. The suggested approach is to say that Yaakov did not lie, since he ultimately planned to reach Se’ir (see Ovadia 1:21) at the End of Days. The Iyun Yaakov derives from this that even when acting with deceit in order to protect oneself, one should try to avoid a bald faced lie. He suggests that the statements of Rabbi Akiva’s students as well as Rav Menashe should be understood in this light, even though a person is permitted to lie in order to protect the peace (see Yevamot 65a).

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.