Masechet Avodah Zarah 27a-33b

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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 27a-b: Dilemmas in circumcision

Two passages are brought on today’s daf that limit the kind of people who can perform circumcision. Daro bar Papa quotes the pasuk that permits only those like Abraham and his descendants to act as a mohel (see Bereshit 17:9), while Rabbi Yochanan quotes the pasuk that is understood to limit a brit milah only to people who, themselves, have been circumcised (see Bereshit 17:13).

The Gemara suggests several differences that may stem from these different sources. For example, according to the first pasuk, women may be excluded, since they cannot be circumcised. According to the second pasuk, however, since women are considered as if they have been circumcised, they would be able to circumcise others – with Moshe’s wife, Tzipporah a prime example (see Shemot 4:25).

Another suggested difference relates to a non-Jew. According to the first pasuk, a non-Jew may not play the role of someone like Abraham or his descendants, and therefore cannot circumcise. According to the second pasuk, however, nations that circumcise their children for religious reasons may be able to circumcise Jewish children, as well. Thus it is possible that an Arab or a Gavnuni who has been circumcised can circumcise others.

Although the suggestion that an Arab, that is, a descendant of Abraham’s son, Yishmael, is circumcised and can circumcise others is fairly straightforward, identifying a circumcised Gavnuni presents more of a challenge. Some rishonim had a variant reading in the Gemara that substitute Givoni, referring to the tribe that converted in the time of Yehoshua (see Sefer Yehoshua chapter 9), although the Ra’avad objects, arguing that they are true converts and therefore Jewish themselves. The Aruch suggests that the Gavnuni are one of the children of Keturah, Abraham’s second wife (see Tehillim 68:16-17), who lived in the mountains. These people may be obligated in circumcision, and keep it to this day.

Avodah Zara 28a-b: Medical issues on Shabbat

We know how seriously the Torah takes the laws of Shabbat, yet for piku’ach nefesh – when there is danger to life – the laws of Shabbat are pushed aside.

The Gemara on today’s daf notes that this is true not only when there is a clear danger, but also when there is any makah shel chalal – an internal injury – we will automatically be willing to treat the person, although Talmidei Rabbeinu Yonah explain that this does not refer to a minor pain or complaint, only a known injury or serious pain.

This discussion leads to a question about whether an injury or disease to teeth and gums would be included. Are they considered to be “internal”? As a proof to this question, the Gemara tells of Rabbi Yochanan who was suffering from tzefidna, and was treated by a Roman matron, who agreed to share the secret of the treatment if Rabbi Yochanan swore not to reveal it to others. Rabbi Yochanan replied “I swear to the God of Israel I will not reveal it.” Upon learning the cure, he told her that he would publicize it, explaining that he had taken a vow not to reveal it to the God of Israel, but to His people he planned to reveal it.

Clearly, Rabbi Yochanan viewed the information about the cure as being a life-and-death matter that had to be shared publicly. The Ritva and Me’iri point out that even so, he was obligated to explain to the matron that his oath was not binding and that he planned to tell others the cure.

From the description in the Gemara, tzefidna appears to be scurvy, a disease marked by a lack of Vitamin C, which leads to a weakening of teeth and gums, internal bleeding and anemia. The descriptions in the Gemara of various methods that were used in an attempt to cure tzefidna were, apparently, attempts to make up the lack of this vitamin by ingesting it in a concentrated manner.

Avodah Zara 29a-b: Talmudic medicine

Following the discussion on yesterday’s daf regarding offering cures on Shabbat, the Gemara on today’s daf continues with descriptions of remedies for a variety of illnesses.

The Gemara also offers general recommendations for a healthy body, teaching that there are six things help the sick to recover from sickness and have a real curative effect – that is they not only help remove the symptoms, but that they heal the illness and strengthen the body. These include: cabbage, beets, dry sisin, tripe (the lining of the stomach), womb and the lobe above the liver; some say, also small fish; moreover small fish keep the whole human body in a fit condition.

Not only in Talmudic times, but even until relatively recently, the internal organs of an animal were not considered edible under ordinary circumstances. At best, the innards of the animal were viewed as being “lower grade” in comparison with the main parts of the animal that were eaten – the muscular part, and, to a lesser extent, the fat of the animal. This applies not only to the windpipe, but even to the liver and spleen, heart, lungs and other inner organs, which were eaten only by poor people who could not afford to purchase regular meat. Traditional “Jewish foods” that are made from these parts of the animal were either made specifically by the poor, or were specially prepared for particular needs (e.g. for someone who was ill).

According to the Geonim, the sisin referred to here is Matricaria chamomilla of the composite family Asteraceae. This annual plant grows wild in Israel. Even today, Chamomile is used medicinally to treat sore stomach, irritable bowel syndrome, to strengthen the body against colds and as a gentle sleep aid. It is also used as a mild laxative and is anti-inflammatory and bactericidal.

Avodah Zara 30a-b: Leaving food uncovered

A number of different concerns are presented by the Gemara regarding food and drink that have been left uncovered. The main issue appears to be the concern that a snake may come to eat or drink from the uncovered liquid and leave behind venom that may injure or even kill.

The Sages forbid drinking from a barrel that had been left open even if others have already drunk from it, arguing that the venom may be at the bottom of the barrel. Furthermore, the Gemara quotes a baraita that forbids using water that had been left uncovered overnight even to wash the floor, to give to animals to drink or to use to wash his hands and his face. Another opinion in the baraita limits the prohibition to cases where the person has an open wound, but if the person has no open wounds this would not be a concern.

The care that is required by the Gemara to avoid coming into physical contact with a snake’s venom actually depends on the type of snake. Most of the poisonous snakes in Israel and the surrounding areas are vipers, whose venom is made up of enzymes. Such venom could not affect a person simply by physical contact, unless there was an open wound that would allow the venom to enter the bloodstream. Other types of snakes have venom that affects the nervous system, which could enter the body through the eyes, for example, which is why washing the face with water that contains venom may be dangerous.

Given that the concern with uncovered food and drink is related to a very specific issue, the Gra (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh De’ah 116:1) accepts the argument made by Tosafot that these rules apply only in times and places where such snakes are found, but the Sages never intended to extend the prohibition to other places where they are not found.

Avodah Zara 31a-b: Drinking beer

Although we have learned that it is forbidden to drink non-Jewish wine, both because of concern lest it be libated to idol worship and because the Sages want to discourage social intercourse between Jews and pagans, we do not find in the Mishnah or baraitot any prohibition against drinking non-Jewish beer. The Gemara on today’s daf nevertheless asks why non-Jewish beer is forbidden, and it appears that this was a late tradition.

Two reasons are offered by the Gemara to prohibit drinking non-Jewish beer – Rami bar Hama says that it is because of a concern with social intercourse; Rav Nahman says that it is because the beer is left uncovered, and we are concerned that it is left uncovered and may have become poisoned, as we learned on yesterday’s daf.

The Gemara relates that Rav rules that Armenian beer is permitted, although he would not allow his son, Chiya, to drink it. The Gemara explains that Rav thought that it was forbidden because it was dangerous, but that the fermented hops counteracted any venom that might be in the beer, so that it would not be dangerous to a healthy person. Chiya, who was, by his nature, physically weak, may have become injured by the beer, so his father did not allow him to drink it.

Hops, or humulus lupulus, which is used to this day as one of the ingredients in beer production, contains alkaloids and tannins which can play a role in breaking down snake venom that might be found in beer.

It should be noted that the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 114:1) accepts the tradition presented in the Gemara and forbids non-Jewish beer, but the Rama rules that beer made of grain or honey is permitted and he testifies that this was the common practice in his community.

Avodah Zara 32a-b: Intoxicating pottery

According to the Mishnah, there are a number of things belonging to non-Jews from which it is forbidden for Jews to derive benefit. Among them are wine, vinegar that was originally wine and heres hadriyani – Hadrianic pottery.

The first cases are fairly straightforward –

But what is heres hadriyani and why is it forbidden?

Rav Yehuda quotes Shmuel as teaching that this refers to the Caesar Hadrian. When Rav Dimi came from Israel he explained that the Romans tilled virgin soil that had not been tilled before, which they then planted with grapevines. The wine that was produced was poured into white earthenware jugs which absorbed the wine. These vessels were then broken into fragments that the soldiers then used to carry, so that wherever they went they would soak them in water and have wine to drink. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi attested to the potency of this wine, saying that – as Rashi explains – our best wine is the equivalent of the third soaking of this pottery in water.

Hadrian was the Roman Caesar from 117-138 CE. In Jewish history he is remembered as an evil tyrant, who put down the Bar Kochba revolt in a violent and bloody manner, destroyed the city of Jerusalem and erected a pagan city on its ruins. During his reign he led military escapades throughout the Roman Empire, and apparently the method described in the Gemara is how the Roman soldiers were able to enjoy drinking even as they were stationed far from home.

Avodah Zara 33a-b: The legal ramifications of glazed pottery

In a list of halakhic rulings that appears on our daf, the Gemara pronounces that we follow the ruling of Rav Zevid with regard to kunai – glazed pottery. Rav Zevid ruled that glazed vessels are permitted – i.e. they are not absorbent and are thus permitted for use, even if non-kosher food was stored in them, if they are white or black, but are forbidden if they are green. This, however, applies only to those that have no cracks; if they have cracks we must assume that they absorbed the non-kosher food and are forbidden for use.

It appears that our Gemara is discussing the common method of covering a simple earthenware vessel – which is porous and therefore considered to be absorbent – with a protective glaze that would keep the vessel from absorbing food or liquid. This is done by pouring the glaze – made from liquid suspensions of various powdered minerals and metal oxides – on the piece and then firing it in a kiln.

The quality of the glazing and how well it will keep the pottery from absorbing things depend on the temperature of the kiln and the elements that are used in making the glaze. One of the most popular elements used in glazes – even today – is lead, to which various minerals are added to give the glaze its color.  Some types of glaze are more susceptible to cracking, which would allow the pottery to absorb even after being covered with glaze. The different colors of the glaze that are mentioned in our Gemara indicate different methods of sealing vessels, some of which are better or more reliable than others. Some of them give the pottery the qualities of glass and are considered totally sealed, while others are considered to be porous even after undergoing this process.

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.