Masechet Avodah Zarah 34a-40b

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16 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 34a-b: Rabbinic travels

The Gemara relates that when Rabbi Akiva traveled to Ginzak, the community presented him with three questions that he could not answer –

Since he could not answer these questions, he raised them in the bet midrash – the Rabbinic study hall, where he received answers to all of the questions –

We find the city of Ganzak, located in North Western Persia – in the area then known as Maddai – mentioned in sources from the time of the Mishnah. We cannot be certain of its location, as some suggest that it was near Lake Urmia while others place it further north.

While it is possible that Rabbi Akiva, who traveled widely in his lifetime, reached this city, which was far from the Jewish population centers in Babylon, nevertheless, Rashi in Masechet Ta’anit (11b) notes that it is difficult to uphold the reading that we find in our Gemara that attributes this story to Rabbi Akiva, since it is unlikely that one of the greatest Sages of Mishnaic times could not respond to these questions on his own. He suggests that the text should be amended to read “Mar Ukva” instead of Rabbi Akiva.

Avodah Zara 35a-b: Kosher milk and bakery bread

The Mishnah on today’s daf mentions a number of things that were forbidden by the Sages if a Jewish person was not involved in its production. For example, when an animal is milked without a Jewish person watching, or when bread is baked by a non-Jew – even if we are certain that there are no non-kosher ingredients – it is forbidden.

Regarding milk, the Gemara asks why there should be any concern since there is a distinctive difference in the color of kosher and non-kosher milk that we can recognize. The Gemara concludes that there may be small amounts of non-kosher ingredients added that are not obvious. Although the ruling of the Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch is that milk is only kosher if a Jew supervises the milking, given that the only concern is that there may be forbidden additives placed in the milk, there are contemporary responsa that permit the use of milk that has reliable government supervision.

The concern with bread is not the ingredients – which must be kosher – but the possibility that joining with non-Jews at meals may lead to intermarriage and assimilation. The Gemara itself suggests that there may be situations where the bread is commercially baked where no such concern exists. Nevertheless, the simple reading of the Gemara seems to indicate that the Rabbinic injunction against non-Jewish bread that is brought in the Mishnah could not be removed.

The Rambam, however, rules that in many places where bread baked by Jews was not readily available, people traditionally purchased commercially baked bread from non-Jews. The Rama attests to the fact that in the Ashkenazi communities it was commonplace to purchase such bread even if bread baked by Jews was available. This ruling is based on the fact that many rishonim (e.g. Tosafot and the Mordechai) believe that this rabbinic injunction never became widespread and was not accepted by the masses, so there was no need to formally rescind it.

Avodah Zara 36a-b: Non-Jewish oil

According to the Mishnah (38b), in addition to non-Jewish milk and bread (see the discussion on yesterday’s daf, or page), one of the things that was forbidden by the Sages was oil produced by non-Jews. The Mishnah, however, adds that the bet din – the Jewish court – of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi permitted the use of non-Jewish oil.

The Gemara on today’s daf deals with two issues relating to this law –

With regard to the first question, Rav claims that the original prohibition stems from the time of Daniel, for we find in Sefer Daniel (1:8) that he accepted upon himself to refrain from participating in the feasts and parties in Nebuchadnezzar’s palace. This is understood to mean that he refrained from both wine and oil that were served. While Rav views this story as the source of the prohibition, Shmuel argues that it was only a personal decision, but was not meant to apply to others. According to Shmuel, the prohibition against using non-Jewish oil originally was based on a concern that remnants of forbidden liquids had been absorbed by the vessels that held the oil, and that we fear that they will leach into the oil.

Shmuel argues that according to his explanation, we can well understand why Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi later permitted this, since at a later time it became accepted to rule that noten ta’am lefgam – something with a negative taste – is not considered significant in contributing a forbidden taste to a mixture. According to Rav, however, we need to find an explanation as to how later Sages could undo a prohibition established by Daniel.

Two related explanations are presented by the Gemara to explain this. The Gemara relates that the Sages first investigated and found that the prohibition against the use of non-Jewish oil was not kept by the majority of the Jewish community, and they relied on the ruling of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel and Rabbi Elazar bar Tzadok that a Rabbinic ordinance that is beyond the capability of the majority of the people cannot be established as law.

Avodah Zara 37a-b: Kosher insects

As a tangent to a different discussion the Gemara brings a baraita that quotes Yossi ben Yo’ezer as ruling that an el kamtzah is kosher.

An el kamtzah is a type of locust. The word kamtzah in Aramaic means locust, and the expression el kamtzah – a “ram locust” – probably refers to the fact that this particular type of locust had a head and antennae that appeared similar to ram’s horns (in many languages we find that beetles and insects are called by names of larger animals, e.g. the Hebrew word for a lady bug is parat Moshe Rabbeinu – Moses’ cow).

The Torah lists a number of locusts that are tahor – they are kosher and permissible to eat (see Vayikra 11:21-22). Since the Torah not only offers bodily indications of kashrut, but also gives the names of the locusts that are kosher, the Sages insisted that locusts could only be identified as kosher if there were additional signs that they fell into a kosher category. In many cases there was also an existing tradition with regard to their status. From its description in the Talmud, it appears that the el kamtzah had a different appearance than other kosher locusts, which is why there was a specific need for testimony that would establish its kashrut.

Yossi ben Yo’ezer ish Tzreda was the first head of the pairs of scholars who are mentioned at the beginning of Masechet Avot, a student of Antigonos ish Sokho. At that time, scholars were not given titles and were simply called by their names. According to the Talmud, Yossi ben Yo’ezer, who was a kohen, lived during the period when the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem was made up of Hellenists. He was put to death by his nephew Alkiyos, who was an evil kohen, and died a martyr’s death.

He was known as the chasid she-bakehunah – the righteous among the priests – because he was particularly strict about issues of ritual purity. It was he who instituted the Rabbinic ordinance declaring the lands of the Diaspora to be considered ritually defiled. Although he was known for his strict positions in this area of halacha, in other fields he was known to be lenient – so much so that he is sometimes referred to Yossi sharya – “Yossi, the one who permits.”

Avodah Zara 38a-b: Bishul Akum – Non-Jewish cooking

According to the Mishnah (38b), in addition to non-Jewish milk, oil and bread (see the discussions on daf, or page 35 and daf 36), there were other problematic situations related to eating food prepared by non-Jews. One of the specific things that are mentioned are shelakot – cooked vegetables. This is the source for the general prohibition against eating bishul akum – food cooked by non-Jews.

While the Gemara first associates this prohibition with a passage in the TorahRabbi Chiya bar Abba quotes Rabbi Yochanan as teaching that this is based on Devarim 2:28, where Moshe offered to purchase limited types of food and water from the nations in the desert as the Children of Israel passed through their land – nevertheless the Gemara concludes that it is a prohibition of Rabbinic origin.

In the Mishnah, Rashi explains that the underlying reason for this prohibition was similar to that of the prohibitions against the use of non-Jewish milk and bread – a concern lest it lead to a close relationship that would lead to marriage and assimilation. Nevertheless, Rashi on our daf offers an alternative explanation – that we are afraid that eating food prepared by non-Jews will lead to a situation where the non-Jew may put non-kosher ingredients into the food.

There are two limitations brought by the Gemara to this prohibition in the name of Rav Shmuel bar Rav Yitzhak quoting Rav

Both of these limitations are accepted as the halacha, so only food that is important enough to be served at a royal table and is not eaten raw will be forbidden if cooked by a non-Jew with no direct participation of a Jewish person. Today it is common practice for the kashrut supervisor to turn on the ovens at the beginning of the work day in order to ensure that the food is considered bishul yisrael.

Avodah Zara 39a-b: Non-Jewish foods that are permitted

Following discussions of foods prepared by non-Jews that are forbidden, the Mishnah on today’s daf (=page) enumerates products prepared by non-Jews that are permitted.

In this list we find, among other things –

The Gemara discusses each of these cases.

Milk. Although the Mishnah appears to require that the Jewish person watch the milking process, the Gemara quotes a baraita that permits the milk as long as the Jewish person was in the vicinity, even if he was not watching. The Gemara explains that the very presence of the Jew will frighten the non-Jew and keep him from placing anything non-kosher in the milk. As we have already learned, some contemporary rabbis permit the use of milk that has government inspection guaranteeing the purity of the milk.

Honey. The Gemara explains that the laws of bishul akum will not apply, since honey is eaten in its raw state (see daf 38), and any additives will ruin it, so there is no reason for concern.

Clusters of juicy grapes. Although juice from the grapes may be squeezed out, it is not considered to be wine. Therefore there is no concern with a non-Jew having touched the juice.

Pickled food.  Although some pickled food commonly contains wine or wine-vinegar, which would make it forbidden, other foods that are pickled in a manner that does not include the use of wine or vinegar are permitted; the Sages did not establish a blanket prohibition on all pickled products.

A leaf of the hiltit plant. The previous Mishnah (35b) taught that drops of the Ferula assafoetida plant are forbidden, and the Gemara (39a) explained that this is because the bark may have been cut with a knife that had been used for non-kosher things. Regarding a leaf from the plant, there is no such concern.

Avodah Zara 40a-b: Statues and idols

The Torah forbids deriving benefit from idols, and requires that such idols be destroyed at every opportunity (see, for example, Devarim 7:25-26, 12:2-3). Given that pagans prayed to many different things – including the sun and the moon, hills and valleys, rivers and seas – it is clear that these things cannot all become forbidden.

The third perek (=chapter) of Masechet Avodah Zara, Perek Kol ha-Tzelamim, which begins on today’s daf (=page), deals with the questions that evolve from this reality. What is included in the command to destroy pagan idols? Under what circumstances may idols remain intact?

The first Mishnah in the perek teaches that according to Rabbi Meir, all publicly displayed statues are forbidden – i.e. one cannot derive benefit from them – since they are worshipped once a year. The Chachamim rule that this is only the case if the statue grasps in his hand a staff, a bird or a ball.  Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel extends this to idols that are portrayed with anything in their hands.

The Meiri explains that this Mishnah is not referring to cases where the statues are in a pagan house of prayer, because it is obvious in that case that all statues would be forbidden. This is talking about statues that are spread out in different places in the city. Since many idols had a specific day on the calendar when they were worshipped – according to the Rambam, the date was based on astronomical calculations – Rabbi Me’ir forbade all similar statues, as well.

According to the Me’iri, the only statues that are of concern are those in human form, but other forms are not assumed to be worshipped. This appears to be the simple reading of the Mishnah. Nevertheless, the Rambam rules that any statue may be used in worship, and therefore the discussion in the Mishnah relates to all types of statues.

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.