Masechet Avodah Zarah 41a-47b

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 41a-b: Broken statues

Although we have learned that statues that are worshipped are considered avodah zara and it is forbidden to derive benefit from them, the Mishnah on today’s daf teaches that if, when the statue is found, it is broken into pieces, it is permitted. The exception would be when a full limb remains intact. In a case where the form of a hand or a foot is still whole it will be forbidden, since there are those who worship them as representative of the deity.

In general, the reason that a broken statue can be used is because we are not sure whether the statue had been worshiped as avodah zara, and even if it had been treated as an idol, its present state leads us to believe that it had been destroyed by the non-Jew who had rejected it as a deity. The halacha allows a non-Jew who chooses to negate his idol the right to do so. Thus, once a statue is found broken into pieces, it is very unlikely that it is a “still worshipped” idol.

This leads the Gemara to ask a question. Why should a remaining arm or foot of a statue be forbidden? Shouldn’t we reach a conclusion similar to that of the general rule of the Mishnah – the statue that this limb comes from may not have been an idol, and even if it was, clearly the statue is now broken!? Shmuel explains that the rule forbidding use of a surviving arm or leg is only applicable when the limb is standing on its base.

Rashi explains Shmuel’s case to be a situation where the arm or the foot of the statue is found resting in a place where it appears that it has been put there for worship. The Meiri suggests that this refers to a specific type of arm or foot – one that has been specially constructed as an article of worship, for example where the hand is holding an idol, and it serves as the idol’s base.

Avodah Zara 42a-b: Suns, moons and dragons

Certain images were known to represent idols, and when found on different utensils may indicate that they are used for avodah zara. The Mishnah on today’s daf teaches that when someone finds utensils that have on them images of the sun, the moon or a drakon, they must be cast into the Dead Sea. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel distinguishes between important utensils, which can be assumed to be used for idol worship, and simple utensils – like pots and pans – that are permitted even if they have such images on them.

In his Commentary to the Mishnah, the Rambam explains that the references to the sun and the moon do not relate to simple drawings of these heavenly bodies, but rather they refer to a Zodiac wheel like one prepared by astrologers, that gives a form to each of the signs of the Zodiac, with a figure representing the sun in the middle.

With regard to the drakon, many different interpretations are put forward. The Ra’avad explains that it is a snake, and because of the visceral fear that many people have towards snakes, it was worshiped as a god by many. The Aruch agrees, saying that it is a snake that is uniquely large and that possesses keen eyesight. In his Commentary to the Mishnah, the Rambam suggests that this refers to a drawing of one of the constellations, and it is considered avodah zara like any other star worship.

The R”i mi-Lunil describes the drakon as a snake-like creature with wings that belches smoke and fire from its throat – what we would call a dragon. A dragon is a mythical creature that has the body of a large snake, which is why the term drakon is often used in Greek – and by the Sages – to refer to a simple snake. In many religions dragons were used to represent the power of the gods, and, in many cases, to represent the god itself.

Avodah Zara 43a-b: Are models of the solar system idolatrous?

When witnesses come to Jerusalem to testify that they have seen the new moon, the judges interview them in order to ascertain that they have, in fact, seen the beginning of a new lunar cycle (which looks like this) and not just the end of the previous one (which looks like this). These shapes are what the moon looks like in Israel at the beginning and end of each lunar month. The closer one gets to the equator, the flatter the crescent of the moon becomes, until it can look like this.

Someone who does not pay close attention to the position of the moon may very well walk into court and describe a situation that is physically impossible. To assist the witnesses in their testimony, the Mishnah on our daf tells of models that Rabban Gamliel had in his study, which he would show to the people coming to testify. In this way, situations that might be difficult to describe verbally could be discussed with the help of visual aids.

(For a series of multimedia presentations on the moon and lunar months, see

The Gemara questions how Rabban Gamliel was allowed to fashion these devices, when the baraita interprets the passage (Shemot 20:20) that forbids the creation of idols and graven images to refer specifically to heavenly objects like the sun, moon, stars and constellations. The answer offered by the Gemara is a difficult one – that Rabban Gamliel did not make the models himself; they were made by others. Tosafot and other rishonim argue that it is forbidden for Jews to have non-Jews perform tasks for them that are Biblically forbidden, which would seem to be the case here. A number of explanations are offered:

Most commentaries suggest that, since this was done for an essential reason connected to fulfilling a mitzvah, it was permitted in this case.

The Ritva suggests that others made the models for their own purposes, and Rabban Gamliel purchased them from those people.

Avodah Zara 44a-b: Talking Torah in the bathhouse, under the eyes of Aphrodite

Prokelos the son of Plosfos met Rabban Gamliel while bathing in the Greek goddess Aphrodite’s bathhouse in Akko and asked him how he could bathe there, given the clear prohibition in the Torah against benefiting from pagan idols. According to the Mishnah, he went so far as to quote the passage in Sefer Devarim (13:18) that is the source for the prohibition.

Rabban Gamliel said to him “I cannot respond to you and discuss Torah ideas in the bathhouse.”

Upon exiting, Rabban Gamliel did respond to the question posed by Plosfos. Several possible responses appear in the Mishnah –

Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of beauty, and she was represented by a beautiful, young female form, which is why statues of her were often used for decoration, rather than as an idol to be worshipped.

In response to this exchange, the Gemara asks how Rabban Gamliel could have even explained his inability to respond in a bathhouse, since that statement, itself, was a halakhic teaching. The Gemara further emphasizes that this prohibition remains in force even if the Torah is taught in a foreign language. Ultimately the Gemara is forced to explain that Rabban Gamliel only told Plosfos that he could not respond to him in the bathhouse when they were already outside.

The Talmud Yerushalmi discusses this question at length. While one opinion accepts the conclusion of our Gemara, another opinion presented there permits Torah teachings in a bathhouse if they are about halakhot that relate to bathhouses. According to that opinion, the Yerushalmi explains that there were other reasons that Rabban Gamliel did not want to engage in conversation with Plosfos in the bathhouse.

Avodah Zara 45a-b: Worshiping the hills…and the trees

The Mishnah teaches that hills that are worshipped do not become forbidden to Jews, although what is on those hills may become forbidden. The passage that is the source for this prohibition appears in Sefer Devarim (7:25) where the Torah forbids the gold and silver that are on them, but the ground itself cannot become forbidden.

One exception mentioned by the Mishnah is the Asherah tree, which, although it is part-and-parcel of the land, nevertheless has been fashioned, in a sense, by human activity, since it was planted.

The idea that a natural formation like a hill or a valley might be worshipped as a god is a concept that exists back to prehistoric times, when pagans actually worshipped such things and sacrificed to them. One very early example of this was the cult of Ba’al Hermon that worshipped Mount Hermon, and whose cultic activities lasted into Mishnaic times. Occasionally the cult would worship an idol or statue that was related to the geographic place, while in other cases the worship would be focused on the place itself, like Mount Carmel, which was worshipped with no associated idol.

According to Rashi, the reason that we distinguish between the hills and what is on the hills is because in their natural form the hills cannot possibly become avodah zara. What is on them, however, becomes forbidden because of the aforementioned passage in Sefer Devarim. Pagans who worship the hills, however, will still be punished because of their intention to perform avodah zara. Rabbeinu Tam offers an alternative approach, arguing that the hills will be considered avodah zara, which is why those people worshipping them will be punished for doing so. The rule taught by the Mishnah is that although the hills are considered avodah zara, they do not become forbidden.

Avodah Zara 46a-b: Can shaky rocks becoming pagan idols?

As we have learned on yesterday’s daf even if someone worships a hill or a valley, his actions will not cause the natural formation to become forbidden. Similarly, someone who worships a living animal will not create a situation where the animal becomes forbidden (although it may not be used as a sacrifice, given that it has been treated as a deity).  The underlying principle, as taught in the Mishnah (42b) is that something that has had human intervention can become forbidden, but in their natural state, things do not become forbidden.

Our Gemara discusses a case of avanim she-nidaldelu – rocks that broke off of the mountain (Rabbeinu Chananel suggests that they did not break off entirely, but are now only partially connected to the mountain).  If someone were to pray to these rocks, would they become forbidden, or will we argue that they still have had no human intervention and as such will remain permitted?  The Gemara presents two opinions on this matter – Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Chiya’s sons, Chizkiya and Yehuda. According to one of them the fact that there has been no human intervention is most important, and we are not concerned with the fact that the rocks are no longer connected to the mountain, since animals, too, are not connected, yet they cannot become forbidden. According to the other, the passage in Sefer Devarim (7:26) obligates us to reject avodah zara at every opportunity.

The Rambam limits the case of avanim she-nidaldelu to situations where the rocks remain in their original place, even though they are now separated from the mountain. The Ritva, however, argues that even if they were subsequently moved by a person, simply transporting them is not a significant act in the rocks themselves and they will still be subject to the conclusion regarding this question.

Avodah Zara 47a-b: Mining for idols

Although we have learned on yesterday’s daf that stones that broke away from a mountain on their own may remain permitted, even if they were worshipped, stones that were mined and removed from the mountain are understood to have been subject to human intervention, and may, therefore, become forbidden. The Mishnah on today’s daf teaches that there are three types of rocks –

  1. Rocks that were mined for the purpose of serving as a bimus – a base, or foundation for an idol. Such a rock is automatically forbidden.
  2. An ordinary rock that was plastered and painted to honor pagan idol worship. If the plaster and paint were removed, the rock would be permitted.
  3. An ordinary rock that was used temporarily to support an idol. Once the idol is removed, the rock is permitted.

The bimus, or base, prepared for an idol is worshipped together with the idol and is, therefore, considered like the idol itself according to Rashi. The Ra’avad argues that a rock mined for this purpose is the matzevah that the Torah expressly prohibits (see Devarim 16:22), which is why it is forbidden from the moment that it is prepared.

With regard to the case where an ordinary rock was used as a support for an idol, Rashi explains that since this was only temporary and there was no intention to make this rock into a bimus, once the idol was removed the rock reverts to its original status and there is no need to actively negate its use as a pagan object. The Ra’avad argues that even if the idol was worshipped while situated on the rock, since the rock was not mined for this purpose, nor was any change made in the rock to accommodate the idol on it, it is as though the idol had been placed on the floor, and the rock’s status is unaffected.

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.