Masechet Avodah Zarah 55a-61b

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Wine Press
06 Oct 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 Zarah 55a-b: A jealous God

Continuing the discussions of the Sages and non-Jewish leaders regarding pagan idol worship – see the previous daf – our Gemara relates:

The General Agrippas asked Rabban Gamaliel, “It is written in your Torah, ‘For the Lord thy God is a devouring fire, a jealous God (El kana)‘ (Sefer Devarim 4:24). Is a wise man jealous of any but a wise man, a warrior of any but a warrior, a rich man of any but a rich man?”  Rabban Gamliel replied, “I will give you a parable: To what is this similar? To a man who marries an additional wife. If the second wife is her superior, the first will not be jealous of her, but if she is her inferior, the first wife will be jealous of her.”

The Maharsha explains that General Agrippas understood the term kana to mean jealousy, as a man is jealous of his friend, meaning that he desires to have his friend’s possessions, status or honor. This understanding led him to ask how God could possibly be jealous of pagan idols who, according to Jewish tradition, are valueless and without standing. Rabban Gamliel responded by means of his parable that the term kana in this context does not mean jealousy. Just as the senior wife would not be jealous of the new woman who has entered the household if she is of lower social class, so, too, God cannot possibly be jealous of a false god. Rather, the term kana connotes anger, that the first wife is angry at her husband for bringing into their household a woman of low class to replace her.

Similarly, God is an El kana – he is angry at the Jewish People when they choose to abandon Him and exchange Him for pagan idols, which are so insignificant in comparison to Him.

Avodah Zarah 56a-b: Treading on grapes with non-Jews

Beginning with the Mishnah on daf 55a, Masechet Avodah Zarah begins to focus on the laws of yayin nesech – wine forbidden to Jews because it has been sacrificed as a libation to pagan idols. Due to this concern, the Sages forbid all wine with which non-Jews come in contact. The Mishnah teaches that as long as the grapes are still in the process of being squeezed in the wine press – even if there are non-Jews who are touching the grapes and placing them in the press to be tread upon – they will not be considered to have become yayin nesech. The juice is only considered to have become wine when it flows out of the press and into the collection vats.

In the Gemara, Rav Huna argues that the ruling of the Mishnah is not final, and that it is the teaching of Mishnah rishona – “the first Mishnah.” A later rendition of the Mishnah prohibits use of the wine as soon as it is squeezed and has begun flowing, even if it remains in the press.

In the continuation of the Gemara on today’s daf Rav Huna is quoted as teaching that the juice in the press remains permitted only if the basket that strains out the pits and sediment is not returned to the press. If the straining basket is put back into the press, then all of the juice in the press will become forbidden.

Many of the commentators argue that in this ruling, Rav Huna is explaining the position of the Mishnah rishona, according to which the juice in the press would ordinarily remain permitted. The Ramban, however, understands Rav Huna’s original ruling differently, and the juice in the press, which is not yet considered to be wine, will not become forbidden simply because it flows into the wine in the collection vat. Adding wine from the straining basket to the juice in the press will prohibit all of the juice.

Avodah Zarah 57a-b: The religious belief on non-Jewish slaves

Jewish law recognizes two types of slaves – Jewish slaves, who effectively sign a long-term contract and go free after six years, and non-Jewish slaves who will remain the property of the owner for life. A Jewish slave owner, however, must get the non-Jewish slave to agree to undergo a conversion process, including circumcision and immersing in the mikvah, and they are then obligated in some of the mitzvot.

The Gemara on today’s daf discusses the case of a non-Jewish slave, and Rav Nachman quotes Shmuel as teaching that a non-Jewish slave who is purchased from a non-Jew cannot be permitted to touch wine, even if he underwent circumcision and entered the mikvah, since touching it will make it yayin nesech. This rule remains in effect until we can be sure that their connection with idol worship has ended. How long is that? Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi is quoted by the Gemara as teaching that we must wait twelve months until we can assume that those traditions have been forgotten.

Rabbenu Tam points out that the statement made by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi was not made in explanation of Shmuel’s ruling, since Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi lived many years before Shmuel. The statement was made with reference to a different halacha – that a person who cannot convince his slave to accept conversion to Judaism can allow him to live in his house for twelve months in the hope that during that time he will abandon his pagan beliefs and be willing to accept Judaism. If he refuses to do so, he must be sold to a non-Jew. Our Gemara applies the same reasoning to this situation.

Some suggest that we must have the same concerns with regard to a non-Jew who converts – that we cannot allow him to touch wine until we are certain that a significant amount of time has passed and that he has renounced his earlier pagan beliefs. Most of the commentaries reject this comparison, arguing that we must distinguish between someone who converts to Judaism entirely based on his beliefs and free will, as opposed to a slave who has been sold and is required to convert.

Avodah Zarah 58a-b: Tiberias, Neharda and Mechoza

Once upon a time, a non-Jew entered a Jewish store in Mechoza, and asked to purchase wine from the storeowner. The storeowner claimed that he had none to sell, but the non-Jew placed his hand in a vessel that contained wine and said “Are you telling me that this is not wine?!” In his anger, the storeowner took the vessel and poured it back into the barrel.

This case caused a major disagreement among the Sages of the Talmud. Rava ruled that the barrel of wine was permitted and could be sold to non-Jews, while Rav Huna bar Chinana and Rav Huna bar Rav Nachman forbade it entirely. Rava made a public proclamation asserting that his ruling was correct; Rav Huna bar Chinana and Rav Huna bar Rav Nachman did likewise. Later, Rava clarified his ruling, saying that the barrel of wine was permitted to be sold, although the value of the wine that the non-Jew had touched was forbidden.

Rava reports that when he arrived in Pumbedita, where this case was being discussed, Nachmani – which was actually the name of his peer, Abayye – brought numerous cases that proved that Rava had ruled incorrectly. For example, Abayye pointed out that Shmuel had ruled otherwise when discussing a similar case in Neharda, as had Rabbi Yochanan regarding a similar case in Tiberias. Although Rava responded that they may have ruled stringently in those cases because they were concerned that the communities there were not religious enough, Abayye argued that if anything, Neharda and Tiberias were more religious communities than Mechoza where Rava made his ruling. Ultimately the Gemara rules against Rava in this case.

Tiberias in Israel was a major Torah center beginning with the time of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, and for many years it served as the home of the Sanhedrin. Neharda in Bavel was one of the original settlements of Jews in Babylonia, and for generations it was known as a center of Torah and study halls. Mechoza, on the other hand, was a major port city and business center, whose inhabitants were known more for their financial success and business acumen than for their Torah knowledge.

Avodah Zarah 59a-b: The consequences of offering Jewish wine to non-Jewish gods

We have learned that a non-Jew who touches wine – and certainly one who libates it in honor of a pagan deity – will make it forbidden for the Jew to benefit from it. What if the non-Jew does this on purpose? Rav Ashi rules that in such a case although it cannot be sold to another non-Jew, nevertheless, he can demand that the non-Jew who poured the wine must pay him for it, as though he had burned it. That is to say, he is not paying to purchase the wine, rather he must pay for the damage that he did.

Rav Ashi explains that his source for this ruling is the following baraita:

If an idolater offered wine of a Jew as a libation, not in the presence of an idol, it is prohibited; but Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava and Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira permit it for two reasons: first, because wine can be rendered yayin nesech only in the presence of an idol, and secondly because the owner can say to him, “You have no right to make my wine prohibited through no fault of my own.”

The commentators try to explain how this baraita supports Rav Ashi’s ruling, given that neither of the two opinions that appear in it seem to lead to his conclusion. According to the first tanna the wine is forbidden entirely, while according to the second opinion it can be sold to a different non-Jew, as well.

The Re’ah explains that Rav Ashi is following the second ruling of the Mishnah, since the reasons offered by Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava and Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira would permit it to be sold to another non-Jew only on a Torah level. In theory, the Sages should forbid such a sale, although they permit it to the individual who caused the problem. The Ramban argues that Rav Ashi’s ruling follows the opinion of the first tanna, according to whom the libation was a true act of idol worship and the wine is totally forbidden – which is why the owner can demand payment from the non-Jew for damages. Had the wine been permitted to be sold, the non-Jew could have argued that he did not truly do damage to the Jew, since he could sell the wine.

Avodah Zarah 60a-b: Sophisticated wine presses

We usually associate ancient wine presses with groups of people treading on grapes with their feet.
There were, of course, other types of wine presses, and it is important to understand how having a non-Jew operate them would affect the status of the wine that is produced.

The Gemara on today’s daf discusses a me’atzra zaira – a wine press where the grapes are squeezed by a board or by a beam that is pressed on them by a non-Jew. Rav Papi permits such wine, while Rav Ashi – some say Rav Shimi bar Ashi – forbids it. The Gemara explains that all agree that if the press was operated directly by the non-Jew, then the wine would be prohibited. The disagreement comes up only in a case of ko’ah koho – where the contact of the non-Jew comes from secondary or indirect action.

Rashi, who was, himself, a vintner, explains the case of me’atzra zaira to be a wine press where the juice was squeezed from the grapes by means of a beam pressed down on them by means of a screw, which was the method that was used where Rashi lived. Rabbeinu Tam argues that based on the Gemara here, as well as in other places, it does not appear that a beam was used to squeeze the juice out of grapes, rather this method was used to squeeze juice out of the grape pits after the initial squeezing had already been done. The Ra’avad suggests that this case is where the grapes were not squeezed by means of stomping them, rather a board was placed on them in order to squeeze out the juice. The case of direct action (kocho) would be when the non-Jew stood directly on the board; the case of indirect action (koach kocho) would be when the non-Jew rolled or pressed a beam on this board to squeeze the grapes.

Avodah Zarah 61a-b: Non-Jews and Jewish wine

When wine is left where a non-Jew can easily come into contact with it, must we be concerned that he may have touched the wine?

The Mishnah on today’s daf makes it clear that we do not automatically assume that a non-Jew would touch the wine. In fact, according to the Mishnah, if a Jew prepared wine and it remained in the non-Jew’s property, as long as there are Jews in the city and the wine is readily visible to the public, there is no concern at all. Even if there were no Jews in the city, a Jewish guard who was yotzei v’nichnas – who passed by occasionally to check things – would be sufficient.

The Gemara relates a story where a non-Jew was found between the barrels in a place that contained kosher wine, and Rava ruled that if he would be treated like a thief were he to be found, we do not need to be concerned about the wine; we assume that he would be afraid to touch it or take anything. If, however, he would not be treated like a thief, then there is reason to worry.

Rashi explains that the idea of being treated like a thief depends on the person; if he is someone who is weak and afraid of being accused and taken before the court, we can assume that he didn’t touch the wine. According to the Ritva, we do not need to know that he will be brought up on criminal charges as a thief; even if he will be embarrassed by having been caught in a situation where he is viewed as a thief it will be enough for us to assume that he will not be touching the wine. The Ra’avad quotes the Geonim as explaining that this is a case where there were barrels of wine belonging to Jews in one area and to non-Jews in another area. Being treated like a thief means being caught on the wrong side of the partition and being suspected of thievery.

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.