Masechet Avodah Zarah 6a-12b

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19 Aug 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 6a-b: Pagan holidays

According to the Mishnah (2a) it is forbidden to do business with non-Jewish idol worshippers for three days prior to their holidays.

What are these pagan holidays?

The Gemara on today’s daf quotes a baraita that mentions three holidays: Kalendae, Saturnalia and Kratesis.

Rav Hanin bar Rava explains that Kalendae refers to the holiday that is celebrated for eight days following the winter solstice, while Saturnalia is the eight day festival that precedes it.

Kalendae or Calendae usually refers to the first day of the month according to the Roman calendar, but in our case the Sages are talking about the first day of the first month of the year – Kalendae Januirae – that is to say, the first day of the month of January. As the Gemara explains, the celebration of this festival began immediately following the winter solstice on December 22 and lasted for eight days. As part of the celebrations the Roman would bring sacrifices to the pagan gods and arrange for games and related activities at the circus.

Saturnalia became one of the most popular Roman festivals. It was marked by sacrifices to the god Saturn and general revelry that included reversal of social roles, in which slaves and masters ostensibly switched places.

Originally celebrated for a day, on December 17, its popularity saw it grow until it became a week long extravaganza, ending on the 25th day of the month.

Saturnalia involved the conventional sacrifices, a couch (lectisternium) set out in front of the temple of Saturn and the untying of the ropes that bound the statue of Saturn during the rest of the year. A Saturnalicius princeps was elected master of ceremonies for the proceedings. Besides the public rites there were a series of holidays and customs celebrated privately. The celebrations included a school holiday, the making and giving of small presents (saturnalia et sigillaricia) and a special market (sigillaria).

Avodah Zara 7a-b: Second opinions in Jewish law

There is a common assumption that once a person goes to a Rabbi for a rabbinic ruling, he cannot turn to a second Rabbi to seek a “second opinion.”

The basis for this assumption appears on today’s daf. The baraita teaches that if someone approached a Sage for a ruling regarding a question of ritual purity and the ruling was that it was impure, he should not turn to a second Sage to see if he would rule it pure. Similarly, if someone approached a Sage for a ruling regarding a question of whether something was permissible according to Jewish law and the ruling was that it was forbidden, he should not turn to a second Sage to see if he would rule it permitted.

Tosafot argue that there is no prohibition against turning to additional rabbis in an attempt to clarify the matter. They claim that the intent of the baraita is to ensure that the person asking the question will let the second rabbi know that a first opinion had already been given. The onus is on the second rabbi to make sure that when he offers his ruling, he takes into account the reasoning – and dignity – of the person who first offered a response to this question.

According to the Ran the main problem is the dignity of the first rabbi, so if the second one were to engage the first in discussion of the matter and were he to agree to the arguments of the second rabbi, there would be no problem whatsoever.

A different perspective is offered by the Ra’avad who suggests that the first ruling creates a situation where the object being discussed has been declared forbidden, and that status cannot be changed (according to this, the rule would not apply to situations of monetary rulings, where there are two sides in the matter). The Me’iri points out that even according to this approach, the only problem would be if the second rabbi were asked to rule on the exact same case that had already been decided. If, however, a different, but similar, case is brought before him, he has every right to offer the ruling that makes the most sense to him.

Avodah Zara 8a-b: Rabbinic ordination at a crossroads

Rav Yehuda quotes Rav as telling about Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava who must be remembered for keeping the laws of kenasot — penalties — from being forgotten. The Gemara explains that under Hadrian the Roman government forbade for rabbinic ordination to be conferred. They announced that anyone giving or receiving ordination would be killed and nearby cities and provinces would be destroyed and uprooted. Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava gathered five students to a place midway between large mountains and cities – between the techum Shabbat areas (the distance that one can walk from a inhabited area on Shabbat) surrounding Usha and Shefar’am – and conferred rabbinic ordination on Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Yossi and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua. The Roman garrisons spotted them and Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava instructed his students to flee, while he protected the path by sacrificing himself to the onslaught of the Roman soldiers. While he was killed for his efforts, his students survived to act as teachers and judges.

The cities of Usha and Shefar’am were among the centers of Jewish life in the Galilee at the end of the Second Temple period. Usha was situated in the lower Galilee and for a time played host to the Sanhedrin, which wandered in the Galilee at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. Today there is an Arab village in the area that carries the name “Husha”.

Shefar’am was the Sanhedrin’s next stop after Usha. It was in the same area, about three kilometers to the northeast of Usha. Today a Christian-Druze community lives there. The area between these two communities is hilly. An age-old tradition points to the burial cave of Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava on the road between the two cities immediately next to an ancient notice in Greek indicating the end of the techum Shabbat from Usha.

Avodah Zara 9a-b: Basing Real Estate decisions on eschatology

Our Gemara brings a teaching from Tanna d’vei Eliyahu:

The world will last for six thousand years –

The tanna continues that due to our sins we have already lost some of the years of Messianic times, since Moshiach has not yet come.

Rashi explains that this exposition is based on the model of the days of a week (as in the passage in Sefer Tehillim 90:4), where each day represents one thousand years. The seventh day – Shabbat – parallels the thousand years of acharit hayamim – the End of Days – a period of peace and tranquility on earth. The two thousand years of Messianic times is the time period during which moshi’ah has the potential to arrive, although he can arrive at any point during that time.

Regarding Messianic times, Rabbi Chanina taught that if 400 years after the destruction of the Temple someone were to offer you a field valued at one thousand dinar for a single dinar, you should not waste your money and you should turn down the offer. A baraita is quoted offering that same advice beginning with the year 4231 from the creation of the world (the Gemara concludes that the difference between these two opinions is only three years).

Rashi suggests that the intent of Rabbi Hanina (and the baraita) is to establish a date that is the end of the Redemption, and that at that time it would serve no purpose to purchase land in Israel, since at that time all Jewish people will return to the original inheritance of their forefathers in the land. According to the Ritva, however, the date mentioned by these Sages does not refer to a final Redemption, rather it is a time in which there was great potential, but also the possibility of great danger to the Jewish people if the Redemption did not occur. The recommendation in the Gemara is to avoid purchasing land in uncertain times.

Avodah Zara 10a-b: Rabbi and Antoninus

In the context of defining the term Yom Genosia shel Melakhim, which is ultimately understood as the day that the rule of the Roman leader was established, the Gemara on today’s daf tells of the close relationship between Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nassi and the Roman emperor Antoninus. According to the opening story, Antoninus turned to Rabbi for advice on how to establish his son as his successor, something that was unusual in a political reality where the Senate chose the leader and generally refused to have a son follow his father as emperor. In the continuation of the stories of their relationship, the Gemara describes how Antoninus had a secret tunnel erected between their houses so that he could visit and serve Rabbi.

The Gemara concludes that at the time of Antonius’ death Rabbi eulogized him saying nitpardah havilah – “the pact has been broken!” Rashi explains that this refers to the close, personal relationship that existed between Rabbi and Antoninus, and Rabbi was expressing his own sense of loss at the end of that connection. Others suggest that this is a reference to Rabbi’s recognition that although he had promised Antoninus that he would receive a portion in the World to Come, nevertheless it would not be on the same spiritual level as what Rabbi would receive, so their relationship could not be continued. The Maharal takes a different approach, explaining that without Antoninus, the mutual respect between Rome and Israel no longer existed and he was predicting a period of discord, disagreement and ultimately discrimination and edicts.

The identity of the emperor Antoninus in this story is the subject of some debate. Some identify him as Caracalla, born Lucius Septimius Bassianus and later called Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, who ruled from 211-217 CE. His good relations with the Jewish community were well-known. Others point to his father, Septimus Severus who ruled from 193-211 CE who also had very good relations with the Jews under his rule, and who, indeed, succeeded in having his son named as emperor following his rule. Still others suggest that Antoninus was Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, who ruled from 161-180 CE.

Avodah Zara 11a-b: Hair cutting as religious ritual

We have learned that it was forbidden for Jews to engage in business with pagans for three days before their holidays. The Mishnah (8a) lists a number of such holidays, as well as a number of days on which no business can be done, although it would be permissible to do business on the days that preceded them. Such holidays included the day that a man’s beard or blorit were cut. The Gemara on today’s daf quotes baraitot that explain that these holidays took place on the day that the beard was cut and the blorit was left, as well as on the day that both the beard and the blorit were cut.

In Rome it was common practice for the day that the Caesar’s beard was cut – either as an indication of entrance into manhood or for some other reason – to be considered a festival; sacrifices to pagan gods were part of the ceremonies, which included special religious services aimed at the Roman goddess of fortune who was appointed as responsible for beards, Fortuna barbata – “Fortune of the Beards”. Similarly, many individuals established these days as days of personal or family celebration.

Many suggestions are offered to define the term blorit, but no word in Greek or Latin is a perfect match for it. The hairstyle involved allowing the hair to grow long particularly on the sides and in the back of the head, and the hair was tied and braided into different shapes. Later on, the braided hair was shaved off in a special pagan ritual ceremony. This ceremony was most often performed in honor of the Egyptian goddess Isis and her son, the Egyptian deity Horus. During the period of the Mishnah there was a growing movement throughout the Roman Empire that introduced Eastern beliefs and practices in concert with the local pagan ones. Thus, the worship of Isis became popular throughout the Roman Empire.

Avodah Zara 12a-b: Don’t put your mouth on public water fountains!

Aside from actual idol worship, it is also forbidden to engage in activities that will appear as if a person was bowing down before an idol. Based on this concept, the Gemara on today’s daf quotes a baraita that teaches that if someone drops coins in front of an idol he should not bend over to pick them up, if it appears as though he is bowing to the idol. Similarly, if a public drinking fountain is built with a face so that the water flows from its mouth, a person may not place his mouth on the mouth of the figure in order to drink, since it appears as if he is kissing the idol.

This water fountain was in use in Pompeii during the time of the Mishnah. In many places in the ancient world – and in some places to this day – it was common for public drinking fountains to be built for general use. Sometime these fountains were simple pipes, but in many places the mouth of the fountain was made into shapes, oftentimes in the figure of a face. While most of these decorative features were made simply to beautify the public area, occasionally the faces were those of idols. This led to a concern lest drinking directly from such fountains may appear to be kissing an idol, which would be forbidden.

Tosafot Chachmei Anglia ask whether the same concern existed with regard to picking up coins that have dropped, if they have on them an engraved form, perhaps even an engraving of an idol. They argue that forms that are minted onto coins are certainly not placed there for purposes of worship and there is no need to be concerned that bending over to pick up coins with such forms on them might be misconstrued as praying to them.

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.