Bet Midrash Virtuali

of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel
and the Masorti Movement



For three days prior to a festival of non-Jews it is forbidden to trade with them, to loan [them something] or to borrow from them, to lend them [money] or to take a loan from them, to repay them or to accept repayment. Rabbi Yehudah says: we may accept repayment from them because it causes him sorrow. They said to him: although it causes him sorrow now he will be happy later on.


Before we begin our study of the first mishnah of Tractate Avodah Zarah we should perhaps clarify to ourselves what this tractate is about - and what it is not about. The Hebrew term Avodah Zarah means 'foreign worship' and signifies non-Jewish, idolatrous, practices and beliefs. However, the tractate will not elaborate on those beliefs and practices or explain them (though we, of course, will do so where necessary in our explanations). In other words the sages had no intention of making Tractate Avodah Zarah a source from which Jews might learn about Avodah Zarah from the practical point of view.

Neither will Tractate Avodah Zarah be concerned with the rules and regulations [mitzvot] which are enacted in the Torah to keep Jews far from adopting - even unwittingly - non-Jewish practices or imitating them.

Tractate Avodah Zarah is concerned with regulating the social contacts of Jews with non-Jews in those communities where they live together. In Eretz-Israel throughout the age of the Tannaïm and the Amoraïm non-Jews lived and gradually became a significant proportion of the total population. In many towns and villages Jews lived alongside non-Jews, and our tractate is concerned with regulating the social intercourse that Jews might have with their non-Jewish neighbours.

Most commentators would prefer to use a term such as 'pagan' rather than 'non-Jew' to describe these neighbours. In his great commentary Bet ha-Beĥirah, Rabbi Menaĥem ben-Shelomo ha-Me'iri writes as follows [on Avodah Zarah 22a]:

It is quite clear that all these things were stated concerning those times, when those peoples were idol worshippers with their filthy actions and ugly standards... But other peoples, who embrace religious values and are free from those ugly standards - and, indeed, punish them - there is no doubt that these words [Tractate Avodah Zarah] have nothing to do with them.

Now Rabbi ha-Me'iri lived during the 13th century in the town of Perpignon in southern France, though in his day and age it was part of Spain. Indeed, he is sometimes referred to as Don Vidal de Perpiñon. His words are clearly aimed to exclude his Christian neighbours from the 'insults' that are implied concerning non-Jews in this tractate. Christians and all other people who have adopted a religion which requires moral rectitude are not the 'pagans' that are addressed by our tractate, he claims.

Not all medieval rabbis would have agreed with him. Rambam, for example, living in North Africa, held that Moslems were not idolators but that Christians were idolators. Rabbenu Ya'akov Tam, living in northern Europe, held that Christians were not idolators. If we accept the definition implied by Rabbi Menaĥem ha-Me'iri then most modern peoples would fall outside the scope of 'pagans', because most peoples - even those that appear to worship idols, such as Buddhists and Hindus - certainly have a moral code to which they are required to adhere.

But, regardless of apologetics of rabbis such as Rabbi ha-Me'iri and Rabbenu Tam, one body of opinion was not convinced: of all the texts of the Talmud that have survived from the Middle Ages Tractate Avodah Zarah is the most heavily 'edited' - 'censored' would be a more accurate term - by the ever-watchful collective eye of the Christian church. It is difficult not to assume that, from the subjective point of view of the church, it was a case of "if the cap fits, wear it".

There is much to suggest that the animus of 'pagan' was restricted to the non-Jews of Eretz-Israel. In the Gemara [Ĥullin 13b] Rabbi Yoĥanan states that

Non-Jews outside Eretz-Israel are not idol worshippers: they are just following ancestral custom.

Rabbi Yoĥanan lived in Eretz-Israel during the 3rd century CE, at the height of the Romanization of the country. It is not at all clear on what basis he opines that non-Jews living elsewhere in the Roman Empire and observing the same rites and traditions as the non-Jewish population in Eretz-Israel are not pagan idolators whereas those living in Eretz-Israel are just that.

So it seems that for the sages the term 'idolator' serves to designate a non-Jew living in Eretz-Israel. Thus it is, perhaps, a social definition rather than a religious one. At any rate, it is clear that the original intention of our tractate is not to regulate the social intercourse of Jews and non-Jews the world over but only that of Jews and non-Jews in Eretz-Israel during the age of paganism.

To be continued.