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The Talmud’s Revenge Fantasies

In this week’s ‘Daf Yomi,’ the oft-banned tractate that indulges a God ‘making sport’ with the enemies of a persecuted and oppressed people

Adam Kirsch
January 23, 2018
Inset image: Still from 'The Revenant,' (2015), YouTube.
Inset image: Still from ‘The Revenant,’ (2015), YouTube.
Inset image: Still from 'The Revenant,' (2015), YouTube.
Inset image: Still from ‘The Revenant,’ (2015), YouTube.

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

This week, Daf Yomi readers began Tractate Avodah Zarah, the section of the Talmud devoted to the laws forbidding idolatry. As we already learned in Tractate Sanhedrin, avodah zarah—literally, “strange worship”—is one of the most serious sins in Jewish law. Not only are Jews who worship other gods liable to be stoned to death, but Jews must avoid even mentioning the names of those gods, in accordance with Exodus 23:13: “Make no mention of the name of other gods, nor let it be heard out of your mouth.” In the Roman Empire, where images of gods were omnipresent and pagan festivals governed the calendar, this would have presented a constant challenge.

In the first chapter of Avodah Zarah, the rabbis respond to this challenge with their usual strategy of “building fences” around the law. In other words, they interpret the ban on idol worship very broadly: not only can a Jew not worship a pagan idol himself, he also cannot do anything to help a pagan worship his own gods. For this reason, the first mishna in the tractate explains, it is forbidden for Jews to do business with gentiles for three days preceding any of their religious festivals. Rabbi Yishmael broadens the ban to include the three days following a festival as well.

The Gemara questions the exact rationale for this ban. One explanation is that it is forbidden to sell a pagan anything he might use in a religious rite—for instance, a sheep that he could sacrifice to his god. However, it’s also possible to interpret the ban on doing business more broadly, to include any kind of transaction, including borrowing or lending money. The logic here is that, if the pagan makes a profit shortly before a festival, he will give thanks for it to his god, so the Jew will have been an accessory to idol worship. And the Torah forbids a Jew from “putting a stumbling block before the blind,” which can be read figuratively as a prohibition on abetting any kind of sin.

In Avodah Zarah 6b, the Gemara asks whether lending and borrowing are equally forbidden. If the concern is that a Jew does not want to give a pagan pleasure, it makes sense that he would not lend him money, since the pagan gains by the transaction. But if the Jew borrows from the pagan, would the latter have any reason to celebrate? Wouldn’t he actually be more likely to mourn, since he has lost money and taken on a risk? The Gemara grants this logic, but still forbids both borrowing and lending, on the grounds that one kind of transaction might lead to the other.

What were the Roman festivals that the rabbis had in mind? The mishna in Avodah Zarah 8a gives a list: “Kalenda, Saturnalia, and Kratesis, and the day of the festival of their kings, and the birthday of the king, and the day of the death of the king.” Kalenda must refer to Kalends, the Roman name for the first day of every month; and Saturnalia, as the rabbis explain elsewhere, was a winter solstice festival. But there does not seem to have been a Roman festival called Kratesis, and of course there were many other holidays that go unmentioned in the Talmud. Perhaps the rabbis succeeded in remaining ignorant of the finer points of pagan practice.

A delicate question arises about just which gentiles the rabbis were referring to in this ban. The reference to Roman festivals suggests that they were talking about polytheists, who worshipped the whole pantheon of Greco-Roman gods. These were idolaters in the literal sense of the word, offering prayers and sacrifices to stone images of Apollo or Dionysus. But what about Christians? At the time the Gemara was written—circa 200-500 CE—the Christian church was rising to supreme power. Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 313, and in 380 it was made the official religion of the empire.

Does the ban on doing business with gentiles include Christians as well as pagans? According to Rabbi Yishmael, it does. Indeed, the ban applies even more comprehensively to Christians, because every Sunday is a Christian holiday; if business is forbidden for three days before and after each Sunday, the entire week is effectively off-limits. Later Jewish authorities reversed this position, however, for two reasons. First, it was open to doubt whether Christians were idol-worshipers in the sense the Torah intended. After all, they did not sacrifice to graven images, and they claimed to worship the same God that Jews did. (Though the concept of the Trinity looked to many Jews, including Maimonides, like a kind of polytheism.)

More pragmatically, it was clear that, for Jews living in Christian societies, a ban on doing business with Christians was impossible to enforce. Not only would it destroy Jewish livelihoods, it would certainly engender Christian hatred. Indeed, how the Jewish laws about idol-worship would appear to gentiles was already a consideration for Jews in pagan Rome, as we can see from an anecdote related in the Gemara. Once, on a Roman festival day, “a certain heretic” sent a coin to Rabbi Yehuda Nesia. “What shall I do?” Yehuda Nesia asked Reish Lakish. If he accepted the coin, the heretic would be gratified and give thanks to his god; if he refused the coin, the heretic “will harbor enmity.” Reish Lakish gave shrewd advice: Yehuda Nesia should accept the coin, but then drop it into a pit, accidentally-on-purpose. In this way, he would neither offend the heretic nor give him reason for satisfaction. But such play-acting was no real solution to the problem, and Shmuel made things easier for Jews by ruling that it was only in the land of Israel that Jews had to observe the three-day ban. In diaspora, they could do business with pagans and Christians anytime except the actual day of their festivals.

Even more potentially incendiary than these passages of halakhah, however, is the long section of aggadah at the beginning of Chapter One, which deals with the judgment of the nations at the end of the world. When the Messiah comes, the rabbis tell us, God will sit before the assembled nations with a Torah scroll in His lap. The Roman and Persian Empires will come before him boasting of their achievements—building roads, winning wars, making money. But God will scorn these worldly feats: “Is there no one among you who can declare this?” he would ask, indicating the Torah. Only the Jews, who have studied the Law, will be rewarded at the end of time; those who seem powerful today will “leave disappointed.” The nations will beg to convert to Judaism and receive the Torah, but it will be too late; God will refuse, calling them “fools of the world.”

Indeed, the rabbis say that, as a rule, “there is no making sport for the Holy One,” but on the day of judgment he will make an exception in order to laugh at the gentiles. In these passages, the revenge fantasies of a persecuted and oppressed people are allowed to flourish in disturbing, though imaginative, ways. Clearly, the hostility to other faiths expressed in Tractate Avodah Zarah had the potential to get Jewish communities in trouble. Indeed, during the Middle Ages, Christian authorities regularly confiscated and burned the Talmud after being tipped off to passages like these, usually by an apostate Jew. Avodah Zarah was one of the most frequently banned and expurgated parts of the Talmud; that it can be published in an uncensored English translation is a sign of how secure Jews now feel in the practice of their faith.


Adam Kirsch embarked on the Daf Yomi cycle of daily Talmud study in August 2012. To catch up on the complete archive, click here.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.