Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world. Kirsch will be discussing his Daf Yomi column at New York’s Congregation Rodeph Sholom on March 5 at 7 p.m. The event is free. To reserve tickets click here.
The subject of Tractate Avoda Zara, which Daf Yomi readers have been studying for the last few weeks, is idol worship. But the Talmud was written in a time and place where virtually everyone who wasn’t Jewish was, by the rabbis’ definition, an idol-worshipper. Ancient Romans and Persians alike practiced religions that involved offering sacrifices to statues that represented their gods. This would change over the centuries, as Christianity and Islam, the other Abrahamic faiths, evolved out of Judaism and spread around the world. Jewish relations with Christians and Muslims were far from happy, as we know from history, but Jewish authorities considered them to be fellow monotheists, bound by an ethical code. Not so with the ancient pagans, who were considered to be something between atheists and demon-worshipers, capable of any iniquity.
As a result, Tracate Avoda Zara is really less about idol-worship than it is about how Jews should relate to pagans in general. Idol-worship is one of the worst sins in Judaism, but in this section of the Talmud, the rabbis don’t seem much disturbed by the possibility that a Jew might be tempted to commit it. Rather, they are concerned with patrolling the boundaries between Jewish and pagan society, using idol-worship as a kind of all-purpose excuse to enforce Jewish self-segregation. At moments, however, the excuse wears thin and the rabbis’ real concerns can be glimpsed: not just idol-worship, but what we now call “assimilation,” the possibility that a Jew would become so well-integrated into gentile society that he would stop being Jewish.
One of the main sites of potential contact between Jews and non-Jews is eating and drinking, which are by their nature occasions for sociability. Jewish dietary laws already introduce a barrier here, because Jews cannot eat many foods that non-Jews eat, such as pork—a taboo that the ancient Romans found weird and hilarious. (When the philosopher Philo of Alexandria went on a diplomatic mission to the Roman emperor Caligula, hoping to get justice for the Jews of his city, Caligula mockingly asked him why Jews don’t eat pork.)
But in chapter two of Tractate Avoda Zara, the rabbis explain that other foods, which do not raise kashrut issues, cannot be eaten by Jews if they are prepared, or even just owned, by gentiles. The most important of these is wine, the common accompaniment to any meal in the ancient world. Just as Jews cannot eat pagans’ meat because it may have been sacrificed to an idol, so they cannot drink wine that might have been involved in pagan rituals. Indeed, the ban is so broad that Jews cannot derive any benefit from such wine: Not only can’t they drink it, they also can’t buy or sell it.
The Gemara points out, however, that there are some kinds of wine that pagans do not use in their libations, such as cooked wine. Why is this wine also prohibited to Jews? Here the rabbis introduce a second, backup reason, the halakha of “exposure.” As a general rule, it is forbidden for Jews to drink wine or water that has been left exposed in an open container, for fear that it will be contaminated by the venom of a snake. This seems like a pretty unlikely contingency, but the rabbis take it quite seriously, discussing whether snakes are drawn to various other foodstuffs as well, such as melons. Because gentiles are not attentive to this danger, any wine in their possession must be considered potentially exposed, so Jews must avoid it. This is a kind of public-health supplement to the original rule about drinking pagans’ wine, covering any possible loopholes.
It is sociability, rather than idolatry, that the rabbis are mainly concerned to prevent.
It is when the rabbis extend the ban to beer, as well as wine, that their actual agenda becomes unmistakable. Beer is not used in pagan rituals and it is not liable to poisoning by snakes; so why can’t a Jew drink a pagan’s beer? The answer, in Avoda Zara 31b, is straightforward: “It is due to marriage,” explains Rabbi bar Chama. In other words, drinking beer together promotes friendships, and friendships between Jews and gentiles might lead to intermarriage. It is sociability, rather than idolatry, that the rabbis are mainly concerned to prevent.
The same reasoning is invoked in Avoda Zara 35b, in relation to the ban on Jews eating the bread of gentiles: This, too, is “due to marriage.” Apparently, Yehuda HaNasi himself was once offered a loaf of bread baked by a gentile, and it was so tempting that he wished he could eat it: “How exquisite is this bread! What did the sages see that caused them to prohibit it?” The Gemara explains that Yehuda HaNasi was wondering whether the ban was still in force even in circumstances where there was no socializing between Jews and pagans involved—for instance, “in the field.” Nevertheless, the rabbis emphasize that Yehuda HaNasi did not revoke this ban; Jews can only eat bread baked by a Jewish baker. One sage, Aivu, tried to get away with eating pagans’ bread in a field, and was excommunicated for his sin: “Do not speak with Aivu, as he eats bread of Arameans,” instructed Rabbi Nachman bar Yitzchak.
When it comes to oil, however, the Sages encounter a disagreement that raises a fascinating question about rabbinic jurisprudence. According to Rav, it is forbidden for Jews to consume oil belonging to gentiles; but Yehuda HaNasi permitted it. This perplexes the rabbis, since Yehuda HaNasi was one of the greatest tannaim—the compiler of the Mishna, known simply as “Rabbi”—and it is strange that he would go against the rabbinic ban. According to Rav, the ban on oil was introduced by the biblical Daniel, and so Yehuda HaNasi could not have overturned it. After all, there is a principle that “a court cannot void the statements of another court unless it is greater than it in wisdom and in number,” and Daniel was certainly superior to Yehuda HaNasi.
Rav offers a different explanation, however. According to him, the ban on eating the oil of gentiles was introduced not by Daniel but by Shammai, as one of the “18 matters” where the ruling of Shammai supersedes that of Hillel. These rulings are so authoritative that they can never be overturned, even by the prophet Elijah. On what basis, then, did Yehuda HaNasi permit the consumption of oil? The answer suggests that there is a final authority in Jewish law, even higher than Elijah: the Jewish people themselves. The prohibition on oil, the Gemara explains, “did not spread” among the Jewish people—that is, it never became a recognized part of Jewish practice. And there is a rule that “the Sages issue a decree upon the community only if most of the community is able to abide by it.” This powerful principle introduces a measure of democracy into Jewish lawmaking; ultimately, the law must conform to the people, just as the people must conform to the law.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.