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February 25, 2011 / 21 Adar 1, 5771
Unravelling the Mishnah Avodah Zarah

Chapter 4 Mishnah 1 & Mishna 2

This Mishnah is better understood when connected to the Mishnah which follows

Rabbi Ishmael says, "If three stones are (placed) next to each other and beside a Mercurius, they are prohibited but two stones are permitted." The Sages say that those (stones) that obviously belong to it are prohibited but those which do not appear to be related to it are permitted.

Avodah Zarah Chapter 4, Mishnah 1

Explanation
Objects which are or have been used for worship of other deities cannot be used for other purposes by Jews. These objects or in some cases stones could possibly still retain some sort of spiritual value to its worshippers. The question the Mishnah asks is what constitutes an object of worship?

Rabbi Ishmael, who lived in the 2nd century C.E., claims that three arranged stones next to a Mercurius constitute an object of worship but two stones do not. A Mercurius is an image of the Roman deity Mercury, the god of eloquence, skills, theft and the gods' messenger. In the Egyptian pantheon he was referred to as Thoth the scribe of the gods and the god of wisdom, magic and mysterious doctrines. The Mishnah understands a Mercurius as a statue or a pillar or a square base upon which was mounted a bust or head, often double faced, that was representative of Mercury. The sages, who overruled Rabbi Ishmael, claimed that any stones associated with the statue (whether they are part of it, or have fallen away from it) are prohibited to be used by Jews.

Mishnah 2

Avodah Zarah Chapter 4, Mishnah 2

(If a Jew) found on its head, coins or clothing or objects, then these are permitted, but twigs with grapes or garlands of ears of corn or wine or oil or fine flour, or anything which is similar to what might be placed on and offered on an alter is prohibited to be used by a Jew.

Comment
What constitutes an object of worship and under what circumstances can one decide to make use of an object that might have been used for such purposes? Could the stones or the wood be used to construct one's house? Could they be cleaned up, polished and sold in the market place? Mishnah 2 explains that if one finds coins or clothes on what was once or currently is a statue of Mercurius or any other deity for that matter, that items which could not be construed as objects used for worship were permitted for usage and objects that were part of some sacrificial system were prohibited. Could the rabbis have been so sensitive because these objects had sanctity or were they simply protecting themselves from a possible hostile reprisal?

If the rabbis were concerned with foreign objects having sanctity then Jewish law suggests some parallels. The Talmud distinguishes between religious objects that are commanded and objects that supplement the fulfillment of a commandment. Objects that are commanded are objects like Tefillin and Mezuzot. They are called tashmishei mitzvah. Objects which enhance a commandment are called tashmishei kedushah. An etrog holder or yadayim (Torah pointer) is a tashmishei kedushah.

What do you think the authors of the Mishnah would think if they passed by a cemetery and saw stones or flowers placed on top of grave markers? Would they think this practice was an act of worship or would they understand it to be an act of veneration? Would they permit us to recreate something of the atrophied grave markers and sell them in the marketplace or should they retain some sanctity?

The complete Hebrew text for Avodah Zarah may be found online at http://www.bmv.org.il/shiurim/az/az-h.html

This week's Mishnah lesson was written by
Rabbi Charles Simon,
Executive Director of the FJMC and author of
"Building A Successful Volunteer Culture: Finding Meaning in Service in the Jewish" Jewish Lights Publishing
.

The opinions expressed in this Unraveller are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the FJMC.


FJMC Yom HaShoah Yellow Candles
For those who do not know the original concept, the Yellow Candle is just another Holocaust observance among the many that exist.› But the FJMC Yellow CandlesŰ Yellow Candlesare different.› They relate directly to Jewish religious life and to memory.› We are commanded to remember.› This program cannot be dismissed as an afterthought.› Every home should be given the opportunity to žLight a Candle and Preserve a MemoryÓ.› We remember, so that our children and future generations will know and understand their past, so that each will declare žHineni, here am I, a survivorÓ.
FJMC Yom HaShoah Yellow Candles

Birthright
No Limits: In Motion

Amazing Israel & Canada Israel Experience is happy to announce the return of our No Limits: In Motion trip for the Summer of 2011. This unique Taglit-Birthright Israel program is designed for people who use wheelchairs. Go rappelling in the North of Israel, visit a winery in the Golan heights, experience Shabbat In Jerusalem, go sailing in Tel Aviv, see the magic of the desert in the South of the country Ů all while participating on an accessible Taglit-Birthright Israel trip!
Appropriate for: All Jewish Backgrounds
Ages: 18-26
Tour Specifically designed for participants who use a wheelchair
Departing from both New York and Toronto
For more information contact: Nicole@routestravel.com

No Limits: Seeing Possibilities

Amazing Israel, Canada Israel Experience and the Perkins school for the Blind are excited to announce a unique Taglit-Birthright Israel trip for Summer 2011. No Limits: Seeing possibilities is a trip that has been specially designed for participants with visibility limitations. Experience all of Israel- from the lush north to the desert oasisŪs in the south. Enjoy the excitement of Tel Aviv and the uniqueness of Jerusalem Ů all on this accessible Taglit-Birthright Israel trip!
Appropriate for: All Jewish Backgrounds
Ages: 18-26
Tour Specifically designed for participants with visibility limitations
Departing from both New York and Toronto
For more information contact: Nicole@routestravel.com

Please forward these Taglit-Birthright trips to anyone who wishes to attend. Open to residents of USA, Canada. Other countries please contact Nicole@routestravel.com for availability.

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