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January 28, 2011 / 23 Shevat, 577
Unravelling the Mishnah of Tractate Avodah Zarah

Avodah Zarah (strange worship) is the term that is commonly used to describe idolatrous practice. The tractate is based on the laws in the Torah that proscribe and forbid association and participation in idol or pagan worship. The phrase is interchangeable with avodat kokavim which translates as those who worship stars. It doesn't appear to be very relevant to the issues and concerns of today until one considers the way some of our right wing brethren relate to non-Jews in Israel, or when one thinks about certain standards of Kashrut that are being imposed upon the larger Jewish community. I know that makes you wonder, “what is he referring to?” Trust me, I have selected relevant mishnayot to illustrate my point.

When studying Mishnah one continuously needs to remind themselves that they are examing an oral tradition that was committed to writing. It is a tradition that reflects the period from the second century B.C.E. to the second century C.E.. From the time of Macabees to the height of the Roman empire and it has undergone a number of redactions.

The Mishnah of Avodah Zarah sheds light to some extent on how our ancestors understood early Christianity, Gnosticism and other oriental forms of worship.All of the people quoted in this tractate of Mishnah lived after the Bar Kokba rebellion in 135 C.E. This should help us to understand the world at the time of its writing.

The Babylonian Talmud (14b) informs us that there originally were four hundred chapters devoted to Avodah Zarah and only five have survived to be studied. This indicates that at the time of the writing our ancestors readily admitted they knew very little about the religious world that preceded them.

Finally; we will not study all of this tracate in sequence or in its entirety. So bear with me. The tractate is composed of five chapters.

  • Chapter one is concerned with when and how business may be conducted with idolaters.
  • Chapter two is concerned with their possessions and to what extant can they be used.
  • Chapter three is concerned with the use of their images or parts of them, including their places of worship.
  • Chapter four is concerned with the use of an idol, destroying an idol, buying an idolater's wine press; helping an idolater in vintage and wine preparation.
  • Chapter five is concerned with wine, and Jewish labourers, employing non-Jewish workers, Jews and idolaters sitting at a table with wine and the prohibitions surrounding idolatrous objects.

We begin with the Mishnah from Chapter 4:7 which poses a very interesting question.

Avoda Zarah 4:7

Avodah Zarah
Chapter 4:7

Some Romans asked the elders (the rabbis) while they were in Rome, “ If God doesn't desire idol worship, why does he not destroy it?”
The elders replied, “If they worshipped a thing for which the world has no need, He would do away with it; but, behold, they worship the sun and the moon and the stars and the planets. Should God make an end of the world because they are fools?”
They responded to the rabbis, “If this were so, let God put an end to what the world doesn't need and leave what the world does need.”
The rabbis responded, That would only strengthen the contention of those that worship them, since they would say, “Know that these are true deities, for, lo they have not been destroyed.”

Comment: It isn't often that one finds a theological discussion in the Mishnah, however, this one cuts to the chase. This Mishnah implies that polytheists can't distinguish between what is essential worship, a true god, and what is not. If the rabbis acceded to their argument and acknowledged the sun, moon, stars and planets were indespensbile, according to the reasoning of the polythiests, they would be worthy of worship. By saying people can worship things that aren't worthy of worship the rabbis changed the rules.

Could this discussion have taken place on a diplomatic mission to Rome? Perhaps but more likely, it reflected an understanding that people of the time were devoted to astrology, divination and believed that the Gods dwelt in the sky as stars and planets and it offered a suggested response to those who worked with non-jews should the question arise.

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.


Register here for the 11th World Wide Wrap
The 2011 World Wide Wrap is expanding the four walls of the synagogue, we want you to partner with other groups in the community who may not participate in the mitzvot of tefillin and help send tefillin and mezuzot to our brothers in South America. Please register now and tell us your plans, All clubs registered will receive extra help from Wrap Central to enhance your wrap.
Join groups from all over the world in this celebration of tefillin. Register today!

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 Candles™ 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 “Light a Candle and Preserve a Memory”.  We remember, so that our children and future generations will know and understand their past, so that each will declare “Hineni, here am I, a survivor”.
FJMC Yom HaShoah Yellow Candles

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 – 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 oasis’s in the south. Enjoy the excitement of Tel Aviv and the uniqueness of Jerusalem – 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.
These events are not affiliated with the FJMC. The FJMC is publicizing these events as a service to the community through our Israel Advocacy Program.

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