09 Feb 2018

Touring the Talmud: Aboda Zara 19-25 (Shabbat Mishpatim) – Touch the Sky

Touring the Talmud: Aboda Zara 19-25

Paganism is seen as the base mode of humanity in the Talmud. Pagans and idolators are not welcomed into the conscious, moral, human society by its scholars. Not because their religion is different per se, but because they are void of a life that is self-examined and do not work to reach refined character and virtuous humanity. This week we look at the spectrum of the human condition its heights and depths and those who fall in between. We learn how we see Israel, Pagans, and the average gentile and how we engage with them in society. 

Touch the Sky

‘Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes…I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God’. 

— Ralph Waldo Emerson


The extremes of the human capacity for good and evil are staggering. As a species and as individuals we are capable of acting in ways so benevolent and kind that it can save people from death and despair and we can be so heinous and vile that we cripple people and cause them immense agony and suffering.

Humans, after all, are a type of primate and we fit into the primate club along with the other baboons, monkeys and chimpanzees. Yet, humans are also utterly unique from every other animal on the planet.

Whilst we have modes of aggression that are similar to other primates, only humans can be passive-aggressive. We sense how thought, feeling and perspective works for other members of our species like other primates can with what is called Theory of Mind, but only humans have Secondary Theory of Mind — complex understandings of what diverse personalities and psychologies are thinking and how they all affect each other —we can follow a soap opera with minimal effort. Primates show empathy within their species, but only humans can extrapolate empathy to all life. We have language, consciousness and thought.[1]


The Talmud’s overarching question in this week’s pages is, where on this spectrum do humans choose to lead their lives? Are we living more on the primal side of things, driven by the primate-mammal in us or are we living on the more spiritual side, driven by the conscious and free human mind? We can choose.

This question stems from the tractate’s central theme of idolatry or foreign worship. It sees the idolator as steeped in primal, self-absorbed behaviour with minimal aspects of the higher human consciousness and sensitivities at work. And it sees the people of Israel, however, as humans who live as free, conscious, spiritual beings.

A generalisation? Yes. But it is not a rigid one. It comes from the idea that the way people tend to behave and think is socially learned and transmitted and thus manifests in large social groups. But people can change.

In our discussions we recognise a range of human behaviours and a sensitivity to what is driving a particular person or an aggregate of people. We learn that gentiles can live highly virtuous lives and merit the World to Come[2] as Jews can be considered idol worshippers[3]. We are all human beings after all and our behaviours have vast ranges.


The path of least resistance for us is to give in to our powerful ancient, animalistic drives. These are rooted in the parts or structures of our brains that we share with the animals who came before us. They form earlier in our development and hold great sway in our thoughts and actions. What I will call the Primate Human allows the reptilian aspect of the brain which he shares with fellow primates, the amygdala, to dominate the executive decisions of His life[4].

The Talmud sees this as an endemic trait of general humanity.

When the Serpent came upon Eve (the primal woman) he instilled in her purification. (Daf 22b)

Israel, however, was given Torah and a way to emerge from their reptilian influences.

 Israel, who stood at Mount Sinai, ceased to bear this purification.  (ibid.)

 The Primate Human is governed by the genetic code of survival. It is based in fear and selfishness.

The predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness…The genes are master programmers, and they are programming for their lives. They are judged according to the success of their programs in coping with all the hazards that life throws at their survival machines (our bodies)…To a survival machine, another survival machine (which is not its own child or another close relative) is part of its environment, like a rock or a river or a lump of food. It is something that gets in the way, or something that can be exploited. It differs from a rock or a river in one important respect: it is inclined to hit back. This is because it too is a machine that holds its immortal genes in trust for the future, and it too will stop at nothing to preserve them. 
(Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene)


The Spiritual Human has grown and learned to be the master of his life and choices. He chooses not what his genetic drives want, but what is best for him and his world as the situation requires.

A Spiritual Human is primarily interested in a life of meaning and relationship. He wishes to be engaged with the world and God. He is thus willing to do what it takes to live in such a way even if it means risking danger, pain and discomfort.

The Primate Human is quite firmly of the animal kingdom. The Spiritual Human is of this kingdom but while his origins are there, and he interacts with it, he emerges beyond it. He honours it, but does not compromise the nature of his whole and integrated identity because of it.

The Primate Human always looks first at what is in something for him and what he can take from it. The Spiritual Human looks first at what he can contribute, how he can share and help and in turn, grow.

There are many tactics that the Primate Human will use in order to secure his island of indifference and selfishness[5].


There is one line in our readings this week that sets the Primate Humans apart from the Spiritual ones. It is how we relate to God and His commandments, but it is couched in how we relate to our human relationships.

Content is the man who fears God and greatly desires His commandments (Psalms, 112:1)

 Desires His commandments — Ribbi Elazar said: ‘His commandments and not the reward of His commandments. As we learned, ‘Do not be like the servant who serves the master in order to get a prize for it. Be rather like the servant who serves for no ulterior motives’. (Daf 19)


In other words, is it what I can get out of the relationship for myself that matters? Or is it the relationship itself that matters to me? The Primate Human cares only about the reward, not the act per se or what the act means. He only cares about the payoff he can get from doing the act.

The mature and whole person knows that it is the relationship itself that is everything. It is the reality of bonding with another in love. In this case, God Himself. The reward is the very fruit of his labour — the result of the act itself.

One who serves [God] out of love occupies himself in the Torah and the mitzvot and walks in the paths of wisdom for no ulterior motive: not because of fear that evil will occur, nor in order to acquire benefit. Rather, he does what is true because it is true, and ultimately, good will come because of it.
(Rambam, Teshuba, 10:2)

But this does not all square as we might expect. Using selfishness as a criteria to determine one’s level of virtue and spirituality seems to fail when we learn of how one is to relate to Torah study. It would appear to be quite self-centred!

 One only learns from a place in which his heart desires. (Daf 19a)

Levi and Ribbi Shimon son of Ribbi were sitting before Ribbi and they finished studying a book. They discussed which book they should study next. Levi said ‘Proverbs’ and R Shimon said ‘Psalms’. They pressed Levi and brought out Psalms. When they reached the (second verse) and read ‘in his Torah he meditates daily and nightly’ explaining that ‘his’ here means the person who is studying, and learned from it that one only learns in a subject that his heart desires, Levi said: ‘Ribbi, you just gave me permission to leave!’ (ibid.)

One can say that both the Primal Human and the Spiritual Human are aiming at a personal goal. One may be ‘higher’ than the other, but both are personal nonetheless. Yet, if we look closer, we can define a key difference. What the Spiritual Human aims for is not the personal, but the intimate.


I can have intimacy with various people and things without it being personal. The major difference between the intimate and the personal is that the personal resents alternatives while the intimate is grateful for alternatives. The personal is possessive while the intimate shares.

For example, if I am a scientist and I am studying something that I take personally, any alternative explanations or possibilities will be seen by me as threatening. I will perceive it as attempting to take away what is mine. If, however, I have an intimacy with what I am studying — I know it well and spend a great deal of time trying to understand it further — but I do not see it as definitively mine, alternative suggestions only enhance and enliven my experience of it.

If I am a singer and I have a way of singing a particular song, if it becomes personal, any attempt of another singer to sing the song in his own way will be threatening to me. But if it is intimate, I will respect other versions that are sung.

The Torah that one studies becomes an intimate endeavour to him. It is highly meaningful to him. And therefore we are taught that one can not learn from just anyone. There must be a chemistry, a connection.

 A person does not merit learning from just anyone. (Daf 13a)

 The only alternatives that I will not tolerate in intimate endeavours are false ones. Those attempts that cannot truly be considered as other possibilities. So an explanation that does not follow the scientific method or a rendering of a song that is not on key or sensitive to the music, or Torah that does not fit within its given context, is not acceptable because it violates the respect, reality and truth of the item that I care for.

When true sharing can occur and individuals can genuinely lend themselves to collaboration, mutual respect and love – a beauty beyond words shines through. It is the presence of God in the unification of Creation’s diversity.

The difference between a Primate Human’s view and involvement in the world and a Spiritual Human’s is vastly different. So much so, that it is as if two different species walk side by side on the earth. They play by different rules, think in different paradigms and focus on entirely different goals of life. The Primate Human lives from drives of fear and uncertainty, while the Spiritual Human lives with motives of truth, love and sharing.


The Primate Human is an idolater. Idol worship cannot be intimate, it does not, by definition include God and it is the realm of self-centred childishness and selfishness. A Primate Human like his fellow primate animals sees the entire world this way. We therefore specifically shun idolators, not gentiles, and aim to keep them from our social circles. We do not aid their life and aspirations in any way. We give them no form of recognition or affirmation. We show them no mercy.

You are not to cut with them covenant, you are to show no mercy – (לא תחנם)  lo tehonem
(Deut. 7:2)

 The Hakhamim see in that commandment all variations of the root חן:

We do not allow them to reside (hanaya – חניה) on our land.

We do not see them as bearing the beauty and grace of the human condition.

Do not attribute beauty or positive light (hen – חן) to them.

We give them nothing without payment.
Give them nothing for free (hinam – חנם)


A gentile, on the other hand, who strives to live a moral and ethical life, and aims to discover truth, thus emerging from the binds of the primal selfish genes that he has inherited as a once primate human, is recognised as a human being who resides within the spiritual spectrum.

The prohibition to show mercy [and all the elements derived from this verse] apply specifically to the seven nations that lived in the Land of Canaan, but not other nations. This is because the [seven] were especially enmeshed in idol worship.
(Tosafot, 20a)

The prohibition is not to have mercy on Idol Worshippers…And a gentile who wishes to reside in our land may not until they accept upon themselves not to worship idols.
They may then, have permission to reside with us.
(Rambam, Book of Commandments, 50-51)

We have already explained that all of these prohibitions applied only in their times when the nations were worshipping idols and were repugnant in their deeds and foul in their attributes…But the other nations which [today] are governed in the ways of religion and are cleansed from these foul attributes, and to the contrary, are admonished on account of them, there is no doubt that these prohibitions have no place or application to them. 
(R Menahem Me’iri (1249-1306), Bet HaBehira, Aboda Zara, 22a)

There is no prohibition to speak in praise of, or to admire something about anyone who is not an idol worshipper. And in situations where there is benefit that can come from this regarding more cordial relations and the like, it is then good to do so and to publicise it…it is permitted in all like situations. 
(R Eliezer Waldenberg (1915-2006), Tsits Eliezer, 15:47)

The Spiritual Human lives in Torah and wisdom and their vision of life is one of contemplation and care.

 Even the mundane speech of the students of Hakhamim requires study. (19b)

Fear drives the life of a Primate Human and fear reduces us to nothing. It drives us to cower in self-protection and in this state of mind we will do almost anything, believe in almost anything in order to keep our bodies and minds feeling safe and sound.

The shield that the Primate Human uses to protect himself from awakening and seeing a world as it is rather than as he dreams it to be is cynicism. Behind the wall of cynicism and mockery one is protected from the need to question one’s actions, one’s beliefs, one’s choices or one’s motives. One is saved from needing to spiritually grow.

The cynics who do not hear rebuke due to their mockery, have no way to correct themselves other than through [experiencing] suffering which they cannot easily deflect with their cynical laughter. 
(Ramhal, Mesilat Yesharim, 5)

The Spiritual Human does not laugh at the world, he instead seeks meaning in all that he observes. He seeks all that will enlighten him and bring him closer to truth.


The value that human consciousness brings with it is freedom. We are fundamentally free and capable of choosing how we will live our lives. At the very least, when in situations that are not of our choosing we can choose how we will respond and deal with such situations.


Israel is prompted to choose life in their freedom. There is no surer way to bind oneself to Life than to build a consistent and intimate bond with the Source of Life Himself.

A person must aim his heart and the totality of his behaviour to one goal, knowing God, blessed be He. The [way] he rests, rises, and speaks should all be directed to this end. 
(Rambam, De’ot, 3:2)

The path to this level of connection is therefore presented in our readings this week.

Rabbi Pineḥas ben Ya’ir would say: Torah study leads to care in the performance of mitzvot. 
Care in the performance of mitzvot leads to diligence in their observance. 
Diligence leads to cleanliness of the soul. 
Cleanliness of the soul leads to abstention from evil. 
Abstention from evil leads to purity. 
Purity leads to piety. 
Piety leads to humility. 
Humility leads to fear of sin. 
Fear of sin leads to holiness. 
Holiness leads to the Divine Spirit. (Daf 20b)

For Israel it is union with God or bust. We are prophets or we die trying.

Israel, if they are not themselves prophets they are studying to be prophets. (Pesahim 66a)


Israel’s land and country was meant to be a place in which the collective consciousness would be comprised of Spiritual Humans living with the presence of God among them.

The eyes of God your Lord are upon [the land] from the beginning of the year to its end. 
(Deut. 11:12)

To the place that God your Lord chooses…to put His name there, to have it dwell, you are to seek it and come there. (Deut. 12:5)

They shall make me a sanctuary and I shall dwell among them. (Exodus 25:8)

In this environment the consciousness of all that is within it rises with our own. Even the animals sing to God.

“And the cattle took the straight [vayyisharna] way, on the way to Beit Shemesh; they went along the highway….” (I Samuel 6:12). The Gemara asks: What is the meaning of the word vayyisharna? Rabbi Yoḥanan says in the name of Rabbi Meir: It means that they recited a song [shira]. And Rav Zutra bar Toviyya says that Rav says: It means that they straightened [yishru] their faces so that they were opposite the Ark and recited a song.

Even the criminals of Israel value wisdom.

An incident occurred involving several students of Rabbi Akiva who were traveling to Keziv. Along the way, bandits encountered them and said to them: Where are you going? Rabbi Akiva’s students said to them: To Akko. Once they reached Keziv, Rabbi Akiva’s students separated from the bandits. At this point the bandits said to them: Whose students are you? The students said to the bandits: We are students of Rabbi Akiva. The bandits said to them: Fortunate are Rabbi Akiva and his students, as they were never harmed by an evil person. (Daf 25b)

Of course, it goes without saying that the resident gentiles are part of, and considered special, in that environment.

You are commanded to sustain a resident alien, as it is stated: “And he shall live with you” (Leviticus, 25:35)
(Daf 20a)


People who wish to, can grow beyond the depths of the primate bottom and slowly, with effort and conviction, activate their own divinity. After all, we are taught that every human bears a soul and being that is divine.

God created humankind in His image, in the image of God He created it. (Gen. 1:27)

And God, Lord, formed the human of dust from the soil, and He blew into his nostrils the breath of life. (Gen 2:7)

Yet while Torah sees this as the endemic quality of Israel in potential, it is not exclusive to them. Anyone can reach God[7].

I bring heaven and earth as my witness: whether it be a Jew or a gentile, a man or a woman, a slave or a maidservant, it [only depends] on their deeds as to whether they have the Divine Spirit resting upon them. (Tanna Debei Eliyahu, 9)

Any one of the inhabitants of the world whose spirit motivates him and he understands with his wisdom to set himself aside and stand before God to serve Him and minister to Him and to know God, proceeding justly as God made him, removing from his neck the yoke of the many plans which people seek, he is sanctified as holy of holies. God will be His portion and heritage forever and will provide what is sufficient for him in this world….(Rambam, Shemita veYobel, 13:13)

A person who lives in one’s own head, who mocks truth and value, has the potential to grow, to change, and emerge beyond the simple selfish genes that make him. He can master them instead of them mastering him and he can, in this mastery, live to the heights of human potential. But we kid ourselves if we think that it is easily accessible or straight forward. It is not.

There are setbacks upon setbacks; all strong and quite difficult. Barrier after barrier, locks and bolts; after which a person toils to remove many, many still remain. 
(Mesilat Yesharim, Introduction, Dialectic Version)

But as we strive to unlock the vast potential of the human condition and reach a spiritual nexus with the divine. We begin to uncover unimagined strength and ability. We become filled with grace, love and compassion. And we, in our flesh, touch the sky and walk with God.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joseph Dweck

Touring the Talmud Aboda Zara 19-25


Chapter #1: Teaches us the proper mannerisms for business with idol worshipers.
 Chapter #2: Deals with some more personal interactions (which includes eating their food). 
Chapter #3: Begins to deal with prohibitions regarding actual items of worship.
 Chapter #4: Speaks of how items can be regarded or disregarded as items of worship, and how wine can become ‘wine used for  sacrificial libation’.
Chapter #5: Deals with the prohibition of having any sort of benefit from ‘libation’ wine.

Daf 19


A person is praiseworthy if he ‘returns’ from a habit while he is still fully capable of engaging in his bad habit. Such a person loves the commandments themselves and not the reward.

A person can only study Torah from subjects that attract him, and in a place that his heart desires.

Breadth of knowledge before depth.

The positive consequences of studying Torah in a proper manner.

The negative consequences of studying Torah in an improper manner.

A person who learns from only one scholar (specific approach/philosophy of study) will not see any good come of his study.

A person should split his study into thirds: Scripture, Mishna, Talmud.

Both someone unfit to teach who teaches and someone fit to teach who does not are ‘murderous’.

We should learn even the mundane speech of a scholar.

The paths of those who engage in Torah are successful.

One must guard his mouth from defamation and use it for Torah study.


R”Meir: It is forbidden to sell something that grows from the ground – while it is still attached to the ground – to an idol worshipper.

R”Yehuda: One may sell things that are attached to the ground to an idol worshipper if there is a condition made to uproot it.


Daf 20

The source of the prohibition to sell things that are attached to the ground to an idol worshiper:

‘Lo Tehonem’ (Devarim 7, 2), This verse has triple meaning:

1. Do not give them residence on your land.
2. Do not attribute beauty to them.
3. Do not give them free gifts.

The second and third elements of the prohibition are discussed.

A person must take care to keep from promiscuous thoughts.

Characteristics of the Angel of Death are discussed.

Torah as a source for character refinement, and ultimately, a relationship with God.

The argument between R”Meir and R”Yehuda in the Mishna is broadened to animals (renting large domesticated animals to idol worshippers is prohibited since the animal will do work on the Sabbath; selling is rabbinically prohibited as a safeguard) as well:

  • R”M – it is only permitted to sell a slaughtered animal to an idol worshipper.
  • R”Y – It is permitted to sell [alive] on condition to be slaughtered.


Regarding selling/renting land to idol worshipers:

R”Meir Israel Syria Elsewhere R”Yehuda Israel Syria Elsewhere
Fields No selling, No renting. No selling, No renting. Renting,
No selling.
Fields   No selling, No renting. Renting, No selling. Renting and selling.
Houses No selling, No renting. Renting, No selling. Renting and selling. Houses Renting, No selling. Renting and selling. Renting and selling.

All agree that a bathhouse should not be rented out, as people will see it open on the Sabbath and assume that its owners are still Jewish.


The Gemara explains each element of the argument between R”Meir and R”Yehuda.

A bathhouse was not something that was normally rented out and therefore people would assume that the owner was desecrating the Sabbath if they saw it open on the Sabbath.

Daf 22

The Gemara explains how Jewish and non-Jewish business partners are to deal with earnings made on the Sabbath.

Chapter #2: Deals with some more personal interactions (which includes eating their food).
  • Do not leave your animal unattended with an idol worshipper, as they are suspected of bestiality.
  • A woman should not be left alone with idol worshipper, as they are suspected of illicit relationships.
  • A man should not be left alone with an idol worshipper, as they are suspected of murder.

GEMARAThe Gemara brings a source that indicates that idol worshippers are not suspected of bestiality. Four answers are offered:

  • Rab – They are not suspected of bestiality with their own animals as it is detrimental to the animal. Details of his opinion are discussed.
Daf 23
  • Rabina – The Mishna, that states that they are are suspected, is being preemptive and cautious.
  • R’ Pedat – The Mishna is the opinion of R”Elazar who holds they are suspected, the other source is the opinion of Hakhamim.
    • The Gemara proves that there is indeed such an argument between R”E and Hakhmaim.
    • Since an animal cannot be brought as a sacrifice if it was used for bestiality, buying animals from idol worshippers for sacrifice is discussed.
Daf 24
  • The Red Heifer.
  • The Gemara presents instances throughout history were the people of Israel accepted animals from idolatrous sources for sacrific
  • R”Yohanan – Bestiality is only physically damaging to an animal before it reaches maturity. The Mishna suspects the idol worshipper of bestiality with a mature animal, as it is will not cause physical damage. The other source talks of a case before maturity and the idol worshipper is not suspected.

The Gemara discusses animals singing praise to God.Daf 25

Attempts to identify ‘Sefer HaYashar’ – ‘The Book of the Straight’ – (mentioned twice in scripture: when Joshua stops the sun [Joshua 10, 13] and when king David mourns the deaths of King Saul and his son Jonathan [Samuel 2, 1, 18]).

The Gemara asks why the Mishna doesn’t sate that the reason for a woman not to be left alone with an idol worshipper is that they are suspected of murder. Two answers are given.

The Gemara outlines precautionary measures to take when traveling with idol worshippers.

[1] See Sapolsky, Robert. Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Bodley Head, 2017.
[2] Sanhedrin, 105a; Rambam, Teshuba, 3:5.
[3] Daf 15b
[4] Cozolino, Louis. Why Therapy Works: Using Our Minds to Change Our Brains. W.W. Norton and Co., London.
[5] It is important to note, however, that fundamental selfishness does not preclude superficial altruistic behaviours. They happen all over the animal kingdom, but they happen only for selfish purposes. No animal helps only for the value and ideal of helping. They help because they are genetically programmed to do so. Statistically, certain altruistic behaviours enhance the odds for genetic survival and so they have become part of natural behaviour. When we speak of selfishness we speak of it in its ultimate sense as a goal, not necessarily as a local, detectable behaviour.  Cf. Dawkins, R. The Selfish Gene.
[6] See also Rashba, I:8.
[7] See also Hakham Obadia Yosef z”l, Anaf Ets Abot, s.v. כל ישראל יש להם חלק לעולם הבא.