Touring the Talmud: Aboda Zara 30-40 (Shabbat Tetsave/Zakhor) – Good Fences
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We continue our discussions of interaction with gentiles and focus on our buying and sharing of food with them and the implications on relationship and intimacy with them. Many restrictions were imposed upon Israel by its Sages in order to uphold integrity of self and covenant with God and these are discussed in this week’s pages. We pause here to contemplate the nature of various types of boundaries in general and to address why indeed, these boundaries and disciplines hold such a prominent and central place within Judaism.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’
— Robert Frost
‘I’m not as sweet as I used to be, but I’m far more loving’
— Brené Brown
MORE RESTRICTIONS THAN PROHIBITIONS
Jewish law has many restrictions. In the Torah alone, barring the additional decrees imposed by the Sages, there are 117 more proscriptions than prescriptions; more ‘dont’s’ than ‘do’s’.
My predecessor, Hakham David Nieto (1654-1728), addresses this in his book Esh Dat, and indicates that although we learn in the Mishna that ‘God gave us an abundance of commandments in order to give us merit’, it would nonetheless seem that with the restrictions considerably outnumbering the positive commandments, God had something else in mind:
Dan: The negative commandments outnumber the positive by 117!
Naftali: Indeed, it is so.
Dan: What are their punishments?
Naftali: Death, lashes, or being spiritually expelled.
Dan: If that is the case then R. Hanania b. Akashia should have said that God wished to punish Israel! For there are only 248 ways to achieve merit and there are 365 ways to sin!
(R. David Nieto, Esh Dat)
TORAH PROHIBITIONS ARE EXISTENTIAL IN NATURE
A strong point! Unless we examine the nature of these prohibitions and their purpose. It is not so much that God looks forward to punishing us, rather that He looks forward to keeping the integrity of our spiritual existence intact. Hakham
Nieto suggests that the commandments in their entirety are there to provide us a means with which to maintain our spiritual strength and wholeness both to ourselves and in our relationship with others — not the least of which is, with God.
Restrictions, then, are not set to diminish human freedom, but rather to ensure that human freedom does not destroy itself with an unfettered license.
A commandment — even in its restrictive nature — is given to us for our own good. Moses the Lawgiver, certainly claims that this is the very idea!
And now, Israel, what does God ask of you except to…keep the commandments of God and His laws which I command you today, to be good for you! (Deut. 10:13)
RABBINIC PROHIBITIONS ARE BOUNDARIES
Yet, we might still ask, why do we not suffice with God’s proscriptions? Must the Sages impose further sanctions beyond those detailed in the Torah? As one Israeli cab driver once said to my Rabbi: ‘If all we had to keep were the commandments of the Torah [as opposed to the additional decrees of the Sages] everyone would be observant!’
Well, perhaps, but with a bit of thought the driver’s insight would not be as likely to yield the positive results that he imagined. The prohibitions of the Hakhamim are quite different in nature from the prohibitions of the Torah. Torah’s commandments define a reality for us — what is good for us and what is not, what works to nourish our lives and what damages us. There are those who may choose not to recognise or live by that reality, but it is certainly the framework in which Torah presents itself to us.
See! I set before you today Life and Good and Death and Ill: In that I command you today to love God your Lord, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments, His laws and His regulations, and you shall stay living! (Deut. 30:16)
The decrees of the Sages that restrict our behaviours do not come to define reality. They come instead, to set boundaries and disciplines in order to ensure the integrity of how we live in reality. They draw lines for us that delineate the territory of life in which a Jewish person should live. Whereas the Torah itself commands us to refrain from something because it is existentially damaging to us, the Sages command us to refrain from something because it is prone to bring us closer to that which the Torah itself prohibits.
These boundaries are not unique to religious life; they are a part of successful human existence. We impose them on ourselves whenever we are caring for our own integrity and well-being and wish to interact with others in a viable and healthy way. They serve a crucial purpose for our physical, psychological and spiritual health and well-being. But it takes a mature individual to notice restrictions and boundaries as modes of care. Kindness and compassion cannot exist without them.
BOUNDARIES FOR HEALTHY LIFE
There are two major points in our lives in which boundaries must exist: between me and myself and between me and others. The boundaries that I set for myself are how I define what I will and will not do in how I care for myself. ‘I will get enough sleep’, ‘I will eat well’, ‘I will not react with anger’, ‘I will not treat myself with little value’. Then there are the self-imposed do’s and don’ts of how I interact with others: ‘I will say what I mean’, ‘I will ask for clarification rather than assume the intentions and thoughts of others’, ‘I will not use accusatory statements’, ‘I will not focus on the negative traits in others’. These boundaries ensure that my personal well-being is intact and the respect and individuality of others are recognised and upheld. Breaching these boundaries is a breach of integrity.
Boundaries work best when they regulate interaction and appropriate engagement. They thus should be clear and well-defined but also should not overpower or outshine the very entity for which they were built to protect.
FENCES, NOT WALLS
One way to understand it is to see a boundary as a fence rather than a wall. A fence stands clearly and is recognisable, yet one can also see what lies beyond it which it is meant to protect. A fence helps us maintain sight and awareness of what we are concerned with preserving. A wall does the opposite. It conceals what lies behind it and restricts any awareness or interaction with the entity for which it stands.
Boundaries are not meant to be walls. They are meant to be demarcations of place and appropriateness. They bring clarity and definition which allows for healthy sharing and interaction that keeps the integrity of the participating individuals intact. Walls shut us out and close us off, fences allow us to safely engage.
The restrictions of the Hakhamim are built to be fences.
The Men of the Great Assembly said: Make a fence (סייג) around the Torah. (Abot, 1:1)
And gentle fences at that!
It is hedged (סוגה) with lilies. (Song of Songs 7:3)
Even if the [law of Torah] is ‘hedged with lilies’ they do not breach it. (Sanhedrin 37a)
Hedged with Lilies — In other words, with a light warning and a minor delineation they refrain from transgression. (Rashi)
The Hebrew word for fence is seyag. It comes from the root סוג which also means type, kind or category; how we ‘fence off’ and define ideas and information. A seyag is a definition — it helps us clarify what something is by also showing us what it isn’t. A wall, on the other hand, keeps what is behind it in and what is outside of it out. It is not meant to be crossed nor to facilitate interaction. It is no wonder that the building of walls, rather than fences, at borders is seen to be so serious an issue!
BOUNDARIES ARE CHALLENGES FOR US
Boundaries, however, are terribly difficult for us because they are restrictive by nature. We intuitively feel that all restrictions are hurtful and encumbering while permissions are generous and kind. But in truth, it all depends on the nature of the restriction and the permission. There are permissions that can open a damaging door to us and restrictions that can keep us from harm.
The sanctions of the Sages — who hold Torah in trust — provide fences that safeguard our capacity for national integrity, healthy relationship and compassion. They ensure that our covenant with God remains alive and intact.
You are to keep my charge! (Leviticus, 18:30)
Rav Ashi said: ‘You are to keep My charge’, means that you must establish a safeguard (protective measures) for My charge. (Moe’d Katan 5a)
Yet, if these safeguards are built as walls instead of fences they inhibit our interactions with Torah, life and God rather than facilitate them. They would cut us away from interaction entirely. These restrictions had to be imposed with great sensitivity to this ideal.
The boundaries must be high enough in order to be clearly seen and minded while not so high and opaque that they seal us away from that which they protect. Our pages this week demonstrate this as the central responsibility of our Sages of blessed memory.
BOUNDARIES MUST BE SENSITIVE TO THE PEOPLE & CIRCUMSTANCES
A Rabbinic decree had to have been sensitive and relevant to the peoples’ lives and abilities. It had to be accepted by them as a discipline or it was repealed.
Rabbi Yoḥanan says: Our Sages sat and inspected the matter of gentiles’ oil and determined that its prohibition had not spread among the majority of the Jewish people, and our Sages relied upon the statement of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel and upon the statement of Rabbi Elazar bar Tzadok, who would say: The Sages issue a decree upon the community only if most of the community is able to abide by it. (Daf 36a)
Yet, it was not open to personal manipulation and rationalisation.
Ulla said: When the Sages decreed a decree in the West, (The Land of Israel), they would not reveal the reason behind it until twelve months had passed, lest there be a person who did not agree with it and would come to treat it with contempt. (Daf 35a)
Permitting previously set boundaries is at the discretion of the Sages, but they are not to allow too many at once so that the integrity of the concept of the fence itself is not compromised:
Yehuda Nesia said to Simlai (his attendant), you were not in the study hall last night when we permitted the oil of gentiles. Rabbi Simlai said to him: In our days, you will permit bread of gentiles as well. Rabbi Yehuda Nesia said to him: If so, people will call us a permissive court! As we learned in a mishna (Eduyyot 8:4): Rabbi Yosei ben Yo’ezer of Tzereida testified with regard to the eil kamtza, (a type of locust), that it is kosher, and with regard to the liquids of the slaughterhouse in the Temple that they are ritually pure, and with regard to one who touches a corpse that he is impure. And as a result, they called him: ‘Yosef the Permissive!’
We may also recognise a law to be a certain way but we may not publicise it to the masses in order to safeguard its value.
[Yosei ben Yo’ezer ruled leniently that one who is unsure whether or not he came in contact with a corpse in the public domain is ritually pure]…Rabbi Yoḥanan said: This is the halakha (the law), but we do not rule publicly to that effect. (Daf 37b)
So much of our behaviour and psychology is influenced and formed by those with whom we live and interact. Engaging with the gentile world, however, has always posed some level of threat for us. We know that at our core we are all human and we are much more alike than we are different. We are highly prone to taking on the thoughts and behaviours of those around us regardless of what they may be.
It is natural for a man’s character and actions to be influenced by his friends and associates and for him to follow the local norms of behavior. (Rambam, De’ot, 6:1)
We see this manifest in our pages through the references to food and intimacy. It is in these that our interactions and integrity are at the highest risk, because it is through these that we express ourselves socially. We are, after all, a social species.
When we wish to meet and spend time with someone we most often eat together. We ‘break bread’. We ‘have coffee’, ‘go to lunch’, ‘go for a drink’ — it is our most prevalent manner of socialisation. It is not surprising, then, that most of the restrictions that our Hakhamim instituted for us revolve around social eating and drinking.
There are decrees that restrict elements of eating bread baked and food cooked by a gentile (Daf 35b), as well as drinking the wine of a gentile (36b), and drinking intoxicating beverages together with a gentile (31b).
All these things like the bread, cooked foods, and the like are only prohibited in order to set boundaries [from engaging with gentiles] so that we do not come, in our involvement with them, to act in ways that are prohibitd to us. This is what is meant when [the Sages say] it is because of ‘marriage’. (Rambam, Commentary on the Mishna, Aboda Zara 2:6)
BOUNDARIES FACILITATE HEALTHY CONNECTION & INTERACTION
With all of these restrictions the Sages are careful not to restrict beyond what is required to ensure that the value of the Torah and our relationship with God is protected. Living our lives fully is just as important as refraining from its dangers. We never assume the existence of problems unless we have good reason to believe they are there.
When a person enjoys the hospitality of a homeowner in any place and at any time and that homeowner brings him wine, meat, cheese, or a piece of fish, it is permitted. There is no need to inquire concerning it. (Daf 39b)
[This law applies] even if he does not know him at all; all that he knows is that he is Jewish. If, however, [the host] has an established reputation for non-observance and for not paying attention to these matters, it is forbidden to accept his hospitality. (Rambam, Ma’akhalot Asurot, 11:26)
[Figs, grapes, zucchini, squash, watermelons and cucumbers that have holes are forbidden, lest a snake or other poisonous animal have bitten them]. Rabbi Eliezer said: A person may eat grapes and figs at night, and he need not have cause for concern, as it is stated: “The Lord preserves the simple” (Psalms 116:6). (This verse teaches that one need not fear that harm might befall him when he engages in commonplace activities). (Daf 30b)
Ribbi and his court permitted the oil of gentiles. Shemuel said to Rab: Eat it! Rab did not accept. Shemuel said: Eat it before I declare you an Elder who has rebelled!
(Yerushalmi, Aboda Zara 2:1)
Imposing restrictions that go beyond the purpose of ensuring proper interaction, but that instead seek to alienate completely are more dangerous than helpful.
God commanded the human saying: From every tree of the garden you may eat, but from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil — you are not to eat from it. (Gen. 2:16)
Yet the woman said to the serpent: ‘God has said: You are not to eat from it and you are not to touch it. (Gen. 3:3)
This is the meaning of that which is written: ‘Do not add to your words lest you be rebuffed and disappointed’. (Proverbs 30:6) Ribbi Hiya taught: [this means] don’t make a fence more important than the ideal which it guards! Lest the fence fall and destroy the saplings. God said don’t eat of the tree, He did not say don’t touch it. The serpent pushed her to touch the tree and she experienced no repercussion so she proceeded to eat from it. (Bereshit Rabba 19:3)
It is based on these principles, perhaps more prevalent among the Sages of Sephardi origin, that the question of enacting stringencies without strong reasoning is frowned upon. Take for example, the unique wording of Hakham Matloub Abadi (1889-1970) a venerable scholar of Aleppo who permitted the use of a dishwasher to wash both meat and dairy dishes together in the same cycle. When considering the stringency of washing the meat and dairy dishes separately he writes:
One who wishes to be stringent and use the dishwasher separately for meat and dairy dishes…is certainly permitted to be stringent upon himself. (Magen Ba’adi, 19)
Not praiseworthy, proper or desirable, but permitted. One is not deemed to be transgressing by enacting such a stringency. While Hakham Matloub was ruling in modern times, his principles were gleaned from those of Maimonides:
It is unfitting to leave people thinking that [something is prohibited] by any means! Rather, one must admonish them. And we tell them that that which they thought was prohibited is permitted, and the prohibition was a mistake. (Rambam, Letters, p.277)
BREACHES BREAK FAITH
And yet, when a true restriction is set, the breach is seen as a serious lack of integrity.
Aivo would eat bread of gentiles at the boundaries [of the fields]. Rava said to the students in the study hall, and some say that it was Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak who said to them: Do not speak with Aivo! As he eats bread of Arameans [in deliberate violation of a rabbinic decree]. (Daf 35b)
It is seen as though we are discarding our humanity in favour of the more primal, selfish reptilian drives when we cross boundaries. Biting snakes lie in wait on the other side of breached fence…
One who breaches a fence will be bitten by a snake. (Ecclesiastes, 10:9)
Our boundaries are what allow us to act kindly, have compassion and build bonds of friendship. The boundaries define for us how we will act and what we will allow ourselves to do and not do in order to uphold and maintain the integrity of our identity and the relationships we wish to cultivate.
Without boundaries we often do not trust ourselves to be safe around others. In such situations, instead of disciplining ourselves and imposing boundaries for ourselves we force others to change. That is not how Torah teaches us to act. We are not commanded to change the gentile, or to insist that others behave around us in a certain way. It is on us to determine what we will and will not accept and what we will allow ourselves to do. Anything else is simply manipulation.
BOUNDARIES AND COMPASSION
The most compassionate human beings are those with clear and integral boundaries. Lines clearly drawn as to their limits, abilities, and modes of self-care. Boundaries in this sense are signs of true maturity and acts of love to oneself and others.
It is for this reason that boundaries are essential to God when He is preparing Israel to receive the Torah, AND engage in covenant with Him.
God said to Moshe: ‘Go to the people…God will come down before the eyes of all the people, upon Mount Sinai. Fix boundaries for the people round about saying: Be on your watch against going up the mountain or against touching its border!…Now it was on the third day, when it was daybreak…Mount Sinai smoked all over since God had come down upon it in fire…God called Moshe to the top of the mountain, and Moshe went up. God said to Moshe: Go down, warn the people lest they break through to God to see, and many of them fall…But Moshe said to God: The people are not able to go up to Mount Sinai, for You Yourself warned us saying: ‘Fix boundaries for the mountain and make it sacrosanct!’ God said to him: Go, get down, and then come up you and Aharon with you, but the priests and the people must not break through to go up to God!
BOUNDARIES AND BELONGING
We feel bound by boundaries. But in that binding we find place, belonging, clarity and selfhood. And in those elements love, sharing and friendship can flourish. The greatest of our Sages who mastered these boundaries held close and meaningful friendhips with their gentile neighbours.
Shemuel and Ablet, [a gentile scholar], were sitting together, and others brought cooked wine before them. Ablet withdrew his hand [to avoid rendering the wine prohibited to Shemuel]. Seeing this, Shemuel said to Ablet that the Sages said: Cooked wine is not subject to the prohibition of wine used for a libation for foreign worship, [and therefore you need not withdraw your hand on my account]. (Daf 30a)
Antoninus would attend to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, and similarly the Persian official Adrakan would attend to Rab. When Antoninus died, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi said: The bundle [the bond/friendship] has come undone. When Adrakan died, Rav likewise said: The bundle has come undone. (Daf 10b,11a)
The bundle has come undone – Our love, in which our souls were tied to each other has been frayed. (Rashi, ibid.)
The more we know ourselves, take care of ourselves, and faithfully maintain the boundaries that define our place in the world and with others, the more we are able to grow in integrity, and respect and care for others in theirs. In living with boundaries we live lives of clarity and meaning and we save ourselves from the cold, blind, undifferentiated white noise of indifference.
Rabbi Joseph Dweck
Touring the Talmud
Aboda Zara 30-40
Chapter #1: Teaches us the proper mannerisms for business with idol worshipers.
Chapter #2: Deals with some more personal interactions.
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.
• This Mishna lists items that are not only prohibited to be eaten, but are also prohibited from being used for any type of benefit.
- The Mishna tells us that R”Yishmael asked R”Yehoshua about the (then) recent prohibition of cheese made by an idolator (as its prohibition could have included any type of gain) . R”Yehoshua does not give a clear answer.
The first item on the Mishna’s list is wine used for idolatrous worship and vinegar made from this type of wine. The Gemara brings the Biblical source for this prohibition.
The Gemara discusses the prohibition against drinking liquids left uncovered over night- Giluy, as we fear that a snake will drink from the liquid and leave poison behind.
The Gemara discusses certain wines that may be included/excluded in the prohibition of an idolator’s wine as well as the prohibition of giluy, such as boiled wine and diluted wine.
The Gemara discusses whether giluy applies to fruit, different types of sake poison and forbidden usage (other than consumption) of liquids that have been left uncovered.
Wine left in the possession of an idol worshipper is considered to be ‘idol worshipper’s wine’, unless it is sealed properly. The Gemara discusses different types of seals.
The prohibition of drinking alcoholic beverages (other than wine) made by idol worshippers is discussed. The source of the prohibition is social, so that we don’t hang around them too much and lose our identity as Yisrael. The alcohol itself is permitted, drinking with them is prohibited.
A tactic for drinking wine while traveling attributed to King Hadrian – saturating unbaked earthenware in strong wine – the earthenware fragments can be cleansed by just add water.
It is prohibited to derive any benefit from the wine absorbed by the fragments. The Gemara discusses the status of the fragments themselves.
Hides From ‘Dis-Heartened’ Animals
The hide of an animal used in the idolatrous practice of cutting out the heart of an animal is discussed. Methods of identification of such hides are brought.
It is permitted to derive benefit from non-kosher meat before it enters a place of idol worship but not after.
The Gemara discusses doing business with people going to and from houses of idol worship.
Earthenware Jugs, Leather Pouches
It is prohibited to use earthenware jugs or leather pouches that used to contain (long term) the wine of an idol worshipper. The Gemara discusses how a jug/pouch would be prohibited. Multiple ways to clean a prohibited utensil and certain foods that can be used in the jug/pouch even without cleaning it are discussed.
Grape Pits and Skins
It is prohibited to derive benefit from the dregs of an idol worshipper’s wine as long as they have moisture which is assumed to last for 12 months. Waiting 12 months without use is also a way to render an idol worshipper’s jug/pouch permissible to use.
This is a kosher fish that was prohibited to buy in a place that would mix it with wine, as the wine is prohibited. The prohibition is lifted in a place where wine is more expensive than the fish because we do not assume the wine will be used for this purpose.
The Cheese of Onyaqi
R”Meir (the author of this Mishna) proclaimed the cheese of ‘Onyaqi’ as prohibited from any sort of benefit since some of the cheese producers would solidify the cheese in the stomachs of animals used for idol worship.
Cheese made by an idol worshipper is prohibited only to eat (benefit is permitted), and it is on this list because it is similar to the the cheese of Onyaqi. Additionally, one of the scholars (briefly) suggests that regular cheese may itself be prohibited from deriving any sort of benefit.
If a prohibited item is used to solidify another food (as rennet solidifies cheese), even if the prohibited item cannot be tasted in the newly formed food, the food is prohibited.
The reasoning behind a rabbinic prohibition is not revealed until a year after it is instituted to allow for it to be accepted without contention.
The reason for the prohibition of idol worshippers’ cheese is debated.
The Mishna lists foods made by idol worshippers that is prohibited to be eaten, but may be used for other types of benefit.
It is prohibited to drink milk from an idol worshipper as he may have added non-kosher milk to the kosher milk.
It is prohibited to eat bread baked by an idol worshipper in order to limit social interactions with them. The Gemara exhibits that this prohibition is weaker than the others in the Mishna.
There is debate as to the reason of this prohibition. The Gemara adds that this prohibition has been repealed as it was not upheld, and the scholars have do not have authority to enact a ruling that cannot be followed by the people.
The Gemara demonstrates that the underlying theme behind most of the prohibitions in the Mishna is to limit interactions with idol worshippers in order to maintain strong Jewish identities and values.
The court of Ribbi Yehuda haNasi that repealed the prohibition against oil was asked to repeal the prohibition against bread, he responded that he would not as a single court should not repeal more than two prohibitions.
Yossei ben Yo’ezer repealed three prohibitions and was nicknamed ‘Yossei the permissive’. The Gemara outlines and explains each of the repealed prohibitions.
It is prohibited to eat food cooked by an idol worshipper in order to limit personal interaction. Types of food that do not fall under this prohibition are presented. The idol worshiper must have the intention to cook. The
Gemara discusses circumstances where he idol worshipper is only partially involved in the cooking. Specific foods and their cooking processes are dealt with.
Pickles that generally included wine in their brine are prohibited to be eaten (from an idol worshipper).
This fish was prohibited to eat as there is a non-kosher fish that is very similar to it and harvested together with it.
Ways of determining the kosher status of fish based on status quo.
Slice of ‘Hiltit’
It is prohibited to eat Hiltit that has been sliced by an idol worshipper since prohibited foods absorbed in the knife will dampen the sharp taste of the Hiltit.
Types of food that need a double seal and types of food that only require one seal (to ensure that an idol worshipper does not tamper with it) are outlined.
It is permitted to eat at the home of any Jew so long as they don’t have the reputation of disregarding the commandments.
Salt prohibited to consume as it is mixed with an unkosher fish.
The Mishna lists foods that are permitted to eat of an idol worshiper.
Milk Supervised by a Jew
If an idol worshipper milks a kosher animal and is aware/afraid that a Jew will see if he mixes in unkosher milk (or unkosher milk is more expensive), it is permitted to drink.
Fish that is Recognisable
The Gemara discusses how one may recognise a kosher fish. Fish fat and fish eggs may only be taken from an expert merchant who can recognize that the fish from which the fat/eggs have been taken was indeed kosher. If there is no expert to be found, the merchant is trusted to say that he saw the original fish and recognised it as kosher.
It is permitted to eat as it was not cut with an idol worshipper’s knife, even if it contains some slices.
Cake of soft Olives
We do not assume that wine was added to it.
Grasshoppers, certain vegetables and apple wine are permitted to be taken from the storehouse of an idol worshipper, but not from his storefront, as he drips wine on them to keep them fresh.
 Makkot, 3:16. ‘Rabbi Chananaia son of Akashia stated, God wanted to grant merit to Israel, therefore he gave them an abundance of instruction and commandments as it states, “Because God wants righteousness he increased the amount of Torah.…”
 1705, II, 8-12
 Literally, Mehokek in Hebrew: Baba Batra 15a.
 Only in Israel does one have such discussions with a cab driver!
 s.v. משום בשר נבלה
 See also Hulin, 56b and Rashi ibid. Cf. Yabia Omer, V, Yore De’a, 9:4.
 Shelat, Ma’ale Adumim, Jerusalem. 1995.