09 Mar 2018

Touring the Talmud: Aboda Zara 47-54 – Disillusions

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Touring the Talmud Aboda Zara 47-54

We continue in the fourth chapter of Aboda Zara, we continue discussing prohibited objects of idol worship. We examine as well, items brought as offerings to an idol and their halakhic status. We explain in this chapter how the prohibited status of an object of idol worship can be revoked. We delve here into the question of how we attribute meaning to the world and we question some of the important differences between fact and fiction and how our consciousness and awareness of God plays into our relationship with reality and illusion.


‘To develop working ideas efficiently, I try to fail as fast as I can’.

‘Unable to discern between what we know and what we pretend to know, we ultimately become victims of our own laziness and intellectual dishonesty’.

— Richard Feynman


Everything in our world is naturally miscellaneous. We are so used to having a sense of category and meaning for things, we forget that the concept of categories and meanings originated from our own minds. There is no such thing in the unconscious, natural world as mammals, reptiles, gasses, liquids or solids, flora and fauna, fruits, vegetables, trees and flowers, humans or animals without the human brains determination and recognition of them as such. Humans are essentially the consciousness of the universe. We are how the universe discovers and understands itself.

Meaning seems to exist only in the human mind. Many of the great existentialist philosophers would say that any meaning is inherently fictional and that the world itself as it is cannot bear any real meaning whatsoever. All meaning they would say, lies only in that which we attribute to things.

What then, defines the difference between what is imagined and what is real? Should we relate to meaning as a substantial aspect of reality or is it merely the stuff of fiction? Meaning does not and cannot exist without consciousness. If human consciousness is the only consciousness of the universe, then existentialists are correct. Given all we currently know about life in the universe, outside of the collective human conscious, the world is nothing but a vast expanse of meaningless matter.


That is, unless we look at the universe in which we find ourselves to be a system which exists within something else — a precursor to the universe. As a religious person, I would call that precursor God. The universe had to come from something and all that is in it had to have its potential for being within the singularity that was its precursor. We believe that the very first entity that brought everything into being would have to contain some aspect of consciousness, because consciousness emerged from it. As the Psalmist considers:

Shall He who implants the ear not hear, He who forms the eye not see? (Psalms, 94:9)

Add to that, shall He who brought forth consciousness not be conscious?

That über conscious being that we call God also provides the space within which our universe exists. There is an important term with which we speak of and understand God through Torah. We call Him HaMakom — lit. ‘The Domain’. This expresses the fact that God is the domain within which the world exists — He does not exist within it[1]. In other words, God does not inhabit the world like everything else — He is not a part of it. He is external to the system[2].

We see the world then as an expression of the ‘mind’ of God for it comes from Him. And we can know God through examining His expressions, His creations.

Contemplate what is implied in Moshe’s request: ‘Let me know Your ways so that I may know You’ (Exodus, 33:13)

It teaches us that to know His ways is to know Him. (Moreh Nebukhim, I:54)


What this means to us is that the understandings of the world that we come to are not solely our own, but discoveries, on our own level of understanding, of the thoughts of He who brought them into being. Just as we can gain insights into the thoughts of the minds that belong to others through exploration of their actions, behaviours and creations we can do so with the Creator through His world. In doing so, we share with Him.

We must do so through virtually jumping out of the system and sharing with God because no system can be defined from within itself. All systems can only be defined from the outside. We cannot use the elements of a system to define itself, as those very elements are part of the system which we seek to define! It is then a paradox. How does something within a system jump out and act on that same system?

It is like M. C. Escher’s picture of ‘Drawing Hands’.

The paradox is presented with two hands, a right and left, drawing each other. In the image, that which draws and that which is drawn — two levels which are usually hierarchical — turn back on themselves. The

solution to the paradox lurks ‘behind’ it in the undrawn but drawing hand of M. C. Escher.

Similarly God is the undrawn drawing hand of the universe. We can never truly know the mind of God, but we can, in our love and dedication to forming a relationship with Him and bonding with Him through His creation, search and discover as much as we can about Him. The unique ability of human consciousness to virtually ‘jump out’ of its own system, itself allows an opening to connect to that which is truly outside the system. All such endeavours are ones of sharing.


But there is a difference between trying to discover the thoughts and feelings of others and projecting our thoughts and feelings onto them. The former is an act of relationship, the latter, of selfishness. When we only see our own thoughts we recognise only ourselves to exist. We can’t help but in such a mindset see only what we wish to see or what we already believe to be and we never open ourselves to discovering and connecting with new and different realities outside of ourselves. We lose the fundamental capacity for true relationship. One poignant example of this is how the Children of Israel interpreted God’s attitude towards them when the goings got tough for them in the desert. They assumed that God hated them!

You sulked in your tents and said, It is because God hates us that He brought us out of the land of Egypt….(Deut. 1:27)

Yet, as Rashi[3] points out (in quite a contemporary psychological way!) that what they were doing was projecting their own thoughts about God onto Him. They hated Him! And so they thought that the feeling must have been mutual.

God hates usReally, however, He loved you, but you hated Him! A common proverb says: ‘What is in your own mind about your friend, you imagine is what is in his mind about you’.



However, we all project at times. This self-centred, closed thought process is only dangerous and counterproductive when we do not recognise that we are doing it. This is true of any thought that is not sensitive to reality. Fiction and fantasy of the imagination are perfectly acceptable, fun and exciting! As long as there is an unspoken awareness that it is, in fact, fiction. J.K. Rowling is the colossal success that she is in her masterful tales of fantasy, rather than being an inmate in a mental hospital because she knows that the world of Harry Potter which she created is fictional (sorry to all the diehards out there!). If she truly believed he and all that she imagined was real we might relate to her and indeed she would relate to the world in a way that would remove her from true connection with others.

Fictional thought is a natural part of the human mind. It only becomes an issue when we fail to recognise it as fictional. Children do not always know how to differentiate between what is and is not real. We as a collective species also develop this ability with greater maturity and learning. Discernment between fiction and reality is a characteristic of mental and cognitive development. Disillusionment is a healthy part of growing up.

Idol worship is an example of humanity’s early inability to differentiate between reality and fiction. We projected feelings and thoughts onto reality instead of seeking to discover the nature of reality as it was. We

made our own gods in order to make sense of what we did not understand in the world until we began to learn how to understand the world better.

Certain philosophers asked the Jewish Sages who were in Rome: If it is not your Gods will that people should engage in idol worship, for what reason does He not eliminate it? The Sages said to them: Were people worshipping only objects for which the world has no need, He would eliminate it. But they worship the sun and the moon and the stars and the constellations. Should He destroy the world because of the fools? (Daf 54b)

Therefore, the prohibited status of idols, and the paraphernalia that go with their worship, only retain their sanctioned status in Torah when the gentile who worships them considers them to be as deities.


That fictional space and interaction is dangerous to us especially because it deals with God. To drag God into our illusions and insist that He exist as we would have Him and imagine that He accepts what we wish He would accept, is the ultimate selfishness and narcissism because we assume the role of the creator ourselves. We in essence seek to force Him to conform to our egocentric fantasies and see the results as confirmation of our own manufactured biases.

Consider the case of one who engaged in intercourse with the wife of another. By right she should not become pregnant. But the world goes along and follows its course and the fools who sinned will be held to judgment in the future for their transgressions.


The Gemara comments: And this is as Reish Lakish says: The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: Is it not enough for the wicked that they…act without My permission and against My will, as they impregnate women adulterously? But moreover, they also trouble Me and cause Me to sign and affirm the result of their actions against My will, as I form the fetus and give it life, even when its creation is the result of prohibited sexual intercourse!

The Torah demands that we avoid such involvement — even peripheral — at all costs.

The graven images of their gods shall you burn with fire; you shall not covet the silver or gold that is on them, nor take it to you, lest you be snared by it; for it is rejected by God your Lord….(Deut. 7:25-26)

Yet, if said gentile or even his fellow who once saw this idol as a deity renounces their belief in it, its previous status is deemed null and void by Torah. In the dissolution of the illusion the object of worship regains its default, miscellaneous status and can be reassigned with more substantial realistic meaning. A Jew can gain benefit from it and use it for other purposes.

A non-Jew can nullify his idol and his friend’s, but a Jew cannot nullify the idol of a non-Jew. One who nullifies an idol also nullifies its accoutrements. If he nullified its accoutrements, the accoutrements are permitted, but it [the idol] is prohibited. How does one nullify [an idol]? If he cut off the tip of its ear, the tip of its nose, the tip of a finger, or if he dented it even though he did not diminish it, he has nullified it… An idol whose worshipers abandoned it during peaceful times (since they left it intentionally and did not bring it with them — Bartenura) it becomes permitted [for benefit]; if during war times, it is prohibited. (Daf  52b, 53a,b)



Our illusions are only as potent as we imagine them to be. The moment we discover that we are projecting ideas that are not real, they cease to pose a threat to our well-being and foothold in reality. In doing so we come out of our own minds and into a world that is expressing itself to us. We engage with its Maker and share in the experience. We strive to understand it, respect it and experience it. We embark upon the path of real connection and step out of the powerful confines of the self.

The ability to live in a space of participation and involvement requires rigorous consciousness. It demands that the way in which we define reality is never seen to be an emphatic truth, but intelligent and tested working definitions. With working definitions I open myself to being able to adjust them when I find that I have misunderstood, or included a flawed bias in it.

When we consider the prohibition against idol worship in Torah, aside from cautioning against worshipping the wrong god, it brings us into something deeper and more important — it ensures that we live focused on truth and relationship and that we live our lives endeavouring to discover and reveal more and more about the ultimate Consciousness of the universe and His offerings of love to His creations. In doing so, we learn to love and we allow ourselves to be loved. We step free from the solitary confinement of the cells that are our own minds.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Joseph Dweck


Touring the Talmud: Aboda Zara 47-54


Avoda Zara


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 47


•   If a person’s house is directly adjacent to the property of idolatrous worship and one of his walls falls down, he is not to rebuild the wall as it is beneficial to the worship, rather he must retreat four cubits and rebuild the wall there.

•   Gemara – The four cubits that he retreats must be filled with the likes of thorns so that it itself is not used for worship.

•   If the wall belonged to both the house owner and to the house of idol worship, half of the rubble is permitted to be reused and the other half prohibited, and the rubble of the house of idol worship is rabbinically impure.

•   There are three types of houses of idol worship:

1.      The house itself is worshipped – the house itself is considered an idol, and is entirely prohibited from use until it is nullified from being worshipped (details of this process are in the following chapter).

2.      The house itself is not worshipped but was decorated for idolatrous purposes – once the decorations are removed the house is permitted.

3.      An idol was worshipped in the house and removed – the house is permitted.


•   There are three types of stones used as pedestals for idols:

4.      A pedestal that was originally hewn (from the ground) for idolatry – prohibited form use until disregarded as an item of idol worship.

5.      A stone that was chiseled/decorated for idolatry – once the decoration is removed or the chiseling smoothed out it is permitted.

6.      If it was used simply as a pedestal with direct change to the stone – once the idol is removed form upon the stone, the stone is permitted.


Daf 48

•   There are three types of Ashera – a tree used for idol worship:

7.      A tree originally planted for idol worship – prohibited.

8.      A tree that (itself) was worshipped for the sake of idolatry after it grew (Gemara – even if no physical changes were made to the tree) – once anything that grew after it was tampered with is cut away it is permitted.

9.      An idol was placed under the tree and removed – the tree is permitted.

•   R’ Shimon holds that the third case is not considered an Ashera.

•   Gemara – A tree that priests of idol worship tend to and say that its fruits will be used for idolatrous festivals is assumed to be an Ashera.

One should not sit in the shade of an Ashera (even if he is not directly under the tree. The Gemara debates whether the Mishna is referring to the shade cast by the trunk or even the shade of the branches and leaves), but is not impure if he did so. One should not pass under its branches, and if he did he is impure unless the Ashera is leaning over public property. Gemara – and there is no other way to pass.

•   Hakamim: It is permitted to plant vegetables in the shade of an Ashera tree during the winter since the shade is detrimental to the vegetables, but in the summer it is prohibited since the shade is beneficial – and the vegetables are the product of a mixture of prohibited and permitted elements: the ground and the shade of the Ashera.

•   R”Yossei: It is prohibited in the winter as well since the leaves that fall from the Ashera tree fertilise the ground and are beneficial to the vegetables. (After some discussion in an attempt to clarify the positions of Hakhamim and R”Yossei regarding a product produced by a mix of prohibited and permitted elements, the Gemara concludes that R”Yossei holds that such a product is permitted, and here he is presenting an argument to Hakhamim according to their own reasoning).


Daf 49

If bread was baked using wood from an Ashera it is prohibited. If it got mixed in with other loaves of bread, all are prohibited.

R”Eliezer holds that the loaves can be permitted by throwing the worth of the single prohibited loaf to the Dead Sea.

If a wooden needle from the Ashera was used to sew a garment, the garment is prohibited. If the garment got mixed in with other garments, all are prohibited.

R”Eliezer holds that the garments can be permitted by throwing the worth of the single prohibited garment to the dead sea.

              The Gemara explains why it was necessary to record both cases in the Mishna.


An Ashera can be disregarded as idolatrous and permitted for use if was cut/trimmed/shaved for personal use, and not for there sake of its worship.

              The Gemara discusses the status of the shavings themselves (when shaved for worship), and discusses the status of an idol that is made up of pieces and can easily be put back together.



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.

In order for foreign worship to be considered forbidden it must be done either in the way that is prescribed by its worshipers/priests or one of four modes of worship that were done in the Holy Temple. Things seen as degrading are not considered to be worship and are generally seen as disregarding the deity and permitting it for use. Although there are some forms of idol worship that seem degrading, they were considered modes of practice for specific deities and therefore prohibited. One such practice, known in the Talmud as ‘Merculis’ (Mercury) involved throwing stones at a preexisting pile of stones. This chapter opens with discussion on the details of ‘Merculis’.


R”Yishmael: A pile of three stones next to  Merculis is prohibited while a pile of two stones is permitted.

Hakhamim: Quantity is no matter, stones that are near the Merculis are prohibited and those that are distant are permitted.


Daf 50

The Gemara clarifies: Both R”Yishmael and Hakhamim agree that if there are stones within four cubits of Merculis we can assume that they have fallen from the larger pile of stones and are prohibited. They argue when there are stones beyond four cubits; R”Y holds we suspect that it is a mini Merculis erected near the existing larger one and Hakhamim hold that we don’t suspect such a thing.

The Gemara discusses the status of certain types of offerings brought as idol worship. The Gemara suggests that while the offerings are prohibited, they may be disregarded and permitted, unless the offerings are brought in a similar way service was done in the Holy Temple, in which case they are forever prohibited.

Daf 51

One who sacrifices an animal that is missing a limb to an idol is not culpable.

One who sacrifices an animal to Merculis, even though sacrifice is not its form of worship is culpable as it is one of the four types of service done in the Holy Temple.


If adornments are found on the idol they are prohibited, if there are things found on an idol that are not there for beautification, they are permitted. Things found in the presence of an idol that are brought in the Holy Temple as offerings are prohibited.

If a deity has a garden or bathhouse, they may be enjoyed so long as no tax is paid to the deity.

The idol of an idolator is prohibited immediately when it is made, and the idol of a Yisrael is only prohibited once it is worshiped.


The Gemara identifies the last statement of the Mishna regarding the status of an idol made by an idol worshipper or a Yisrael to be the opinion of R”Akiba. R”Yishmael disagrees with R”Akiba and holds the the idol of a an idol worshipper is only prohibited once it is worshipped while the idol of a Israel is prohibited immediately.

Daf 52

The Gemara presents how both R”A and R”Y understand certain verses in accordance with the opinions they each expressed above.

One who appoints an incompetent judge is like someone who plants an Ashera tree.

It has been mentioned that items of idol worship are considered rabbinically impure. The Gemara discusses the purity status of foods and utensils that were either worshipped or used for worship.

The Gemara discusses: Are items that have been associated with idol worship and have become permitted for use fit for service in the Holy Temple?


An idolator can nullify the status of his own idol as well as the idol of a fellow idolator.

A Yisrael cannot nullify the idol of an idolator.

If the paraphernalia of an idol have been nullified, the idol is still prohibited, but if the idol itself has been nullified, the paraphernalia are nullified as well.


The Gemara presents a previous version of the Mishna and why it was changed.

If a Yisrael and an idolator share an idol and the idolator nullify the idol, the idol is still prohibited, as the Yisrael’s recognition of the idol is not dependent on the idolator. The Idol of a Israel cannot be nullify.

Daf 53


If one chips the ear, nose or fingers an idol or smashes it (even if it of metal and does not lose any mass but gets deformed), he has nullified the idol.

If he spits or urinates toward it, drags it or throws feces at it, he has not nullified it (Gemara – he is only temporarily angry and will continue to worship the idol).

If he sells or uses it as collateral R”Yehuda HaNasi holds that he nullified it, while Hakhamim hold that he has not.


Regarding selling the idol our using it as collateral, the Gemara discusses whether the argument between R”Yehuda and Hakhamim pertains to selling the idol to a Yisrael or to a fellow idolator (with the assumption that the buyer, whether idolator or not, is a metal worker).

Even if an idol has been abandoned, if it’s owners plan to return to it, the idol is still prohibited.

Although it is not possible to prohibit someone else’s property by worshipping it, if the owner of the item shows that he himself intends to worship it, it can become prohibited even if worshipped by someone else.


An idol that has been left behind in times of peace is permitted as we can assume that the owners purposefully abandoned it, but an idol left behind in times of war is prohibited as it’s owners have not nullified it and wish to return to it.

Pedestals used to place idols on them when the king visits are permitted (Gemara – only if they are on the route that the king does not take and therefore idols are never actually placed on them).


A Pedestal that has been nicked is permitted as it is switched out of use by the idolators.

Daf 54

Even though it is not possible to prohibit \ by worshiping it, that is only if it was worshipped externally (bowed to it, pray it…), however, if actions were performed that involve the item, or physical changes were made to it, it is prohibited.

If an item was traded for an idol, the item that was traded becomes prohibited. If that newly prohibited item was in turn traded for another item there is an argument about whether the second item becomes prohibited as well.


Philosophers in Rome once asked the Jewish Sages: If your God does not want idolatry, why doesn’t he get rid of it?

The Sages answered: If the people would worship something that the world is not dependent upon, he would get rid of it, but what do they worship? the sun the moon the stars, should His world be lost because of those who are foolish?

The philosophers replied: If so, He should destroy things worshiped that the world does not depend on them and leave those that the world depends upon.

The Sages said: That would only strengthen the belief of those who worship things that the world depends on, as they would say ‘know that they are gods for they have not been destroyed’.


The Gemara records stories similar to that of the Mishna.

Stories are brought of people asking why it seems that certain idolatrous practices are effective (at healing or making it rain etc.), the answer given is that world runs as it is meant to and people see in it whatever they wish to see.

The Gemara closes with the statement of Reish Lakish: “He advises these who mock, and gives grace to the humble” (Proverbs 3, 34), If a person comes to bring himself to impurity, the door is opened for him, if he comes to purify himself he is helped.


[1] Bereshit Rabba, 68:9.

[2] This link between space and sovereignty is recognised both in Hebrew and English in the relationship between the words for authority/liberty and place. In English there is dominion and domain. One has dominance over one’s dominion. So too in Hebrew, the one word רשות – reshut is used for authority, license and domain. This is true in Latin as well. Lord is Dominus as in ‘anno domini’.

[3] ibid. s.v. בשנאת