“Remember What you Did Last Night” October 29, 2010:

“Remember What you Did Last Night”
The Emphasis on How to be a Jew in ‘Avodah Zarah’
Rabbi Dov Linzer – Torah from the Beit Midrash
October 29, 2010: This week, the daf yomi finished masekhet Avodah Zarah,
the last dapim of which address central issues in Kashrut, including kashering
and toveling vessels. This is a somewhat unusual way to end a masekhet that is
devoted to discussing the world of idolatry and its dangers. The masekhet ends
with a story, one consistent with this emphasis on kashrut:
Mar Yehudah and Bati b. Tobi were sitting with King Shapur and an etrog was
set before them. [The king] cut a slice and ate it, and then cut a slice and handed
it to Bati b. Tobi. After that he stuck [the knife] ten times in the ground, cut a
slice [of the citron] and handed it to Mar Yehudah.
Bati b. Tobi said to [the king], ‘Am I not an Israelite!’ (Why did you not clean
the knife for me?)
He replied, ‘Of him I am certain that he is observant [of Jewish law], but not of
According to another version he said to him, ‘Remember what you did last
[Rashi - The Persians would provide women for their male guests. King Shapur
sent women to his two guests. Bati b. Tobi accepted her, whereas Mar Yehuda
refused her.]
– Avodah Zarah 76b
Here, with this humorous ending, the Gemara underscores that one of the key
areas that we must navigate when interacting with the non-Jewish world is not
idolatry, but kashrut and sexual improprieties. More than that, the Gemara even
suggests that these are core to one’s Jewish identity: “Am I not an Israelite?!”. In
an interesting way, this seems to be an ongoing sub-textual theme in the
masekhet. While the issue of idolatry is, on the surface, its primary concern, one
senses that its real concerns lie elsewhere. Consider the opening of the masekhet:
Rabbi Dov Linzer Mishnah: On the three days preceding the festivals [eideihem, with an ‘ayin’]
of idolaters, it is forbidden to transact business with them…
Gemara: … He who teaches ‘eideihem’ [as the spelling in the Mishnah] is not in
error, for Scripture also says: Let them bring their witnesses [or “testimonies;”
also spelled with an ‘ayin’] that they may be justified. (Yeshayah 43:9).
In the World to Come, the Holy One, blessed be He, will take a Torah scroll in
His embrace and proclaim: ‘Let him who has occupied himself herewith, come
and take his reward.’
Thereupon all the nations will crowd together [and] the Kingdom of Edom [i.e.,
Rome] will enter first before Him…
The Holy Blessed One will then say to them: ‘with what have you occupied
yourselves?’ They will reply: ‘O Lord of the Universe, we have established many
market-places, we have erected many baths, we have accumulated much gold
and silver, and all this we did only for the sake of Israel, that they might [have
leisure] for occupying themselves with the study of the Torah.’
The Holy Blessed One will say in reply: ‘You foolish ones among peoples, all that
which you have done, you have only done to satisfy your own desires… Are
there any among you who have been declaring ‘this’?’ And ‘this’ is none other
than the Torah, as it is said: And ‘this’ is the Law which Moses set before the
children of Israel….
The nations will then say, ‘Sovereign of the Universe, has Israel, who accepted
the Torah, observed it? The Holy Blessed One will reply, ‘I can give evidence that
they observed the Torah.’…
Then the Holy Blessed One will say, ‘Some of you shall testify that Israel
observed the entire Torah. Let Nimrod come and testify that Abraham did not
[consent to] worship idols; let Laban come and testify that Jacob could not be
suspected of theft; let Potiphar’s wife testify that Joseph was above suspicion of
immorality; let Nebuchadnezzar come and testify that Hanania, Mishael and
Azariah did not bow down to an image; let Darius come and testify that Daniel
never neglected the [statutory] prayers; let Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the
Naamathite, and Eliphaz the Temanite [and Elihu the son of Barachel the
2 Rabbi Dov Linzer 3 Buzite] testify that Israel has observed the whole Torah; as it is said, Let them
[the nations] bring their [own] witnesses, that they [Israel] may be justified.’
(Avodah Zarah 2a-3a)
This lengthy aggadeta that opens the masekhet – which begins with the
prohibition to do business on pagan holidays – focuses not on idolatry or
paganism, but on observance and non-observance of the Torah. In the World to
Come, the nations will not be judged for their idolatry. They will be judged for
their actions – where they done to further the goals of the Torah? Did they learn
Torah and keep Torah, or enable others to do so? (The Gemara addresses the
issue of fairness here, inasmuch as they were not commanded in the Torah, and
states that their accountability is also because of their non-observance of the
seven Noachide laws). It is the question of Torah and mitzvot that God will ask
them, “This” – the Torah that God is holding in God’s hands – is what ultimately
matters in the end of days.
Now, the verse that the Gemara started with from Yeshayah chapter 43 is from a
passage describing the judgment at the end of time, but there the focus is not
Torah and mitzvot, but in who is the true God:
Let all the nations be gathered together, and let the people be assembled; who
among them can declare this, and show us former things? Let them bring forth
their witnesses, that they may be justified; or let them hear, and say, It is truth.
You are my witnesses, said the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen; that
you may know and believe me, and understand that I am he; before me there
was no God formed, neither shall there be after me.
I – I myself – am the Lord; and beside me there is no savior.
I have declared, and have saved, and I have proclaimed, and there was no
strange god among you; therefore you are my witnesses, said the Lord, that I
am God.
The Gemara, in an ironic twist on this passage, refocuses the judgment from
belief in God and rejection of idolatry, to “this”, the Torah, and bearing witness
Rabbi Dov Linzer 4 that the Jews have kept the Torah. Thus, in the final passage of this aggadata,
witness is brought that the Jews kept all the mitzvot – not worshipping idols, not
stealing, not committing adultery (all part of the seven Noachide laws), prayer,
and all the mitzvot. True, rejecting idolatry is among these mitzvot, but it is given
no greater weight than the others.
What this Gemara is thus doing is recognizing and stating that the battlefield of
Jewish identity no longer is being fought over the issue of idolatry. The threat of
the “outside” world is not – like it was in the time of Isaiah and the First Temple,
the threat of idolatry. The world had changed since then. As the Gemara relates,
the evil inclination for idolatry had been nullified in the time of the Second
Temple (Sanhedrin 64a). In the world of the Gemara, Jewish identity was much
more about Torah and mitzvot and much less about rejection of idolatry,
something even the non-Jews were coming around to. (See the passage in
Avodah Zarah 65a, where some non-Jews were recognized as non-idolaters, and
the possible broadening of the category of ger toshav.)
Thus, a good deal of the masekhet deals not only with idolatry, but also with how
to more generally navigate our interactions with the non-Jewish world, and a
good deal of attention is given to interactions with them that could lead to
furthering violence or sexual transgressions, and how to avoid purchasing food
from them that might not be kosher. Also in the food realm a number of items –
bread, oil, wine – are prohibited if produced by them, even if the ingredients are
kosher (the prohibition against oil was revoked, and the one relating to bread was
later limited to home baked bread). This is out of a concern that too much
socialization - often something that happens over food and drink – will lead to
assimilation and intermarriage. These sections of the masekhet, then, deal with
the realities of maintaining Jewish identity in a dominant secular culture where
the concern is not idolatry, but one of values, of observance of mitzvot, and of
assimilation and intermarriage.
Now, the masekhet ends with two larger chapters devoted almost entirely to the
prohibition of the wine of non-Jews. Such wine is forbidden because it may have
been used in an idolatrous context. Thus, the dominant theme of the end of the
masekhet seems to again be that of idolatry. However, this is not clearly the
case. First, there is a question – not dominant in the Gemara, but emphasized by
Rabbi Dov Linzer 5 the Rishonim – whether the wine is prohibited primarily because of idolatry
concerns or because of intermarriage concerns. While the Rishonim by and large
emphasize the intermarriage issue, the Gemara by and large tends to ignore that
Nevertheless, it also does not highlight the idolatry concern. So, while some
halakhot take into account the idolatry context (e.g., is the non-Jew who is
touching the wine old enough to understand that rituals of idolatry?) others seem
to ignore it (for example, the Gemara states that a non-Jew can make the wine
not kosher by pouring it, because his energy moved it. However, this is only a
secondary problem, because it was not touched. Now, if the concern were
idolatry, touch should be irrelevant, because this is how wine is offered as an
idolatrous libation). In fact, what happens is that the issue of idolatry recedes
into the background regarding the wine, and the wine is treated the category of a
completely different halakhic realm – that of tum’ah and taharah. These laws
are used to define what type of touch is problematic, when we are concerned that
the wine was touched, and how to dry out and clean vessels that have absorbed
non-kosher wine.
Wine of non-Jews is also connected to standard principles of kashrut, in terms of
mixture of like and unlike, and when mixtures give off bad tastes. Similarly, nonkosher food is often referred to as tamei, impure, and the word “to purify,”
letaher, is also used in kashering vessels. This is the word that is used in the last
Mishnah of the masekhet which deals with kashering and toveling vessels – how
does one make these non-kosher vessels tahor? Thus, even the laws of setam
yeinam, wine of non-Jews, have become a standard tum’ah and kashrut type of
law, and the masekhet seamlessly moves from yein nesekh, wine of idolatrous
libation, to general laws of kashrut, to ending with a process of kashering
and toveling vessels. It is a shift of our concern from a world of idolatry to a
world of non-kosher products and non-kosher activities, from distinguishing
ourselves based on belief to distinguishing ourselves based on Torah and mitzvot.
In a way, this is actually symbolized in the halakha of kashering and toveling
vessels. The way a vessel from a non-Jewish home can be brought into a Jewish
home to be used is by purging it of all the non-kosher taste that is inside it. Then,
the vessel must be immersed in a mikveh, and then it may be used. The purpose
Rabbi Dov Linzer 6 of the immersion is hard to understand, and it seems to be required in order to
change the pots identity – to transform it from a non-Jewish pot into Jewish
pot. That is, its identity is a Jewish or not-Jewish pot is based on kashrut
concerns, and for this identity shift to happen, the pot must first be rid of its nonkosher taste (this follows Ra’ah’s approach to tevilah in contradistinction to
Tosafot). This process of kashering can be demanding at times, such as in the
case of metal grates, requiring an outside scouring of the food burned on the
metal, and then heating it up with a blow torch until it becomes white hot. Now,
the analogous case to kashering pots in the world of idolatry is that of annulling
What is required for a Jew to take possession of an idol, for the idol to
be kashered? Interestingly, very little – an idol can be made permissible if any
non-Jew, even one who is not a worshipper of this god, nullifies it through a
small physical act, and perhaps even a verbal one. Thus, we are left with the
ironic result that to take possession of an idol can be relatively easy, whereas to
make something a Jewish pot, can require comparatively more effort. Jewish
identity – even where pots, pans, statues and idols are concerned – is more about
kashrut and mitzvot than it is about rejecting avodah zarah.
And thus we have the final story of the masekhet. What is means to be a Jew in
the contemporary world (even contemporary for the Talmud!) is not about
rejecting idolatry. What is means is to hold firm to the world of Torah and
mitzvot even as we interact, eat together, socialize, befriend and learn from nonJews. We do not run away from this larger world and hide and cloister ourselves,
but we also do not pretend that we do not have to draw any lines, that we do not
have to be on guard against a weakening of our commitments, against
assimilation and against intermarriage. Our identity is the Torah, Torah values,
and mitzvot, and we must do all we can to hold fast to and strengthen this
identity. When we ask rhetorically “Am I not an Israelite?!” let us make sure that
the response is not “Remember what you did last night!”