Avodah Zarah

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AVODAH ZARAH (Heb. עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה; "Idolatrous Worship"), tractate of the Mishnah, Tosefta, and Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds in the order of Nezikin; its name is already referred to in the Babylonian Talmud (Av. Zar. 56b). The tractate was assigned to the order of Nezikin, since it is linked with the tractates Sanhedrin and Makkot which include some laws on idolatry (cf. Tos. Av. Zar. 2a).

The Mishnah, which consists of five chapters, treats of the following subjects: (1) prohibitions concerning dealings with Gentiles (who are presumed to be idolaters) in their festival periods; objects which may not be sold or hired to Gentiles as they may be required for idol worship; objects which may not be sold to Gentiles as they may cause public damage (e.g., arms); prohibitions of sale or lease of real estate in Ereẓ Israel to Gentiles (chapter 1); (2) prohibitions arising from Gentiles being suspected of incest and murder (2:1–2); (3) laws concerning articles belonging to Gentiles – differentiating between those which are entirely prohibited for benefit, or only for food, since they may be offered up in idolatrous worship, and those which are entirely permitted (2:3–7); (4) the prohibition of actual idolatrous objects (images, shrines, etc.) and the ways in which they are to be abolished or destroyed (3:1–4:7); (5) laws about wine produced or handled by non-Jews, which is presumed to have been used, or intended for use, as a libation before an idol; the procedure of making utensils that have been bought from a Gentile fit for use (4:8–5:12).

The Mishnah (4:7) contains a question asked by "philosophers" of some sages, apparently R. Gamaliel, R. Joshua, and R. Eleazar b. Azariah, when they were in Rome:

"If [your God] does not want idolatry, why does He not abolish it?"

The sages answered: "If something is worshiped which the world has no need of, He would abolish it. But the sun, the moon, and the stars are worshiped. Should God, then, destroy His world because of fools?"

"If so, He should destroy what the world has no need of, and leave what is essential for the world."

"We would then merely be strengthening the hands of those worshiping these things, since they would say, 'See, these are deities, for they have not been destroyed.'"

The Tosefta of the tractate has eight chapters, is longer and much fuller than the Mishnah, and contains quite a few aggadic matters. The redactor of the Tosefta used not only beraitot which complement the Mishnah but also parallel sources as well as various others which deal with subjects not mentioned in the Mishnah. The relation between the different sections of the Tosefta also differs from that of the Mishnah, half of the former (its first four and a half chapters) being devoted to subjects which occupy only a quarter of the latter (1:1–2:2). The first two chapters of the Tosefta correspond to the first chapter of the Mishnah, while the third and first half (1–6) of the fourth chapter of the Tosefta correspond to the Mishnah (2:1–2); these halakhot in the Tosefta treat, in passing, of laws concerning Cutheans (Samaritans), of dealings with an *am ha-areẓ, of one who purchases a slave from gentiles or sells his slave to them or abroad, as well as laws which apply specifically to Ereẓ Israel and to Syria and which conclude with the duty to live in Ereẓ Israel. The rest of the fourth chapter (7–13) of the Tosefta corresponds to the Mishnah 2:3–7; chapters 5–6 of the Tosefta correspond to the Mishnah 3:1–4:7, while Tosefta 7:1–8:3 corresponds to the final part of the Mishnah. The final part of the Tosefta (8:4–8), which is completely unconnected with the Mishnah, is devoted to the seven Noachian commandments, which include the prohibition against idolatry.

An examination of the names of the sages mentioned in the Mishnah and the Tosefta shows that most of these belong to the period after the Bar Kokhba revolt. One passage in the Mishnah (2:6) mentions Rabbi and his bet din. The parallel text in the Tosefta (4:11) reads R. Judah, which is understood by some to refer to Judah Nesia ii and his bet din. If this understanding is correct, then this is a late addition to the text of the Mishnah in line with the baraita in the Tosefta.

The tractate in the two Talmuds contains much aggadic material, important historical traditions, especially on the relations between Jews and non-Jews in general and between Jews and non-Jewish authorities in particular. It also conveys much information on idolatrous, including Oriental, religions, on Christianity, and Gnosticism. The Babylonian Talmud deals also with the Persian religion. Nonetheless the Babylonian amoraim admitted that not everything in the Mishnah was clear to them: "R. Ḥisda said to Avimi: There is a tradition that the (tractate) Avodah Zarah of our father Abraham consisted of four hundred chapters. We have learnt only five, and yet we do not know what we are saying" (Av. Zar. 14b). It is doubtful if parallels between the Mishnah of Avodah Zarah and Tertullian's de idolatria indicate an influence of Jewish halakhah on Christianity in this sphere.

Copies of the tractate were rare even at an early period, probably because in the course of the centuries it suffered greatly at the hands of Christian censors. This led many Jewish scholars to issue apologetic declarations to the effect that the statements in the tractate are directed only against the nations of antiquity, and to adopt a lenient attitude to some of its prohibitions (see Meiri, Beit ha-Beḥirah on Av. Zar., 53).


Ch. Albeck, Shishah Sidrei Mishnah, Seder Nezikin (1953), 321–4, 491; idem, Meḥkarim bi-Veraita ve-Tosefta (1944), 142–3; S. Abramson (ed.), Massekhet Avodah Zarah Ketav Yad shel Beit ha-Midrash la-Rabbanim be-New-York (1957); S. Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (1950), 115–52; iej, (1959), 149–65, 229–45.

[Moshe David Herr]