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'ABODAH ZARAH (, "Idolatrous Worship"):

The name of one of the treatises of the Mishnah, of the Tosefta, and of the Babylonian and the Palestinian Talmud, belonging to the Order Neziḳin. It is divided into five chapters. As indicated by the name, it treats of the laws regulating the conduct of the Jews toward idolatry and idolaters. These laws are based principally on the legislation of the Pentateuch, which proscribed idolatry in all its forms and manifestations, and even interdicted such close association with the heathen nations in Palestine as might mislead the Israelites to participate in their idolatrous worship.

Although, after their return from the Babylonian exile, the Jews appeared to have been radically cured of idolatry, there was danger of a relapse in the period preceding the Maccabees, and still more in the period of the Roman conquest. The religious authorities, therefore, found it necessary to renew with increased rigor the Biblical injunctions against idolatry and against social intercourse with the worshipers of idols. A codification of the rabbinical laws on this subject is presented in the treatise of the Mishnah and the Tosefta bearing the name of 'Abodah Zarah, while the Gemara (or Talmud) referring to that Mishnah contains the comments and discussions of the Palestinian and the Babylonian rabbis (Amoraim) on these laws.

The numerous provisions of the rabbinical laws embodied in the Mishnah of 'Abodah Zarah may be divided into the two following classes: (1) Provisions for guarding against the least appearance of favoring idolatry, directly or indirectly, and for preventing the danger of coming in contact with it. (2) Provisions for guarding against the immoral practises prevailing among the heathen.

Restrictions in Intercourse with the Heathen.

The first of the two classes may be illustrated by the following examples: It is forbidden to have any business dealings with the heathen during three days before their principal public festivals, such as the calends of January, the Saturnalia, etc. If, however, a heathen celebrate a private festival, it is forbidden to deal with him on that day only (Mishnah, 'Ab. Zarah, i. 1-3). In cities in which idolatrous fairs are held stores which are festooned with laurels must not be visited, as the sales in such stores are generally for the benefit of the idolatrous temples (i. 4). It is not allowed to sell to a heathen any object for the use of idolatry or to rent to him a house in which to place his idols. Objects that in any way may be connected with idolatry are forbidden to be sold (i. 5, 8, 9). Wine belonging to a heathen, who may have poured out some of it as a libation, is not only forbidden to be used, but even any indirect benefit derived from this wine is prohibited (ii. 3). No one may sit in the shade of a tree that has been planted for idolatrous purposes, nor make any use of the wood taken from such a tree; even the bread baked in an oven that has been heated by such wood is not to be used (iii. 7-9).

The following examples will illustrate the other class of prohibitions against corruption by immoral practises: The barbarous gladiatorial shows, especially the public fights with wild beasts, wherein the heathen, particularly the Romans, delighted, were regarded as so inhuman that no Jew was permitted to sell for such a purpose bears, lions, or even any instrument of cruelty, or to erect for such use buildings in which blood was to be shed or cruelty practised (i. 7). On account of the depravity among the heathen, a Jew must not entrust his animal to their care. A Jewish woman must not be in the company of a heathen, as he is under suspicion of sexual immorality; neither must a Jew remain in a lonesome place with heathen, lest he be assassinated by them (ii. 1). That such suspicions of the moral character of the heathen were not unfounded is evident from the contemporaneous classical literature describing the moral corruption prevailing in Rome and in the chief cities of Asia under the emperors in the first centuries of the common era.

Reasons for Existence of Idols.

Interspersed among the above-mentioned laws, contained in the Mishnah treatise of 'Abodah Zarah, are also some characteristic narratives in reference to idols and idolatry. Of these the following is of special interest: The Jewish elders in the city of Rome were once asked by a heathen, "If your God is displeased with idols, why does He not destroy them?" The answer was, "Because among the worshiped objects are also the sun, the moon, and the stars, which are necessary for the world. Should God destroy the world on account of the fools that worship those celestial bodies?" "But," rejoined the questioner, "why then does your God not destroy those worshiped objects which are not absolutely needed for the existence of the world?" And the elders replied, "This would merely confirm the heathen the more in their false belief that the sun, the moon, and the stars must be worshiped as deities, since they can not be destroyed" (iv. 7). In the Tosefta the answer of the elders closes with the remark, "The world goes its natural course, undisturbed by the foolish acts of man; but God will call the wicked to account for their folly" (vii. 7).

The Gemara (Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi), elaborately commenting on the Mishnah treatise of 'Abodah Zarah, discusses the reasons and the applications of the various laws contained therein, and abounds in ethical sentences and exegetical remarks. Moreover, it contains numerous historical and ethnographical records, and especially many statements and legends which throw much light on the customs of the heathen world. Both the Mishnah and the Gemara show a remarkable familiarity with heathen, especially Roman and Greek, life, and are a store-house of archeology yet to be explored. There is a history of some Jewish martyrs during the Hadrianic persecutions contained in folio 18 of the Babylonian Talmud.

Bibliography:
  • The Mishnah and the Babylonian Gemara of 'Abodah Zarah were translated into German by F. C. Ewald and the Yerushalmi Gemara by M. Schwab in his translation of this Talmud Yerushalmi.
M. M.
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