Avodah Zarah

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Welcome to our study of the Mishnah!

Pages of Talmud
We’re reading Avodah Zarah (עבודה זרה, “idolatrous worship”), one of the tractates in Seder Nezikin (סדר נזיקין, “Damages”) of the Mishnah. You can see it’s place in the Mishnah here:


Why study Mishnah?

Many folks think that Judaism is based only on the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) while Christianity is based on the Hebrew Bible + New Testament. But that’s not quite right.

Judaism is based on the Hebrew Bible – what we call “the written law”, Torah she-bi-khtav תורה שבכתב, but read through the lens of “the oral law “, Torah she-be’al peh תורה שבעל פה.

In fact, one can’t read the Bible without an oral law. Our Bible – and texts of other peoples – come into existence in some specific place and time. The author already was speaking a specific language, in a society with specific social and religious norms.  These norms were (by definition) simply understood. In an era long before the printing press, it would be inconceivable to copy hundreds of pages of these details. Yet all this context is necessary for understanding how people understood their sacred texts, all the more so for Judaism, which has a developing oral tradition. (Our oral law includes rules for developing and applying the oral law to new situations.)

Orthodox Jews and secular historians, of course, disagree on how much of that came from the time of Moses, and how much developed later. You can read more about this here:

Questions about Judaism, Torah and the Oral Law: Soc.Culture.Jewish FAQ

The oral law, Mishnah and Talmud: Jewish Virtual Library

How did the Oral Law develop? Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff. Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors to Our Descendants

While originally transmitted orally, these oral traditions were eventually recorded in the Mishnah, and the classical Midrash compilations. Later discussion of this oral law led to the development of the Talmud. This evolving oral law rescues Judaism from biblical fundamentalism, and is the basis of all forms of rabbinic Judaism today, including Orthodox, Reform and Conservative (Masorti) Judaism.

Even the most liberal forms of Judaism promote Mishnah study:

The Mishnah is studied both because it is part of the canon of Jewish literature and because it is the foundation of the Talmud. In addition, from the time of the earliest Reformers, the Reform Movement has considered itself an extension of Rabbinic Judaism and sought to base all decisions on halachah. Studying the text of the Mishnah enables modern-day Jews to strengthen their link with Jewish history and gain a deeper understanding of sacred traditions.
Mishnah, from ReformJudaism.org

Where does the Mishanh fall in the timeline of rabbinic Judaism?

See this timeline 🙂

Timeline_Books_Judaism - Copy

Who are the people we’ll be reading about? (the rabbis of the Mishnah)

The Rabbis of the Mishnah from Wikipedia

Many Jews study Talmud daily. Why study Mishnah?

Dr. Joshua Kulp writes:

….Torah learning in Judaism is much more than just learning what to do. It is an exercise in engaging with our past, with different understandings of how God’s divine word is to be manifested in our material world. When one engages in Torah study one is actually performing a commandment in and of itself, regardless of whether that study leads to the performance of other commandments. …Why should I learn Mishnah instead of skipping straight to Talmud? Since the Mishnah is the first code of Jewish law excluding, of course, the Torah, the Mishnah is an excellent introduction to most of Jewish law. It is also much easier than Talmud, which contains much more intricate details and wordy discussions. The Mishnah has both value in and of itself, as most of later Jewish legal writing depends on the Mishnah, and it is an excellent introduction to Talmud and halakhah….
– Kulp, An Introduction to USCJ Mishnah Yomit (Daily Mishnah)

How does one learn Mishnah?

Dr. Joshua Kulp writes:

The key to learning Mishnah is to begin to recognize the structure and style of the work. The Mishnah is an extremely brief book… the entire Hebrew text could fit into a small paperback book! However, it packs in a tremendous amount of information. One must, therefore, learn how to “unpack” Mishnayoth, i.e. pay very close attention to structure and to details…It is also important to realize that Mishnah is mostly taught in case law. This means that concrete examples are given as opposed to abstract laws….

Our job [is] to try to uncover the unstated principles that lie behind its intricate system of law. This, by the way, is what makes learning Mishnah so enjoyable. A person learning Mishnah takes an active role in discovering the rich layers that lie behind what is revealed. In this process of discovery there is room for argumentation and differing opinions. This is indeed why Jews are debating the Mishnah’s meaning to this very day!

Is Avodah Zarah still meaningful for today’s Jewish community?

We live in a world where Jews are less than 1% of 1% of the total population. Even the most cursory knowledge of history reveals that our beliefs and practices are different in many ways from other people. We shouldn’t be ashamed to study the ways that the Jewish faith has worked, in varying historical conditions, to identify and preserve ethical monotheism.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs writes:

…Included in Seder Nezikin are laws of property damage, employer-employee relationships, negligence, and business partnerships, as well as laws relating to courts and punishments…Nezikin stands out as the seder most concerned with universal interpersonal and societal issues, rather than with issues of Jewish ritual law. For this reason, perhaps, the discussions in this seder refer to lived experience, at least as often as they refer to biblical law.
…On Living among “Idol Worshipers”
Most of Seder Nezikin concerns civil and criminal law designed for an entirely Jewish community. Such a community does not exist now, and did not exist at the time of the Mishnah. Jews have always lived among non-Jews and therefore have constantly negotiated boundaries that allow for business and personal relationships with others, while still enabling one to maintain a clear Jewish identity.
Masekhet Avodah Zarah explores issues of living in a community of non-Jews—specifically idol worshipers, whose religious practice is in conflict with the fundamental Jewish injunction against worshiping objects or animals.

What translations/commentaries are we using?

Translation issues

“Hebrew, unlike English, is not a gender-neutral language. Every noun, verb and adjective in Hebrew has a gender. For example the same Hebrew sentence could be translated as, “When one’s ox injures another person” or “When his ox injures his fellow man”. Our translations and discussions will generally be in masculine language, although I have tried to on occasion to de-gender the language, without making it sound cumbersome. Unless otherwise noted, “he” does not exclude women. When the Mishnah wishes to exclude women, it usually states so explicitly.”
– Kulp, An Introduction to USCJ Mishnah Yomit (Daily Mishnah)

Also special grammatical and theological issues arise when translation Hebrew names for God into English. See our discussion on God, gender and translations issues.

Resources for studying Mishnah

The Mishnah Project, from Drisha

Kulp, An Introduction to USCJ Mishnah Yomit (Daily Mishnah)

Rabin Mishnah Study Group (no longer producing new materials, but a fantastic commentary!)

Mishnah, with a clickable interactive text map: Prof. Eli Segal

Commentary from the Aleph Society: Adin Steinsaltz

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A Comparison of Mishnah and Tosefta Avodah Zarah and their Attitude toward the NonJew1

Avodah Zarah as Falsehood: Denial of Reality and Rejection of Science

Modern Day Avodah Zarah