Tractate Avodah Zarah (in the Talmud)
- LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
- LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0165
- LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
- LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0165
“Avodah Zarah” literally means “strange worship,” the worship of deities other than the God of Israel. The term has also been translated accurately (albeit nonliterally) as “forbidden worship” and “idolatry.” Avodah Zarah tractates are found in the Mishnah (c. 3rd century CE), Tosefta (2nd–3rd centuries CE), Palestinian Talmud (“Talmud Yerushalmi,” c. 5th century CE), and Babylonian Talmud (“Talmud Bavli,” c. 7th century CE). Tractate Avodah Zarah is the seventh tractate in the order Nezikin (“Damages”) of the Mishnah. The Avodah Zarah tractates in the Mishnah, Talmud Yerushalmi, and Talmud Bavli consist of five chapters, while that of the Tosefta consists of nine. The nine pericopes of Mishnah Avodah Zarah chapter 1 deal broadly with the topics of doing business with non-Jews on or around their festival days (1:1–4) and items that may or may not be sold or leased to non-Jews (1:5–9). Chapter 2 (seven pericopes) discusses prohibitions on secluding oneself or one’s animals with non-Jews and not assisting non-Jews as a midwife or wet-nurse (2:1), the related prohibition against utilizing the medical or barber services of a non-Jew (2:2), prohibited items of non-Jews from which a Jew may not (2:3–5) or may (2:6) derive some sort of ancillary benefit, and food items of non-Jews that are permissible to eat (2:7). Chapter 3 (10 pericopes) deals with whole or broken idolatrous images (3:1–3), the status of natural phenomena worshiped as deities (3:5, 8, 9, 10), houses built as, or beside, places of idolatrous worship (3:6–7), and an interesting fictitious dialogue between the sage R. Meir and a non-Jew (3:4). Chapter 4 discusses use by Jews of idolatrous spaces or items (including those abandoned despite having once been so used) and then pivots to a discussion of wine preparation (4:8–12), which is largely, but not entirely, the subject of the twelve pericopes in chapter 5. The portrayal of idolatry in the Avodah Zarah tractates reflects elements of traditional Roman religion refracted through the prism of rabbinic imagination. Christians and Christian beliefs are not identified explicitly, but they are not entirely absent. The Avodah Zarah tractates are fruitful sources for the study of rabbinic representations of economic and social relationships between Jews and non-Jews in Late Antiquity, the constructions by rabbis of Jewish identity and boundaries between Jews and “others,” Roman (and, to a lesser extent, Iranian) religion in Late Antiquity, overlapping discourses between rabbinic and late antique Christian interpretations of Torah, and rabbinic attitudes toward figural art. An interesting 21st-century development is the scholarly use of the Avodah Zarah tractates as tools with which to think through the theological implications of Jewish encounters with Eastern religions and, more broadly, to think through how human beings of all races and creeds are connected to each other, to sentient nonhuman life, and even to the inanimate objects of which our world is composed.
Only Mishnah Avodah Zarah has a proper critical edition, Rosenthal 1980. There are non-critical editions of Avodah Zarah tractates that are nevertheless de rigueur for scholarly use, such as Albeck 1978 (Mishnah), and Zuckermandel 1970 (Tosefta). Other editions, while not recommended for use in scholarly work, may be useful aids in studying the content of the tractates. These include Kehati 1977 and Abramowitz 1994 (Mishnah), Blackman 1963 (Mishnah), Bar-Lev 2016 (Yerushalmi Avodah Zarah), and Steinsaltz 2001 (Bavli Avodah Zarah). The Talmud Yerushalmi has a complicated textual history, and there is as yet no critical edition of the whole, with the exception of two tractates: Katz 2015 and now Katz, et al. 2022. These are cited under Composition and Redaction of the Avodah Zarah Tractates. The thorough researcher must therefore examine all extant printed editions of that Talmud (discussed in this section) as well as manuscripts, databases, and translations (listed in Manuscripts, Databases, and the Avodah Zarah Tractates in Translation).
Abramowitz, Roy, trans. Shishah Sidrei Mishnah: The Mishnah; Seder Nezikin. Vol. 4, Avodah Zarah Pirkei Avot Horayot. A New Translation with a Commentary by Rabbi Pinhas Kehati. Jerusalem: Eliner Library, 1994.
The Mishnah text is presented in vocalized Hebrew and English. Kehati’s introductions and commentaries are presented in English. As with the Hebrew original, this version is useful for acquiring a grasp of the tractate’s subject matter, but it is not recommended for scholarly use or citation.
Albeck, Chanoch, ed. Shishah Sidrei Mishnah: Seder Nezikin; Mefurash Peirush Hadah, ‘Im M’vo’ot, Hosafot, V’hashlamot. Tel-Aviv: Dvir, 1978.
Translated as “Shishah Sidrei Mishnah: With new commentary, introductions, additions, and completions.” This is the standard edition of Mishnah Avodah Zarah used for scholarly reference, very useful but not a critical edition. Albeck provides a short introduction to the tractate and a brief commentary. The Hebrew text is vocalized by Hanokh Yalon. In Hebrew.
Bar-Lev, Yehiel Avraham Halevi, ed. Talmud Yerushalmi Meturgam u-Mevu’ar B’Tosefet Iyyunim v’Hashva’ot l’Talmud Bavli, ‘Im Piskei Halakhot me-ha-Rambam u-me-ha Shulhan Arukh, Vol. 13 (the “Sassoon Edition”). Petach Tikvah, Israel: n.p., 2016.
This edition presents the Vilna edition of Yerushalmi Avodah Zarah along with Moses Margaliot’s indispensable 18th-century commentary (“P’nei Moshe”). The principal advantage of this edition is the accompanying commentary in modern Hebrew. This edition is useful for acquiring a grasp of subject matter, but it is not recommended for scholarly use or citation.
Blackman, Philip. Mishnayoth. Vol. 4, Order Nezikin; Pointed Hebrew Text, English Translation, Introductions, Notes, Supplement, Appendix, Indexes, Addenda, Corrigenda. 2d rev. ed. New York: Judaica, 1963.
Blackman’s bilingual edition includes introductions and notes; it is useful for acquiring a knowledge of the tractate’s subject matter, but it is not recommended for scholarly use or citation.
Epstein, Isadore. Babylonian Talmud. London: Soncino, 1978.
Originally published 1935–1952. The translation is based on the text of the Vilna Romm editions. This is the standard printed edition of the Babylonian Talmud, reprinted continuously since the nineteenth century with medieval and early modern commentators and glossators.
Kehati, Pinhas. Mishnayot Mevo’arot, Seder Nezikin, Vol. 2. Commentary by Pinhas Kehati. Jerusalem: Keter, 1977.
In Hebrew. Each tractate has an introduction and commentary composed in an accessible, modern Hebrew style. This edition is very useful for acquiring a grasp of the subject matter, but it is not recommended for scholarly use or citation.
Rosenthal, David. “Mishnah Avodah Zarah: Mahadurah Bikurtit U-mavo.” 2 vols. PhD diss., Hebrew University, 1980.
Translated as “Mishnah Aboda Zara: A Critical Edition (with Introduction).” Rosenthal’s work is the only critical edition of Mishnah Avodah Zarah. The work appears in two small volumes; the first is Rosenthal’s detailed introduction and the second is the critical edition itself. The introduction describes Rosenthal’s sources and reconstruction of two textual traditions (Palestinian and Babylonian) of Mishnah Avodah Zarah. In Hebrew.
Schäfer, Peter, and Hans-Jürgen Becker, eds. Synopse zum Talmud Yerushalmi. Vol. 4. Tübingen, Germany: J. C. B. Mohr Siebeck, 1995.
Schäfer and Jürgen-Becker present the Venice 1523 editio princeps of Yerushalmi Avodah Zarah and the text of the Leiden manuscript in parallel columns. With the publication of the corrected Leiden manuscript (Sussmann 2001, cited under Manuscripts), the utility of this edition is now somewhat limited.
Steinsaltz, Adin, trans. Talmud Bavli Masekhet Avodah Zarah. Commentary, Translation, and Vocalization by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel (Steinsaltz). Jerusalem: Israel Institute for Talmudic Publications, 2001.
This is a very useful edition for study, especially for nonspecialists. The principal advantage for nonspecialists is the modern Hebrew translation printed alongside the original Hebrew/Aramaic text. There are helpful notes about realia as well as an introduction to the tractate and introductions and summaries of each chapter.
Talmud Yerushalmi according to the Krotoschin edition (1866), Printed according to the Venice first edition (1523) with a short commentary. Jerusalem: Shiloh, 1969.
This is a facsimile reprint of a 19th-century printing of the Talmud Yerushalmi following the Venice 1523 editio princeps. There are some differences between Krotoschin 1866 and Venice 1523, and larger differences between it and Sussmann 2001 (for the latter, see Manuscripts).
Zuckermandel, M. S., ed. Tosephta: Based on the Erfurt and Vienna Codices, with Parallels and Variants. Jerusalem: Wahrmann, 1970.
This is the standard edition used for scholarly reference. While based to some extent on the important Erfurt and Vienna manuscripts of the Tosefta, this edition falls well short of being a critical edition.
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