Talmud Tips

For the week ending 17 March 2018 / 1 Nisan 5778

Avoda Zara 51 - 57

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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The Jewish Sages in Rome were asked: “If your G-d doesn’t want idolatry to occur, then why doesn’t he just destroy the idols?”

This question, which begins a mishna on our daf, is answered in two ways: The Sages replied, “If they only worshipped things that are not necessary for the world, G-d would indeed destroy those idols. However, they worship the sun, the moon, the stars and the constellations. Should G-d destroy His world because of these fools?!”

The mishna continues: “If so, let Him destroy the worshipped objects that are not necessary to the world, but the things that are necessary to the world He should allow to remain.” The Sages answered: “That would strengthen the worship of the things that are necessary since people will say: See, these really are deities since they were not destroyed!

A beraita in the gemara raises the same question: Pagan philosophers asked the Jewish elders in Rome, “If your G-d doesn’t want idol worship, why doesn’t He just nullify the idols?” The beriata offers a number of answers, which appear to be “variations on a theme,” but are actually quite different. The first answer in the beraita: “If they were worshipping only things not essential to the world, He would eliminate them. However, they also worship things essential to the world, such as the sun, the moon, the stars and the constellations. Should G-d destroy the world because of these fools?! Rather, the world carries on as usual, and the fools who transgressed will face judgment in the future.” A second answer is offered in the beraita: “If a person stole some wheat seeds, and planted them, Divine Judgment dictates that the seeds should not grow. However, the world carries on as usual (the wheat will grow), and the fools who transgressed will face judgment.”

If one compares the mishna and the beraita it would appear that the mishna is providing two separate answers to address two separate cases: things that are necessary for the world (such as the sun and moon), and things that are not. The beraita, however, offers only one answer, although it gives two different examples of transgressions — idolatry and theft. It gives the exact same answer for why the idols remain in existence and for why stolen wheat grows: “The world carries on as usual.”

Why are there two examples of transgressions in the beraita (idolatry and theft), as opposed to the mishna dealing only with the one transgression of idolatry?

The Maharsha explains: Based on the first case in the beraita, that G-d would not destroy the sun and the moon that are necessary to the world because He would not destroy His world due to fools, we still need the second reason that is taught in the mishna — “Not to embolden worshippers of the sun and the moon” — to explain why G-d does not eliminate idols that are not necessary to the world. This is based on understanding the phrase “Olam k’minhago noheg,” “the world carries on as usual,” as speaking only about things that are needed for the world.

However, when the beraita says that “the world carries on as usual” in the case of planting stolen wheat, the Maharsha points out that this teaches that G-d does not destroy things and outcomes based on a transgression, even in the case of something not essential to the world, such as the growth of wheat.

The commentaries ask why the mishna and the beraita deal only with the question of whether the idols should be eliminated, but not whether G-d should eliminate the idol worshippers?One answer is suggested by the Tosefot Yom Tov: Sinners are not punished until they reach a certain level of transgression (depending on the person). G-d created the world with man having the freedom to choose right from wrong. Therefore, “early elimination” would diminish this freedom and thus constitute a destruction of the world. The Maharal gives a different reason for not eliminating the transgressor: If idolaters see a person’s elimination when worshipping an idol, no one would have true “free will.” The great fear of being annihilated from the world would “force” everyone to choose not to commit idolatry. Since eliminating transgressors would result in a lack of free will, the gemara does not discuss this option. Rather, it considers only the option of Heavenly elimination of things that might lead to transgressions.

  • Avoda Zara 54b

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