Thursday, 1 March 2018

Avodah Zara 45: Praising Mountains, Trees, Idols, or Praising G-d Who Created the Mountain

A new mishna teaches us that if Gentiles worship mountains and hills, the mountains and hills are permitted.  However, we are forbidden to benefit from what is on them.  Rabbi Yosi HaGalili teaches that "their gods are on the mountains, but the mountains are not considered/forbidden like their gods".  

What about trees, the mishna asks.  Trees are attached to mountains.  The answer is that it is because people had a role in planting each tree.  We learn that anything that people have helped to create becomes forbidden. Rabbi Akiva says that we should not automatically forbid whatever is under every fresh tree; the trees themselves are not worshipped as gods.  Rather, on every high mountain, hill and fresh tree, the Cana'anim have place idols.  It is our duty to find and destroy them.  The Gemara teaches that what covers a mountain is not forbidden for it is not the same thing as the mountain itself.  

The rabbis consider a seed, a sapling and a tree that first grows and then dies.  What is permitted and what is forbidden?  Certainly an asherah, a tree or pole that is worshipped, is forbidden because people had a role in its existence.  Anything that we have developed becomes forbidden, including a tree that was planted and then dies. 

The rabbis further question what is forbidden and what is permitted when considering trees on a mountain.  They ask about the age of the tree, how it came to be, whether it is alive or dead, whether it has been used as something to worship or not, whether it is a stump, whether something has grown - or could grow - from the stump, and much more.

In looking at particular phrases, the Sages believe that they have learned that the children of Israel were commanded to cut down Ahseirot before they conquered the land and to burn them after the conquest.  Or perhaps they have learned that they should leave their own broken altars and then leave the others.  Without burning them? the rabbis counter.  Rav Huna says that the alters can be left while they are pursuing the Cana'anim.  The altars will be burned after the conquest.  

The rabbis suggest that the larger lesson is that we must tear out all of the roots of idolatry.  In fact, they use a proof text, v'Ibadtem et shemam, to learn that we should make nicknames for idolatry.

Today's daf is a pointed reminder that Judaism offered an alternative to paganism, among other spiritual and religious beliefs.  There is a clear difference between praising a mountain, praising a tree on a mountain, praising an idol placed under a tree on a mountain, and praising G-d who created the mountain itself.

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