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Monday, February 29, 2016

How Far Must I Go? — BT Avodah Zarah 15a,b — #26

[14a] It was taught in a baraita: One may sell [a pagan merchant] a bundle [of frankincense]. And how much is a bundle? R. Yehudah b. Beteira explained: a bundle weighs at least three manehs [approximately one pound]. Should we not be concerned lest the [merchant] goes and sells it to another [idol worshiper] who will burn it [as a sacrifice to a pagan idol]? Abaye says: We are commanded, Before [the blind do not place a stumbling block] (Leviticus 19:14) but we are not obligated concerning a “before” for a “before:… [15b] Rabbah once sold a donkey to an Israelite who was suspected of selling it to an idolater. Said Abaye to him: “Why did you do this?” He said: “I sold it to an Israelite.” “But he will go and sell it to an idolater!” “Why should he sell it to an idolater and not sell it to an Israelite?” 

Ancient Israel lived surrounded by polytheistic culture. Hammurabi’s Code lists 20 gods in the prologue; Egypt had 40 gods and goddesses; the Canaanites worshiped two divine couples, as well as several other gods. In stark and revolutionary contrast, Torah declares: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, nor likeness, of any thing in the heaven above or on the earth beneath, or in the water beneath the earth. (Exodus 20:2-3) Idols, created by human beings, are not divine manifestations of the Creator of all. Torah is obsessively concerned with the risk that Israel will imitate the practices of the peoples around and descend into idolatry. Talmud dedicates an entire tractate, Avodah Zarah, as well as sections of other tractates, to regulating interactions with non-Jews to prevent Jews from engaging not only directly, or even indirectly, in idolatry.

While the scenarios presented derive from a concern about idolatry, and test how far one’s responsibility for enabling idolatrous worship extends by selling pagans materials for idolatrous worship, we might well apply this thinking to other situations in which what we own or sell could have negative consequences: drugs, alcohol, and guns come readily to mind.

Mishnah 1:5 [13b] instructs Jews not to sell to pagans certain items—among them the aromatic resin frankincense—that are likely to be used in idolatrous worship. I have excerpted two seemingly contradictory scenarios from Gemara’s discussion of this mishnah. The first case concerns a Jew who sells frankincense to a pagan merchant, where the possibility exists that the merchant may subsequently sell the frankincense to  second pagan who then uses it in idolatrous worship. Abaye explains that the Jew may sell the frankincense to the merchant without violating the prohibition, You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:14). The deaf cannot hear insults and the blind cannot see objects deliberately placed in their path, but Torah uses “deaf” and “blind” metaphorically: we are forbidden to take advantage of people’s vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Abaye is suggesting that were a Jew to sell frankincense directly to a pagan who intended to offer it as a sacrifice to an idol, the Jew would be enabling idolatry by taking advantage of the idolator’s vulnerability. In this case, however, the Jew sold the frankincense to a pagan merchant who is not obligated by You shall not…place a stumbling block. What the merchant does with the frankincense is not the Jewish seller’s responsibility. 

The second case concerns Rabbah, who sold a donkey to a Jew. For reasons we are not told, there was reason to suspect that the Jewish buyer might resell the donkey to a pagan who would sacrifice it as part of idolatrous worship. Is Rabbah potentially guilty of You shall not…place a stumbling block before the blind? Abaye asks Rabbah why he made the sale and Rabbah responds that he is not responsible for any subsequent sale; after all, the Jew who purchased the donkey might just as soon resell it to another Jew as sell it to a pagan.

How far does our responsibility go? And is idolatry the only consideration in our day and age?  Midrash Sifra on Leviticus 19:14 provides the example of A who knowingly gives B poor financial advice that will ultimately benefit A. In our day and age, consider one who sells a gun to a person with a volatile temper who has gotten into fist fights with neighbors.

“But the Torah teaches us that even by sitting at home doing nothing, by complete passivity and divorcement from society, one cannot shake off responsibility for what is transpiring in the world at large, for the iniquity, violence and evil there. By not protesting, "not marking the graves" and danger spots, you have become responsible for any harm arising therefrom, and have violated the prohibition: "Thou shalt not put a stumbling block before the blind..." 
Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Leviticus, p.178'


  1. Can you think of examples of behaviors that would violate the prohibition, You shall not…place a stumbling block before the blind in various arenas of modern life (e.g., community, politics, business, economics)?
  2. Can one passively violate You shall not…place a stumbling block before the blind? For example, by failing to point out corruption, bribery, safety violations in the workplace, or by not protesting injustice?
  3. When one sells an item to someone who might use it to harm another, how much responsibility does the seller have to vet the buyer? Consider the following: (A) an adult who presents a valid ID to purchase cheap beer, while teenagers are seen outside waiting in the parking lot; (B) physicians who dispense drugs such as oxycontin, Adderall, and Ritalin without periodically seeing the patient; (C) dealers who sell guns at gun shows.

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