Tractate Avodah Zarah ~ Which Version Do You Use?

Censored Image.png

Today marks the start of a new tractate in the Daf Yomi cycle: Avodah Zarah, which largely deals with the relationships Jews may and may not have with their idol worshiping neighbors. While most of these neighbors are described as idol worshipers or heretics, in at least three places the text refers to them as נוצרים - Christians. 

The problem is that you might never know this if you are using the censored version of the Talmud.  Over the centuries, this version became the standard Hebrew text. It is found in nearly all editions based of the so-called "Vilna Shas" edition, first published by The Widow and Brothers Romm in 1886.  It is also the basis for the text used in the Schottenstien Talmud.

Censorship in Masechet Avodah Zarah

Consider this section from Avodah Zarah 6a, which discusses rules about business dealings. As you can see, the standard text makes no mention of with whom we may not do business on a Sunday. In the Schottenstein (Art Scroll) edition the translation adds this explanation: It refers to "Babylonian pagans who observe a sun-worshipping festival every Sunday."

 
Schottenstein 6a.png
 

Except, it doesn't. Or at least it didn't. Here is the same text found in a 14th century manuscript, from the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris (Suppl. Heb 1337).

Avodah Zara נוצרי Bibliotheque detail.png

The text reads: 

אמ[ר] שמואל נוצרי לדברי ר[בי] ישמע[אל] לעולם אסור

Shmuel says: According to Rabbi Yishmael, it is always prohibited to engage in business with Christians, [as their festival takes place every Sunday].

In the original, pre-censored Talmudic text, it is Christians with whom we are forbidden to do business on a Sunday. Not Babylonian pagans. The more recent Koren Talmud restores the text to its original:

Koren 6a detail.jpg

There are at least two other instances in Avodah Zarah (6a and 7b) in which the Koren Talmud restores  the text and uses the word Christian.  Later on (17a,) an entire passage containing the words ישו הנוצרי - Jesus of Nazereth has been redacted.  It can be found in the restored Koren edition:

 Koren  Avodah Zarah  17a

Koren Avodah Zarah 17a

The Truth and Its Consequences

Using the original uncensored text raises its own set of uncomfortable questions about our original relationship to Christianity. But using the censored text can lead to some silly outcomes. Here is an example, (based on a review essay of the Koren Talmud I wrote here).

The text of the Talmud in Berachot 3a describes God sitting through the night, mourning the loss of his Temple.  The original uncensored text reads:

 אוי לי שהחרבתי את ביתי ושרפתי את היכלי והגליתים לבין אומות העולם

Woe is me, for I destroyed my Temple, and I burned my Sanctuary, and I exiled them among the nations of the world.

However, the text of the English Schottenstein (and the Soncino) edition reads as follows: 

אוי לבנים שבעונותיהם החרבתי את ביתי ושרפתי את היכלי והגליתים לבין אומות העולם

Woe to the children, because of whose sins I destroyed my Temple, and I burned my Sanctuary, and I exiled them among the nations of the world.

The additional words  לבנים שבעונותיהם were added by Christian censors to make a theological statement about the fallen state of the Jews.  The corrupted text was noted in Dikdukei Soferim, but none of this seems to have been evident to the editors of the English Schottenstein Talmud, who compounded the error by adding the following homiletic note to the corrupted text.

 Detail from Schottenstein English Talmud  Berachot  3a.

Detail from Schottenstein English Talmud Berachot 3a.

In its effort to comment on (nearly) everything, the Schottenstein edition added a homiletic explanation of a corrupt text written (almost certainly) by a Jewish apostate serving as Christian censor. Fortunately, the Hebrew and English editions of the Koren, together with the Hebrew edition of the Schottenstein (ArtScroll) Talmud returned the text to its original and uncensored form. No homiletic gymnastics needed.

Where did Avodah Zarah Go?

One of the early editions of Talmud was printed in Basel in 1580.  According to Marvin Heller, (who knows everything about early Hebrew printing and the printing of the Talmud) it was "the most heavily censored edition of the printed Talmud. One tractate, Avodah Zarah was entirely omitted, the name alone being sufficient to disqualify it."

There were Christian censors to be sure.  But Elisheva Carelbach, in her essay The Status of the Talmud in Early Modern Europe, notes that ironically, the Talmud may have been spared further decimation because of the intercession of Christian scholars:

In the aggregate, the positive interest of the hebraists paved the way for the printing and survival of the Talmud in Europe by assuring Europe’s rulers of its value. Christian talmudists set the foundations for the modern academic study of the Talmud. The preservation and study of the Talmud by Christian scholars in any measure might be regarded as one of the small miracles of the early modern period.
— Elisheva Carelbach. The Status of the Talmud in Early Modern Europe. In Mintz and Goldman (eds). Printing the Talmud: From Bomberg to Schottenstein. Yeshiva University Museum 2005. p88.

So now, as we embark on the study of tractate Avodah Zarah, which edition will you be using? And which edition should you be using?

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