Avodah Zarah 17

Avodah Zarah 17b ~ What Gender is that Bee?

From  here .

From here.

Rabbi Elazar ben Perata was in trouble. When the  Romans heard him being called him by the title "Rabbi" they arrested him.Teaching Torah was banned, and to be identified as a Rabbi, a teacher of Torah, invoked the death penalty. To save his life, Rabbi Elazar denied the charge. Instead, he claimed, he was simply a teacher (rabban) of weavers.  So the Roman authorities tested him on his knowledge of weaving:

עבודה זרה יז, ב

 אייתו ליה תרי קיבורי אמרו ליה הי דשתיא והי דערבא איתרחיש ליה ניסא אתיא זיבוריתא אותיבא על דשתיא ואתאי זיבורא ויתיב על דערבא אמר להו האי דשתיא והאי דערבא

They brought him two coils of wool and said to him: Which is the warp, and which is the woof?  A miracle occurred, as a female bee came and sat on the warp, and a male bee came and sat on the woof. Rabbi Elazar ben Perata said to them: This is the warp, and that is woof.

Rabbi Elazar understood the message the two bees were sending. The male was sitting on the woof, which is threaded into the warp. The female bee was on the warp, which is fixed in the loom and receives the woof. 

What is going on here?  Is it in fact the case that male and female bees are distinguishable? It turns out that they are. Sort of.

Queens, Drones, and Workers

A hive contains three kinds of bees. First, there are thousands of worker bees. These are the ones that you see flying around collecting nectar from flowers, or annoying you in the Sukkah.  All worker bees are female. The hive also has one Queen, whose sole task is to lay eggs.  Obviously, the queen is female. She stays in the hive and is attended to by special worker bees who become nurse bees.  And then there are the male drone bees, whose only job is to mate with a virgin queen. They leave the hive and fly to drone congregation areas, where, in midair, they mate (or attempt to mate) with a virgin queen.  Then they fall to the ground and die.

Comparison of worker, drone and queen.jpg

 The male drones are about twice the size of the female worker bees.  According to a helpful article (Differences in drone and worker physiology in honeybees) published in 2005, the weight of an emerging worker is 70-100mg.  In contrast, the weight of an emerging drone is around 260mg - over two-and-a-half times heavier. Drones also have bigger eyes and rounded, more stocky bodies. 

Drone bees are the hapless males within a colony. They seemingly have little or no purpose within the colony: they take no part in hive building or maintenance; they don’t defend the colony (drones do not possess a sting); they don’t gather food or nurture the larvae.
— Barnsley Beekeepers Association

A typical hive contains one queen, about 60,000 worker bees, and a few hundred drones.  You are likely to have seen hundreds of worker bees over the years.  You are, however, far less likely to have seen a drone.  In fact, you may never have seen one. But they are out there.

Rashi vs. Tosafot

warp and woof II.jpg

According to Rashi, Rabbi Elazar was able to distinguish between a smaller female worker (זיבוריתא) and a larger male drone (זיבורא). The worker sat on the warp, and the drone sat on the woof. Since the woof is inserted into the warp, Rav Elazar deduced that the woof was indicated by the male drone. Because there is indeed a difference in size and gross morphology between the workers and the drones, it is entirely possible that Rav Elazar could identify each. Assuming that he had great eyesight and was an experienced apiarist.

Drone Bee Phallus. From  here .

Drone Bee Phallus. From here.

Tosafot disagrees.  There is no way, claims Tosafot, that Rabbi Elazar's eyesight was that good. Now not knowing anything about bees, you might agree. After all, the penis of a drone bee is very, very small. But as we have seen, to determine the gender of a bee you don't have to get that close.  You just have know what you're looking for in terms of the body size and morphology.   


Tosafot therefore suggests that the Talmudic words זיבוריתא and זיבורא do not refer to a female and a male of the same species. Instead, the words refer to two different species, which Rabbi Elazar could identify from a distance. The species זיבוריתא, written in a female form, was sitting on the warp. The species זיבורא, written in a male form, was sitting on the woof, since the woof goes into the warp.

There are thousands of species of bees and their larger cousins, the hornets.  It is entirely possible that Rabbi Elazar noted that the two insects on the loom were two different species called by two similar but distinct names. Tosafot is incorrect to claim that the gender of a bee cannot be determined from a distance.  But the alternative theory is also scientifically plausible.

We have already learned that honey has some amazing medicinal properties.  Today we learn that bees too, can save a life.  So next time you are bothered by bees, act kindly. After all, they saved Rabbi Elazar's life.




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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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