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    Encountering the other – a halachic exploration

    Paper by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple delivered at the Australian Council of Christians and Jews’ “Engaging the other” conference, Brisbane, 29 September-2 October 2013.

    ccj_headerThe term “gentile” has come to mean the non-Jew, but this is not how it began. Originally it denoted someone who belonged to any people, even one’s own. In the Tanach, even an Israelite was a goy. Only later were the gentiles outsiders: pagans or heathens, generally idolaters. Nothing is said of Christians: that would have been a gross anachronism, since Christianity had not yet come into being.

    A major question for the halachah as expressed in post-biblical writings is whether the strict rules against associating with gentiles applied only to idolaters. As history unfolded and Jews lived in Christian lands, the “other” came to mean not only a gentile but particularly a Christian. We will touch later on the status of Islam, but our major focus will be the halachic attitude to the Christians.

    We will see how the Talmudic rule against associating with gentiles underwent considerable relaxation. At first the strict law was increasingly disregarded because of the social and economic realities of living in a gentile environment; then came an ideological re-assessment of the nature of Christianity, resulting in a decision that Talmudic references to gentiles did not apply to Christians. Our exploration will weave through practical examples in which the nature of the “other” was an issue and will trace the halachic parameters and arguments.


    We shall first show how pragmatic and then ideological modifications were made to the law which prohibited trading with gentiles on their festivals.

    The tractate Avodah Zarah opens with a mishnah which forbids trading with gentiles on the three days preceding their festivals (the Hebrew word used for “festival” is ed, literally “a calamity”: a cacophemism). The prohibition aims to prevent the Jew from becoming involved in the idol worship which took place on the day of the festival. It is axiomatic that idolatry is entirely baseless and that idolaters are transgressing the word of God, but the mishnah is not legislating for gentiles but for Jews. Its task is to tell Jews what to do or not to do and how to keep themselves away from even inadvertently supporting idolatry. Rabbi Ishmael attempted to prohibit trading, not only for three days before the festival but also for three days afterwards, but this view was not accepted by the sages.

    The first amendment of the law came with a dictum of Samuel in the 3rd century that outside the land of Israel the prohibition applied only to the festival day itself, not to the preceding three days. Why was the law more lenient outside Israel? Rashi offers three reasons for Samuel’s view:

    a. In accordance with Rabbi Yochanan’s statement in tractate Chullin, gentiles outside the land of Israel are not classified as idolaters: they simply continue the customs of their ancestors. It should be noted that Rabbi Yochanan does not explicitly explain why it is only outside Israel that gentiles are not regarded as idolaters. Some authorities hold that both Israel and the diaspora should be on the same footing.

    b. Outside Israel, Jews live in the midst of gentiles and depend upon them for their livelihood.

    c. The law takes account of yir’ah, the fear of repercussions.

    By Rashi’s time a further relaxation had taken place. Now Jews were trading with gentiles even on the actual day of the gentile festival. This is stated in the Tosafot, “supplementary” commentaries on the Talmud, reflecting the reality that the great fairs took place in Northern Europe on gentile religious festivals, and for the sake of economic stability the Jews carried on business at these fairs.

    Rabbenu Gershom condoned this on the grounds that Jews depended upon gentiles for their livelihood and in any case the gentiles in whose midst these Jews were living were not idolaters in the ancient sense. Rashi said that the law against dealing with the gentiles could be waived on all but the main festivals of Christmas and Easter. The Tur ruled that in order to prevent evah, enmity, one could trade with the gentiles even on their main festivals. Others held that even without quoting evah, trading was still permitted. Isaac ben Sheshet said that everything depended upon “the time, the place and the people”. Hence social and economic pressures at first led Jews to make their own decisions and disregard the letter of the law, and subsequently the rabbis found a rationale to justify the new situation.

    In this area, Ashkenazi authorities on the whole exercised greater leniency than the Sephardim, reflecting the differing social and economic circumstances in which the groups lived. Sephardi experience is seen in a rather stern attitude towards Christians in Maimonides’ commentary on the Mishnah – despite the famous (but sometimes censored) passage at the end of Hil’chot Melachim in his Code in which he speaks with appreciation of Christians and Muslims helping to teach mankind morality and to prepare the world for the messianic era.

    With Menachem Me’iri in the 13th century – an Ashkenazi – a new element arose. Instead of simply calling post-Talmudic gentiles non-idolaters, Me’iri gave them positive status as ummot hagedurot bedarchei hadattot, “peoples disciplined in the ways of religion”. Without endorsing their theology, he confirmed that they believed in God, upheld moral standards and respected the rule of law, and could be treated in civil matters on the same footing as Jews. This virtually introduced a new classification, in between idolaters on the one hand and Jews on the other. This intermediate category, which equated Jews and gentiles for most practical purposes, was analogous to the ancient ger toshav, the “resident alien”, whom the Talmud defines as a gentile who resolves not to worship idols; to keep the seven Noahide laws (this is the sages’ and Maimonides’ view); and to keep all the laws of the Torah with only one exception.

    The first and second points are met by Me’iri’s ummot hagedurot. Such gentiles are gerim toshavim, not idolaters, so Talmudic references to gentiles can no longer be taken at face value. To make this clear, halachic works often noted:

    “Everyone knows that many of the laws in these books have no practical application in our time… Wherever there is a mention of akum, goy, nochri, etc. (synonyms for “gentile”) the reference is to nations which did not acknowledge the true God and believe in the Divine revelation on Mount Sinai and the Decalogue, and were far from morality, pure standards and love of man. But the nations on whose soil we live and whose rulers protect us securely, believe in the Creator of all things and His revelation on Sinai, and have righteous statutes and judgments. Concerning these nations, our teachers and leaders commanded us to deal with them in love, uprightness and truth, at all times and in every sense.”


    The change in attitude is relevant to the question of saving the life of a gentile. According to the Talmud, one must not endanger the life of a gentile, but if he is in danger he need not be saved. The relevant passage states that idolaters and shepherds (even Jewish ones) of small cattle must not be cast into a pit, though there is no obligation to rescue them from a pit. Why are shepherds viewed so harshly? Because they had a reputation for robbery and theft. Shepherds were disqualified as witnesses in a law court because they were suspected of grazing the herds in the fields of others and could not be considered reliable.

    On the basis of this passage it was ruled that as a general rule the life of a gentile need not be saved. However, this law was excluded from practical application from early times. Moses Rivkes (Be’er HaGolah) explains that when the sages ruled against saving a gentile they were referring only to the idolaters of their own time. Gentiles of later ages, however, accept the basic principles of religious faith. There is no prohibition against rescuing them, and one should pray for their welfare and to do everything possible to preserve their lives.


    The Talmud relates that on his festival day a gentile sent a gift to Rabbi Judah Nesi’a. Judah asked Resh Lakish, “What shall I do? If I take it he will go and praise his idols; if I do not take it he will show evah, enmity.” Resh Lakish said, “Take it and throw it into a well in his presence!” Judah Nesi’a retorted, “How much more will this make him angry!” Resh Lakish said, “I mean throw it surreptitiously, so that it will not appear intentional”. Based on this incident, the Tur rules that a Jew should not accept a gift from a gentile on the latter’s festival day unless there is a fear of evah, in which case he may accept it but by throwing it away no benefit is derived. Does this ruling mean that the Jew has no benefit from the gift – or that the gentile derives no pleasure from the Jew’s acceptance? The Tur is explained as holding the second view. However, in post-Talmudic times the gentile is not deemed an idolater and the law is interpreted leniently.


    The Talmud asks about a gentile who invites the Jews of the town to his son’s wedding. Even if the food is kasher, the halachah deems the Jews as if they had partaken of sacrifices to idols since the Torah states, “He will call you and you will eat of his sacrifice”, indicating that to avoid supporting idolatry the invitation must not be accepted. Maimonides says the tenet of harchakah, “keeping away (from idolatry)”, underlies the strict ruling. Joseph Karo, redactor of the Shulchan Aruch, says that even though a Jew may not eat at the gentile’s banquet he may eat at a separate banquet. If the gentile sends kasher food to the home of a Jew, the latter may eat it without any suspicion of supporting idolatry.


    Another example of the halachic status of the “other” is whether a Jew may break Shabbat for the sake of a gentile. In many ways this is the most controversial aspect of the problem. It impinges on all walks of life, especially the medical arena. A cause celebre, probably apocryphal, arose in 1965 when Israel Shahak, a secularist professor of chemistry at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, claimed that an orthodox Jew in Haifa had refused to call an ambulance for an African on Shabbat. The whole event was probably an anti-religious “beat-up”, and Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits said that Shahak admitted to inventing the incident. Apparently the daily Ha’aretz asked Shahak to identify the place in Haifa where it happened but he was unable to do so. How Shahak claimed to know that the man requiring aid was a gentile was explained by the man’s colour, though today that would not prove anything in view of the Ethiopian immigration and the number of coloured converts to Judaism.

    Breaking a commandment in order to save life or respond to a health emergency is known as pikku’ach nefesh. The halachic rule is Pikku’cah nefesh docheh Shabbat, “an emergency overrides the Sabbath”. Breaking Shabbat is an absolute prohibition like the three cardinal sins, idolatry, adultery and murder, which must not be committed even at the cost of one’s life – yehareg ve’al ya’avor. The link between Shabbat and idolatry is that Shabbat testifies to the Creation: desecrating the day is tantamount to denying the Creator. However, life takes precedence over Shabbat. The foundation of this principle is in the Torah itself; the Mechilta offers a series of verses from which it could be derived:
    a. Rabbi Ishmael says that if a person who kills a thief is exempt from liability (Ex. 22:1), how much more should it be permitted to save life on Shabbat;

    b. Rabbi El’azar ben Azariah says that if circumcision, which involves only one part of the body, overrides Shabbat, how much more should saving the whole body be permissible on Shabbat;

    c. Rabbi Akiva says that if punishment for murder (Ex. 21:14) overrides the Temple service, which in turn supersedes the Sabbath, how much more should the preservation of life supersede the Sabbath;

    d. Rabbi Jose the Galilean says that in the verse, “But (ach) My Sabbaths shall you keep”, ach denotes a distinction: “There are Sabbaths on which you should rest and Sabbaths on which you should not rest”;

    e. Rabbi Simeon ben Menasya (in the Talmud Yoma version of the debate, Rabbi Jonathan ben Joseph) says that the verse, ”You shall keep the Sabbath because it is holy to you” (Ex. 31:14) shows that “the Sabbath is handed over to you: you are not handed over to the Sabbath”;

    f. Rabbi Natan (in the Talmud, Rabbi Simeon ben Menasya) quotes the verse, “The Children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations”, explaining, “Break one Sabbath for him so that he may live to observe many Sabbaths”;

    g. Rabbi Judah says in the name of Samuel that the verse, “He shall live by them (the commandments)” (Lev. 18:5) means, “he shall not die because of them”.

    Rabbi Natan’s view is widely quoted. The Talmud says that for a one day-old infant the Sabbath may be desecrated, because hopefully he will live to observe many Sabbaths, but not for a dead David king of Israel, because dead people do not have to keep the commandments. For a person who is duty-bound to keep Shabbat, the day may be desecrated in order to save his life.

    In the Maccabean wars, Jewish fighters died because they would not take up arms on Shabbat. Then it was ruled that Shabbat could be breached in an emergency, but not for a person who had no obligation to keep the Jewish Sabbath. The strict view was maintained, and extended to Jewish heretics, by the Chafetz Chayyim, who admits in his Mishnah B’rurah that there is widespread disregard of the rule but insists that it remains the law.

    The Talmud asks about a midwife assisting a heathen woman. The Mishnah fears that she is delivering a child for idolatry, unless it is her paid profession. Abayye advises regarding Shabbat that a midwife should say, “For us who keep the Sabbath we may desecrate it; for you who do not keep the Sabbath we may not desecrate it”. Tosafot allow her to break a rabbinic extension of the law but not a Torah commandment. Maimonides has a further distinction: if the woman giving birth is the daughter of a ger toshav the midwife may break a rabbinic rule “since we are commanded to preserve his (the ger toshav’s) life”: the Torah says, “He shall live with you”. Maimonides forbids healing a gentile on Shabbat unless refusal would cause enmity, and even then it is allowed only in a professional situation.

    From about the 17th century Jewish doctors, even the most orthodox, attended non-Jewish patients on the Sabbath. The rabbis saw what was happening and urged the doctors to keep any transgression to rabbinic laws and not Biblical commandments. The principle of evah was quoted: things which are normally prohibited can be done if good relations with the gentiles require it. The Chatam Sofer says, “Even a Biblical prohibition is relaxed if there is no alternative.”

    Responding to the Shahak case, Chief Rabbi IJ Unterman wrote an analysis of the ethic of respect and harmony in society, especially in the light of the verse, “Its (the Torah’s) ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace”. As an example of preserving all human life, he quoted Moses Isserles’ ruling in the Shulchan Aruch that one may extinguish a light on Shabbat even in the house of a non-Jew if there would otherwise be a danger to life.

    Rabbi Nahum L Rabinovitch says that pikku’ach nefesh applies to all humans by virtue of the verse, “You shall keep My statutes and observances; if a man does this, he shall live by them” (Lev. 18:5). “A man” includes everyone – priest, Levite, Israelite and gentile –provided they uphold the Torah.


    Having marshalled the evidence of halachic development concerning the Christian “other”, we now attempt some general conclusions.

    Why did Judaism harness its assessment of Christians and Christianity to the ancient theme of idolatry? That idols and idolatry were bitterly opposed by Judaism is axiomatic. Not only was idolatry a false position: it was downright foolish. No logical person would deduce that the sticks and stones from which idols were made were worth worshipping; no sensible person could be so stupid. This was the judgment of the Psalmist, and Judaism never wavered from it.

    Why then did Jews not debate the idolaters and persuade them that they were wrong?

    There were some attempts, but it was not an age of intellectual democracy in which every point of view could be calmly presented with the possibility that some minds might be changed. It was too early for that. Even in the Middle Ages the disputations between Jews and Christians were staged and the Jews had no chance of coming out on top. Biblical and rabbinic references to idolatry were not necessarily directed at the idolaters but at the Jews. If idolaters indulged in false beliefs and worship, so much the pity; but Judaism was addressing a Jewish audience and its aim was to prevent Jews becoming drawn into idolatry. It had an overarching reason: as Isidore Epstein points out, idolatry was not just a false theology but a false morality. Compared to the strict ethical system of the Biblical tradition, idolatry propagated false values.

    This is where the discussion of Christianity (and Islam) comes in. Regardless of their theology, were they a false morality? If they were, Judaism had to apply the stern prohibitions against dealing with idolaters. Thanks to Menachem Me’iri and similar teachers, Judaism decided that the other monotheistic faiths fostered morality and uprightness and Jews could work with them.


    new-testament-people-a-rabbis-notesNEW TESTAMENT PEOPLE: A RABBI’S NOTES

    Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple’s book discusses some 98 themes in the New Testament and Christianity and shows how Jesus and the early Christians can only be understood against a Jewish background. Rabbi Apple never resiles from his own faith and commitment, but sees the book as a contribution to dialogue.

    The softcover and ebook editions are available from Amazon, AuthorHouse, The Book Depository (free worldwide shipping), and elsewhere online.

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