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[page xi] The name given to this Tractate, 'Abodah Zarah, means literally 'strange worship', and is the common term in Rabbinical literature for idolatry. The subject treated therein was of vital importance to Jewish life, its gravity being greatly enhanced by the conditions which obtained in the Talmudic age.
In the Bible the newly-formed Israelite nation, after the exodus from Egypt, was solemnly admonished again and again that the alternative before it consisted of the worship of God, which would prolong life, or idolatry which would spell death. A corporate existence was only assured so long as the choice was given to the former, the adoption of heathenish cults involving certain destruction.
Hence from the earliest period of Jewish history, the mode of worship followed by the people was a matter of life and death in the strictest sense of the phrase. Experience soon proved how great was the temptation to imitate the religious practices of surrounding nations, even at a time when the Israelites inhabited a land of their own. The difficulty of resisting alien influences grew much more severe in periods of dispersion when Jews were living in a heathen environment; and the Rabbis had to give serious attention to the problem of how to counteract the forces of assimilation which threatened to submerge the Jewish communities settled in countries where idol-worship was the State religion.
Their method of solving this problem forms, in the main, the subject-matter of this Tractate, and the measures they devised must in fairness be judged in the light of the conditions which prevailed in that era. If some of their regulations appear drastic to the modern mind, displaying an apparent narrowness of view, it should be remembered that they were grappling with a grievous danger which imperilled the very existence of not only their people, but also of the spiritual heritage of their forefathers. We have to visualise small minorities of monotheists heroically withstanding the law of gravitation which tended to cause their absorption in [page xii] the mass of the people around them who were polytheists and idolaters. To make their resistance at all possible of success extreme measures were essential. There could not be the slightest compromise, nor must the smallest loophole be left open. In this matter, if anywhere, a fence — and a very high one — had to be made round the Torah. An unscalable barrier must be erected behind which the Jew would be protected against the allurement of his neighbour's rites and beliefs, with their strong appeal to the baser side of human nature.
To achieve this end the Rabbis denounced idol-worship as a cardinal sin. 'The prohibition of idolatry is equal in weight to all the other commandments of the Torah' [Horayoth 8a], they taught; and conversely, 'So grave is the sin of idolatry, that whoever rejects it is as though he acknowledges the whole Torah' [Hul. 5a]. Whereas a Jew was permitted to violate the ordinances of the Torah under threat of death, an exception was made of idolatry, immorality and bloodshed [Sanh. 74a], idolatry ranking first in importance.
In addition to teaching this abstract doctrine, the Rabbis had to formulate practical rules which would have the effect of diminishing the likelihood of a Jew becoming contaminated by heathenism. When engaged upon this task, they kept before them the principle that prevention was better than cure, which they expressed in the aphorism, 'Keep off, we say to a Nazirite; go round the vineyard and come not near to it' [fol. 58b].
The chief deterrents they elaborated are:  An idolatrous object is asur be-hana'ah, by which was meant that a Jew may not make use of it himself and he may also not derive any benefit from it. He could not dispose of it in any way which would in the slightest degree cause profit to accrue to him. [ii] They allowed a Jew to take possession and utilise such an object after it had been 'annulled', i.e., mutilated by a heathen, because its very appearance would then suggest the idea of its helplessness — 'It could not save itself, so how can it save me!' [fol. 41b]. And they added this important proviso: once the object had been in the possession of a Jew, even by his just picking it up, it could never be annulled. [iii] Appreciating [page xiii] the fact that eating and drinking together with heathens must lead to close social intercourse, resulting in mixed marriages and eventually the possible abandonment of Judaism, the Rabbis instituted various regulations for the disqualification of food prepared or handled by them with the purpose of preventing such intimate association. The underlying motive was not exclusiveness or unsociability, but racial and spiritual self-preservation.
It is important to understand that the vehement opposition to idolatry which distinguishes the legislation of the Bible and later of the Talmud was not merely the antagonism of one theological system to another. Fundamentally it was a conflict of ethical standards. Heathen peoples practised 'abominations' against which the Scriptures earnestly warned Israel. Idolatry was identified with immoral conduct, an identification which was too often verified by experience [see fol. 22a et seq.]. The denial of God, therefore, which was implied in polytheism entailed for the Rabbis an inevitable denial of the morality of the Torah. They maintained that 'whoever acknowledges idolatry denies the Ten Commandments as well as the precepts given to Moses, to the prophets and the patriarchs' [Sifre, Numbers § III ].
Consequently in their aim to save their people from the ravages of paganism, the Rabbis were convinced that they were fighting for ethical purity as well as religious truth. In a world of debased standards of conduct they waged a resolute contest for the preservation of the higher and nobler concepts of human behaviour which reflected the will of the God of Israel; and in so doing they rendered a conspicuous service to their own community and also to the advancement of civilisation.
The Indices of this Tractate have been compiled by Judah J. Slotki, M.A.
PREFATORY NOTE BY THE EDITOR
The Editor desires to state that the translation of the several Tractates, and the notes thereon, are the work of the individual contributors and that he has not attempted to secure general uniformity in style or mode of rendering. He has, nevertheless, revised and supplemented, at his own discretion, their interpretation and elucidation of the original text, and has himself added the notes in square brackets containing alternative explanations and matter of historical and geographical interest.
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