Just Passing Through

Avodah Zara (1:4) | Yisrael Bankier | 10 years ago

The Mishnah (1:4) dealt with the issue of entering a city of idol worship on the day of their festival, even just to meet with someone (Rashi). The Mishnah rules that if the road leads exclusively to the city then one is not allowed to travel to the city. If however the path passed through to another city then it is permitted. We will attempt to understand this ruling.

Rashi explains that in the first case, the person is susceptible to suspicion (chashda) that his going to the city to take part in the celebrations. In the latter case, one will say that he is simply passing through and journeying on the next city. The Ritva maintains that in the first case it is prohibited at all costs1 and draws parallel between our Mishnah and the laws of entering a house of idol worship. 

The Tifferet Yisrael anticipates the following question on the position of Rashi. One might ask that there are many other situations where actions are prohibited based on chashda even though there is genuine possibility that the person is acting in a permissible manner. For example, one is forbidden to eat almond milk with meat since it appears he is eating milk and meat together (unless he demonstrates otherwise); a cow may not be taken out on Shabbat wearing a bell as it appears it is being taken to market; and so on. Here too, how is the possibility that the person is passing through a valid grounds to permit his entry into the city?

The Tifferet Yisrael offers two answers. The first is that in the second case there are two doubts – a sfeik sfeika. Perhaps the person is passing through and even if his is not, perhaps he will only be engaged in permissible activities. The second answer is that the violation he might be suspected of is quite extreme – joining in the public celebration focused on idol worship. Consequently there would be a tendency to judge this person favourably and not be concerned for suspicion. This is only if, unlike in the first case, the city is not the only possible destination otherwise there would be some grounds for suspicion. 

The Ritva cites another explanation for the prohibition of entering the city, which is not based on chashda. He explain that the case is where there is a large gathering which itself provides honour to that which is being worshiped. His travelling to the city is adding numbers to the pilgrimage, itself being a violation.

The Rambam however has a different understanding. The Lechem Mishnah explains that the previous understandings are difficult since the beginning of the Mishnah had already ruled that one is not allowed to enter a city of idol worship. How then can the Mishnah’s question “What [is the law] regarding going there?” be asking whether one can meet with someone in the city?

Consequently the Rambam understand that Mishnah is only asking if one can pass through the city. Using the Lechem Mishneh’s example, one needs to travel from Yerushalaim to Tzfat and Lod, a city of idol worship, is on the way.  The Mishnah is teaching that if the only way to get to Tzfat is via Lod then it is prohibited since he is deriving benefit from the road that was paved for the idol worship. If however there are multiple routes and he happens to travel via Lod then it is not an issue since he has other options.2

1 He understands that it is an avizrei avodah zara.

2 The Lechem Mishnah offers another explanation that if travelling via Lod is the only way then when he leaves Yerushalaim there will be an issue of chashad since he must travel via Lod. If there are other routes, then people in Yerushalaim will think he took a different track.


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