This week we begin masechet Avodah Zarah whose focus in on the laws surrounding the prohibition of idol worship. The first Mishnah relates to dealings with idol worshipers that are prohibited three days prior to their festivals. The first of these is “laset ve’latet” – business dealings. We shall attempt to analyse the reason for the prohibition.
The Gemara (6a) probes the reason and two possibilities are suggested. One is that as a result of the business dealing, the idol worshiper will be happy, crediting his god and he will thank his god on his festival. This result would be a violation of the prohibition, “…the name of the gods of others you shall not mention, nor shall your mouth cause it to be heard” (Shemot23:13). Alternatively the Gemara suggest that the concern is over the potential violation of “…and you shall not place a stumbling block before the blind…” (lifnei iver) (Vayikra 19:14) This would occur if, e.g. he sold an animal to the idol worshiper thereby making it possible for him to offer a sacrifice. A practical difference noted by the Gemara is if the idol worshipper already had an animal. According to the first understanding there is still a concern that he will thank his god as a result of the purchase. However since he already has an animal, there would be no violation of lifnei iver. The Gemara does not appear to resolve the question.
Rashi, commenting on our Mishnah, explains that the concern is due to the joy he will derive from the sale. Rashi comments later (12b) that the prohibition is specifically selling and not buying. He explains that there is joy in the purchase of the product. When one however is forced to sell their property it is not necessarily joyous, so purchasing from them would be permitted. The Ritva(13a) however argues that there is also pleasure when selling property due to the profits gained and the money made available. Indeed the Tosfot (12b) understood that Rashi ultimately held that both forms of transaction were prohibited.
The Rabeinu Tam (cited by Ritva 2a) however maintains that since the Gemara did not resolve the question regarding the reason for the prohibition the more lenient answer is adopted. In other words, the concern is lifnei iver and it is only prohibited to sell an idol worshiper something that he can offer before his idol. Due to the give-and-take nature of business, a regular transaction however is not grounds for concern that he will thank his idol about that particular sale or purchase.
Note that according to Rabeinu Tam the prohibition of lifnei iver is only regarding selling. The Ritva adds that the language of the Mishnah “laset v’latet” does not mean buying and selling, but more simply taking the money and handing over the product (which is part and parcel of sell). The Tosfot (6a) however suggest that lifnei iver could perhaps apply also to purchasing from them since money is made available to them for idol worship. The Ritva however rejects this possibility for a number of reasons. Firstly the money itself cannot be offered or be used to directly decorate the idol. Secondly they are not prohibited from using the money to pay the priests. Finally even if the money would be used to purchase and animal for sacrifice it is once step removed – lifnei de’lifnei – and not considered a violation of lifnei iver.
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