Under the Asheira Tree

Avodah Zara (3:8) | Yisrael Bankier | 14 days ago

The Mishnah (3:8) taught that one is not allowed to sit in the shade of an asheira tree. If one did, and they were not beneath its branches, they would be remain tahor. If however one passed underneath the branches of the tree, then they would be tameh.

The Gemara asks why the person becomes tameh, and answers that it is because its is certain that beneath the tree would be something that was offered before the idol (tikrovet). The Gemara explains that the Mishnah is according to the opinion of R' Yehuda ben Beteira who understands that something that was offered before an idol transfers tumah to anything under the same covering – tumat ohel.

The Ritva explains that the "certainty" is not be taken literally. Rather the intention is that objects offered are found there in an overwhelming majority of cases. Alternatively, the legal status is based on the fact that it is a certainty that something was offered there and only a doubt if it was removed.

The Tosfot Yom Tov questions the Gemara's analysis. Why did the Gemara explain that the source of tumah in this case is the tikrovet? The tree itself is an idol, so surely that should be enough to make the person tameh. We have learnt previously that there is not difference if the source of tumah that transfers in this way is under a shared cover or itself covering over other items. Furthermore, R' Yehuda ben Beteira's source that the tikrovet is a source of tumah is because the Torah refers to it as zivchei meitim. Implicit in that derivation is that avodah zara is compared to a corpse which transfers tumah under an ohel.

The Tosfot Yom Tov initially suggests that in truth there is no difference. The focus on tikrovet was simply to teach the more novel case. Firstly, R' Yehuda ben Beteira's focused on the tikrovet as part of his derivation, from which learning that the idol itself is a source of tumah is obvious. Similarly, our Gemara was simply teaching that one should also be concerned that tikrovet avodah zara may be under a covering under which one wants to pass.

The Tifferet Yisrael however explains that there are two types of asheira. The first is where the tree is worshiped, whereas the other is where the idol that is placed beneath the tree is worshipped. The Tifferet Yisrael continues that this Mishnah could be referring to both types of asheira. Consequently, the Gemara could be referring to the second type, where the idol had later been removed. Nevertheless, out of concern that there are still items that were offered there, one cannot pass underneath the tree.

The Tosfot Yom Tov however cites that Tosfot that results in a very different explanation, which rejects the original assumption of his question. The Tosfot (Chulin 13b) explains that issue in our Mishnah is only out of concern that there is a tikrovet avodah zara beneath the tree. The Tosfot Yom Tov understands that this implies that only the tikrovet transfer tumah under an ohel, but not the avodah zara itself.

The Tosfot Yom Tov continues that one should not be surprised that the tikrovet is treated more stringently than the avodah zara. He explains that we find this phenomenon also in the laws of bitul – annulment. While an idol worshipper can annul the idol, thereby permitting deriving benefit from the material, this is not the case with respect to something that was offered before an idol. Despite our original assumption, we find that the simple explanation of the Gemara is sound, since it is possible that the laws of tikrovet are stricter than the avodah zara.

Granted that we found another law where this is true, what is the logic for why the tikrovet is stricter?

R' Tzvi Hirsch Kalisher explains that when one forms an idol, one intends it to be permanent. Consequently, when one annuls the idol, it impacts his original intentions – the basis on which the idol was formed. With respect to something offered before an idol, its designation was always temporary; its purpose was only during the time of worship. After that time, it has served its purpose. Consequently, trying to annul it at that point is already too late.

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