Monday, August 30, 2010

That Was Then...

It's been a while since I did a Daf Yomi post. Partly this was because the Shavuot tractate was unusually complicated and rather remote, and frankly I didn't enjoy crossing it. Now we're in Avoda Zara, however, which is one of my favorites. Avoda Zara means paganism, but mostly the tractate deals with the relations of Jews and their surrounding societies.

The first two layers of the Talmud, I remind you, are the Mishna and Mishnaic literature, created in Hebrew in Erez Yisrael roughly between 30-200 CE, and the Gemara, mostly in Aramaic with lots of Hebrew, mostly in Babylonia, Bavel, (present day Iraq), between about 200-500 CE. Then there are the medieval layers, written mostly in Hebrew, sort of, with quite a bit of Aramaic interspersed. The whole edifice assumes its students know the entire Bible (Old Testament) by heart, so the Biblical texts are all over but rarely written except in three-word snippets which everyone recognizes in context, obviously. Additional layers are still being created to this very day, but the first two are the heart of the project.

The Mishna was created under a mostly antagonistic Roman Empire, sometimes genocidal. The Gemara was created under the Sassinids, a Persian dynasty. While life for the Jews in Erez Yisrael got steadily worse (with some exceptions) from 30CE for many centuries, life in Bavel generally got better, at least until the 6th century by which time the Gemara was mostly completed.

If you're studying the relations with the surrounding society, as the Avoda Zara tractate does, you're going to find expressions of these differing contexts. As for example when the Mishna forbids Jews to sell various things to heathens.
Rav Ada ben Ahava says: it is forbidden to sell them sheets of iron.Why? Lest they beat them into weapons.

The Gemara asks: If so, it should be forbidden to sell them even hoes and shovels [which they might also beat into weapons]?

Rav Zvid explains: Iron sheets from India are forbidden, because they serve only for weapons [but hoes and shovels may be sold].

The Gemara: But we do, today, we sell even Indian sheet iron to the heathens?
Rav Ashi explains: we sell [Indian sheet iron] only to the Persians, who protect us.
Avoda Zara 16a
[This thread began and is explained here]

Update: Joe in Australia, in the comments below, adds some fascinating context:
Wow! You know what they're talking about? The iron that came from India was the famous "Wootz". The secret of its manufacture has been lost, but it's both hard and flexible, and it was used to produce quite beautiful patterned blades. In this form it's called Damascene (i.e., "from Damascus") steel. It would only have been used for weapons, as the Talmud says, because it was enormously expensive.

So, this sugya tells us that Jews were the ones who imported the billets of wootz from India to Persian Babylon! I wonder if this is generally known?

6 comments:

AKUS said...

"Rav Ashi explains: we sell [Indian sheet iron] only to the Persians, who protect us."

Indeed times have changed - nice catch, Yakov.

NormanF said...

The Zoroastrian Persians at the time, where always friendly to the Jews.

The times have changed since then.

Joe in Australia said...

Wow! You know what they're talking about? The iron that came from India was the famous "Wootz". The secret of its manufacture has been lost, but it's both hard and flexible, and it was used to produce quite beautiful patterned blades. In this form it's called Damascene (i.e., "from Damascus") steel. It would only have been used for weapons, as the Talmud says, because it was enormously expensive.

So, this sugya tells us that Jews were the ones who imported the billets of wootz from India to Persian Babylon! I wonder if this is generally known?

Yaacov said...

Wow back to you, Joe. Thanks for the history lesson, which I've now incorporated in the text of the post itself (most readers don't read comments).

הגיין said...

Did you see this? ...
מעריב/נועה אורון 28/8/2010
כך תורמת ישראל לכלכלת איראן

As a matter of the הלכה, may we presume to what use they shall put the funds?

Lee Ratner said...

According to Martin Gilbert, there were about 800,000 Jews living in Mesopatamia at the time of of the Arab conquest. There were only 140,000 by the end of WWII.* Its a pity, thousands of years of culture destroyed by a bloody demagogue.

*To be fair to the Arabs, the real decrease in the Jewish population didn't occur till the Mongol invasions.