Avoda Zara 37-43
Foreign Food and Water
On two occasions the Torah relates that the Israelites on their way from Egypt to Eretz Yisrael offered to purchase food supplies from the nations whose borders they neared. First we find the Divine command in regard to the descendants of Esav who lived in Sair: "You shall purchase food to eat from them with money, and you shall purchase water from them to drink." (Devarim 2:6) We later find Moshe sending messengers to Sichon, king of Cheshbon, with a similar request: "Sell me food to eat for money, and give me water to drinkas did the descendants of Esav."
The latter passage is cited in our gemara as the source for the ban on eating food cooked by a non-Jew even if the ingredients are all kosher. On the assumption that the water mentioned here has been boiled by a non-Jew Rabbi Yochanan suggests that this provides the Torah guideline for which items are prohibited. Since water is not visibly changed in any way, it was permissible to purchase this from those nations, while anything whose form is changed comes under this prohibition.
The conclusion of the gemara is that the prohibition against food cooked by a non-Jew is of rabbinical origin, either to discourage intimacy in dining with non-Jews which may lead to eating their non-kosher food (Rashi) or to discourage the social contact which may lead to intermarriage (Tosefot). The passage cited by Rabbi Yochanan serves only as an asmachta a Torah hint to such a ban.
But how do we understand this passage as it was first presented as a Torah source when it mentions not only water but food as well? Targum Yonatan ben Uziel solves this by translating food as uncooked food. But if the food they purchased was not cooked, but rather raw fruits as Ramban explains, what moved Rabbi Yochanan to assume that the water mentioned in that passage was boiled and a source for the ban on gentile cooking?
Perhaps the answer lies in this Sages choice of the later passage rather than the earlier one. There is a subtle difference between the two. In the first the term purchase is applied both to food and water, while in the second one Moshe asks for food to be sold to him but water to be given to him. Analyzing the term "give me water" we must eliminate the connotation of a gift with no compensation for this would not be consistent with the purchase of water mentioned in the first passage. It can hardly be referring to water rights sold to a thirsty nation of millions. Our Sages therefore concluded that the water involved was actually boiled and presented to them upon purchase.
It should be noted that there are exceptions to the rule prohibiting food prepared by a non-Jew. (See Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 113 or consult a halachic authority for guidance.)
Avoda Zara 37b
The Fishy Idol That Fell
When the Philistines defeated the Israelites in battle and captured from them the Holy Ark, they took it to their temple in Ashdod and placed it before their fish idol "Dagon". Upon waking the following morning they found that their idol had fallen from its place and lay flat on its face before the Ark. They restored the idol to its place only to find it the next morning in the same collapsed condition except that this time its severed head and hands lay on the threshold.
"Therefore the priests of Dagon and all who enter the temple of Dagon do not step on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this very day.." (Shmuel I 5:5)
What is the meaning of the reverence shown by these idol worshippers to the threshold of their temple with the head and hands of their idol on it?
Two different approaches are offered in our gemara. Rabbi Yochanans view is that they continued to worship the severed parts of the idol. He therefore cites this as support for his position that an idol which has broken into pieces is still considered an idol from which no Jew may drive any benefit since its worshippers have not expressed their abandonment by smashing it. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, however, contends that even though the idol fell by itself and smashed into pieces it no longer has the status of an idol forbidden for benefit. The worshipper of such a fallen idol, he argues, certainly abandons worshipping it because he feels that if the idol was incapable of protecting itself it is unlikely that it is capable of protecting him. Why then did the priests and visitors of the Dagon temple avoid treading upon the threshold where Dagons remnants lay?
The answer lies in the twisted logic of those idol worshippers. Rather than draw the obvious conclusion that the G-d of Israel was avenging the honor of His Holy Ark by smashing the neighboring idol, they assumed that the supernatural power which they believed once resided in the fishy idol of Dagon had now relocated to the threshold of the temple where its head and hands now lay. They were not showing reverence to those severed parts but rather to the threshold itself.
It was only after the Philistines in Ashdod themselves were severely afflicted that they finally decided to remove the Ark, whose eventual return to the Israelites was discussed in an earlier article (24b) of this mesechta.
Avoda Zara 41b