It’s What is Brought that Counts

This section of the Gemara discusses a scenario where the ladder or wall giving access was built out of wood from an Asheira Tree. Since an Asheira tree is idolatrous, It is forbidden to derive benefit from the wood. There are many times in the Gemara where this form of idolatry is mentioned. Let us take a closer look to understand the Asheira phenomenon and what was the nature of its prohibition :

The first instance of Asheira Tree mentioned is in Devarim 16:21

לֹֽא־תִטַּ֥ע לְךָ֛ אֲשֵׁרָ֖ה כָּל־עֵ֑ץ אֵ֗צֶל מִזְבַּ֛ח יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר תַּעֲשֶׂה־לָּֽךְ׃

JPS Translation: Thou shalt not plant thee an Asherah of any kind of tree beside the altar of the LORD thy God, which thou shalt make thee.

Ramban explains:

יזהיר הכתוב שלא יטע אילן אצל מזבח ה' לנוי ויחשוב שהוא כבוד והדר למזבח השם ואסר אותו בעבור שהוא מנהג עובדי עבודה זרה לטעת אילנות בפתחי בתי עבודה זרה שלהם

because it was the custom of idolaters to plant trees by the entrances of their houses of idolatry....

So according to Ramban, The tree itself was not necessarily worshiped. Rather it was some customary enhancement to the adulterous place, and therefore the Torah forbade it out of its resemblance and similarity to idolatry.

Seforno Ibid expands on this idea with a deeper message:

לא תטע לך אשרה הביא שלשה דומים מענין דברים שהם נאים כפי החוש ונמאסים מפני מומם הרוחני ראשונה היא האשרה שהיא לנוי היכלות ומ''מ הי' נמאסת לקדש מפני שהיתה תכסיס לעבודת גלולים וכן נקדים העדפת הצדק הרוחני לשלמות גוף הדיין שהוא חושיי וגשמי. שנית המצבה שאע''פ שהיתה לרצון קודם מתן תורה כאמרו ושתים עשרה מצבה. וזה כי היה ענינה כאלו המקריב נצב תמיד לפני הקדש כענין שויתי ה' לנגדי תמיד ונפלו מזאת המדרגה בענין העגל כאמרו שם כי לא אעלה בקרבך. וכן יקרה בענין זקן שאין פרקו נאה שיצא עליו שם רע בילדותו כשתמצא זקן ופרקו נאה. שלישית הביא ענין המום הנמאס אע''פ שתהיה הבהמה יפה כפי החוש ושמנה שוה אלף זוז ועם כל זה היא נפסלת לקדש מפני מום בלתי מחסר מדמים ויהיה שור שוה סלע בשביל היותו תמים כשר לקרבן וכן יהיה בזקן בעל מדה מגונה כשתמצא שלם ממנו במדות אע''פ שלא יהיה עשיר ונאה כמוהו:

לא תטע לך אשרה, in this verse the Torah lists three items whose common denominator is that they appeal to the senses, are desirable, but at the same time are all spiritually negative, harmful.  

 The first one is האשרה, something beautiful and decorative for buildings, but at the same time something ugly from the vantage point of holiness as it is usually a conduit leading to idolatrous practices. Seeing that this is so, we are commanded whenever faced with such choices to give preference to that which leads to spiritual righteousness at the expense of physical perfection or beauty. By the same token, we are to prefer spiritual qualities possessed by someone chosen as a judge to external features, impressive though they may be.  

 The second item is המצבה, even though such a kind of altar was welcomed by G’d as an outlet for someone who wanted to bring an offering to G’d, this was before the Torah had been given. Consider, for example, Exodus 24,4 where the Torah welcomed 12 such monuments erected by Moses, where these monuments symbolised the fact that the person offering a sacrifice considered himself as constantly in the presence of the divine. (compare Psalms 16,8 שויתי ה' לנגדי תמיד, “I feel myself constantly in the presence of the Lord.”) The Jewish people had not been able to maintain this spiritual level after they had committed the sin of the golden calf. Even when such a מצבה is dedicated to heaven it had become hateful in the eyes of the Lord, i.e. G’d had expressed His distaste in Exodus 33,3, after having provisionally “forgiven” the people by appointing an angel to lead them to the Holy Land, but refusing to lead their ascent by His presence being among them. We encounter a similar concept described as the difference between an old man whose beard proclaims his respectability, as opposed to the old man whose beard is disheveled, i.e. reveals traces of a youth which was spent irresponsibly.  We look for people whose exterior testifies to their blameless interior, character. [This metaphor is used by the Chazzan in his private introductory prayer on Yom Hakippurim. Ed.] 

 The third item, also reminding us of the rejection of an externally basically beautiful animal as a sacrifice, is a series of blemishes, some quite minor, not affecting the value of the animal in question in the market place at all. Such a blemish in an animal worth 1000 dollars disqualifies it as an offering, whereas another similar animal worth one single dollar, but without such a blemish, is given preference over the far more expensive animal, which is rejected. The Torah gives us three examples to teach us basically the same lesson. What is true of the blemished animal for presentation on the altar, is equally true for the venerable old scholar who is afflicted with some character fault.  We are to look further in order to find a less impressive individual not afflicted with such character fault.

for Video Shiur click here to listen:  Psychology of the DAF Eruvin 78

Translation Courtesy of Sefaria

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Translations Courtesy of Sefaria