Avodah Zarah, Chapter One, Mishnah Four
This mishnah provides some exceptions to the prohibition of conducting business with non-Jews during their festivals.
1) When an idolatrous [festival] takes place within a city it is permitted [to conduct business with non-Jews] outside it.
a) If the idolatrous [festival] takes place outside it, [business] is permitted within it.
2) Is it permitted to go there?
a) If the road leads solely to that place, it is forbidden;
b) But if one can go by it to any other place, it is permitted.
3) A city in which an idolatrous festival is taking place, some of its shops being decorated and some not decorated this was the case with Beth-Shean, and the Sages said: in the decorated stores it is forbidden [to buy] but in the undecorated ones it is permitted.
Section one: The prohibition of conducting business with non-Jews during their holidays is limited to the city that is actually celebrating the holiday. Outside of the city it is permitted to conduct business with them. The type of holiday referred to in this mishnah is probably a local holiday and not one that would have been observed throughout the land.
Section two: This section begins with a question, a literary form that is not typical for mishnah. The question is: can one go to this city on the day of the celebration? If the answer to this question were to be categorically affirmative, stating that Jews are not allowed to even travel on the road to that city, it would create another fence to prevent Jews from aiding non-Jews in their celebrations. However, the answer is not categorical. Rather, a Jew may travel on the road to this city as long as the road leads to other places as well. If it only leads to this place then it is forbidden. After all, if the Jew was travelling to this place on the holiday and the road only travels to that city, he is obviously going to transgress the prohibition, or perhaps even worse, to actually celebrate with them.
Section three: This section is addressed to the Jew who is already located in the non-Jewish city on the day of their celebration. We might have thought that he is not to distinguish at all between non-Jews and that it is forbidden to conduct business with any of them. In this section we learn that the prohibition is limited to those actually demonstrating that they are celebrating the holiday. A storekeeper who does not decorate his store is evidently not celebrating, and therefore it is permitted to conduct business with him. We should note that in this case the Rabbis are lenient even though it is not totally clear that this non-Jew will not celebrate later on. In other words, although there is a chance that later the non-Jew will offer sacrifices to his god for the transaction with the Jew, since this is unlikely it is permitted.
It is interesting to note the direction of this mishnah: the first section is directed at those found outside of the city, the second at those outside of the city who are coming into the city and the third at those who are inside the city.
Questions for Further Thought:
· Section two: Is a Jew permitted to travel to the city if the road leads to other cities? If so, why?
· This mishnah might remind us of the modern holiday celebrations surrounding Christmas. How does the situation here compare and contrast with the modern situation?