Avodah Zarah, Chapter One, Mishnah Three
Mishnah three delineates which idolatrous holidays are referred to in the previous two mishnayoth.
1) These are the festivities of the idolaters: Kalenda, Saturnalia, Kratesis, the anniversary of accession to the throne and birthdays and anniversaries of deaths, according to Rabbi Meir.
2) But the Sages say: a death at which burning [of articles of the dead] takes place is attended by idolatry, but where there is not such burning there is no idolatry.
3) But the day of shaving ones beard and lock of hair, or the day of landing after a sea voyage, or the day of release from prison, or if an idolater holds a banquet for his son the prohibition only applies to that day and that particular person.
Section one: Kalenda, from which the English word calendar derives, refers to the first day of the month, and especially to the first day of the year. Saturnalia was a popular Roman holiday on the 17th of December, dedicated to the god, Saturn. Kratesis, which was on the first of August, commemorated the day that Augustus conquered Alexandria in Egypt. Note that I have used the names of these holidays as Albeck states that they should be read. Medieval scribes often did not know what these holidays were or what their names were and different forms of the words can be found in other versions of the mishnah.
The anniversary of the accession of the king to the throne is also considered to be a day of celebration full of idolatrous practices.
The final two days of idolatrous celebration are personal: ones birthday and the anniversary of the death of a close relative. On these days non-Jews would make idolatrous celebrations. Interestingly, Jews did not traditionally celebrate birthdays because it was seen to be a non-Jewish custom.
Section two: The opinion in the previous section was that of Rabbi Meir, who held that pagans commemorate the anniversaries of all deaths. The Rabbis disagree with Rabbi Meir and hold that only deaths where the body and clothes were burned on a funeral pyre are celebrated by idolatrous acts. If the body was not burned on the pyre then the day is not accompanied by idolatry and it is therefore permitted to conduct business with the non-Jew three days before.
Section three: As was previously stated it is forbidden to conduct business with non-Jews during the three days before the personal holidays mentioned in section two. In section three the mishnah lists pagan holidays that Jews can conduct business during the three days before and are only forbidden from doing so on the holiday itself. These include the day that the non-Jew shaves his beard and lock of hair, which refers to a lock of hair grown at the back of ones head and is shaved once a year; the day of return from a long trip by sea; the day that one is released from prison and the day in which one marries off ones son and makes him a celebratory feast.
Questions for Further Thought:
· What is the difference between the personal holidays mentioned in section two of this mishnah and those mentioned in section three? Why is it forbidden to conduct business for the three days preceding some of them but not others?