Soon after Hashem teaches Moshe the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, Hashem also warns us against developing overly close relationships with the idolaters around us. Shemot 34;12-16, reminds us not to make a pact with the original inhabitants of Israel, lest they become a stumbling block to us. We must destroy their places of worship, and certainly not worship their idols.
The Torah explicitly worries that making any sort of pact will lead to a closeness that blurs the lines between us. One example is that attending a feast in honor of their idol will lead (presumably over time, as we become accustomed to freely socializing) to our taking their daughters for our sons, those daughters continuing to worship idols and leading our sons to do the same.
I want to focus on how tradition read one phrase, וקרא לך ואכלת מזבחו, he will call you and you will eat of his sacrifices. Before we get to that, notice the point the Torah is making about the stubbornness—and contagion—of cultures. We should not fool ourselves into thinking, the Torah is telling us, that we can limit a relationship with idolaters (or, by extension, others who see the world sharply differently from us, even if they are not idolaters) to a political pact and sharing friendly meals. We don’t think association and closeness will change how we think and act, but it will, and we have to know that as we decide with whom to associate and how closely.
Technical Halachah and Its Broader Application
In their commentaries on the verse, Rashi and Ramban offer the two main Talmudic uses of the verse, Rashi the less technical one. He comments that we might assume we would not incur any punishment for just eating, but that Hashem is telling us it will be considered as if we were ratifying their religion, because from eating together we move to marrying their daughters.
We’ll come back to that, but Ramban puts us in the more well-defined world of pure halachah, so let’s start there. He notes, in his commentary to 34;15 and his glosses to Rambam’s Sefer haMitzvot, Prohibition 194, that this verse is the Talmudic source for the prohibition of eating or gaining benefit from that which has been offered to an idolatrous form of worship.
The definition of idolatrous worship is complex; I am mulling a request to spend the next two weeks or so discussing that topic—feel free to weigh in on whether you’d like me to. I can say with confidence that there are many clear forms of idolatry alive and well in the world today. Wikipedia lists multiple forms of modern paganistic religions, with over a million adherents worldwide.
That’s not that many, but if Catholicism has some aspects of idolatry to it, and if some forms of Hinduism and Buddhism are idolatrous, it would complicate eating any food they use at their religious festivals, even if it’s kosher.
Ramban was glossing Rambam, who claimed there’s actually a separate Biblical prohibition against using wine previously used in idolatrous ceremonies. Rambam and Ramban do agree that Chazal expanded this relatively narrow prohibition (how often are we offered the actual foods offered to their gods?) to other areas. One is the well-known prohibition against drinking any wine that idolatrous non-Jews touched as well as bishul akum, the prohibition against eating food cooked by a non-Jew.
Avoiding Their Thanksgiving Feasts
Those rabbinic extensions of the prohibition seem to me to have their source in another reading of the phrase וקרא לך ואכלת מזבחו, which appears both in Avot de-Rabbi Natan and Avodah Zarah 8a. Let’s look at the Gemara’s version.
R. Yishmael is cited in a baraita as saying that Jews outside of Israel worship idols בטהרה, which Nimmukei Yosef interprets as meaning without any intent—they think they are acting acceptably, and end up being part of idolatry. Note the unquestioned acceptance of the possibility that we can act terribly wrongly without realizing it. The Jews outside of Israel don’t intend to be idolaters, and yet they end up being so (albeit unintentionally). That’s a cautionary tale, being sincere isn’t the same as being right or even avoiding terrible wrong.
R. Yishmael says this happens when an idolater makes a party for his child (Meiri says a wedding, but Rambam, Laws of Idolatry 9;15, speaks of a feast more generally). Even though the Jews eat and drink their own food (not just that the food is kosher, it belongs to them) and have their own waiter, the verse still applies. The Gemara then has an extended discussion of timing—it’s not just the meal itself, but as long before and after as the idolater connects the eating to the celebration.
Expanding the Concern to Non-Idolaters
At a technical level, R. Yishmael speaks of idolaters. A comment of Sforno’s suggests that we have to be more careful with where we eat than the technical requirements. In his commentary to Bamidbar 25 (where the Midianite women lure Jewish men to sin and then to idolatry), Sforno notes that the Jews had no intention to worship idols, they only meant to enjoy the pleasures the Midianite women were offering. But, as our verse tells us (Sforno says), one leads to the other. From eating together, we move to intermarrying and then to idolatry.
Sforno doesn’t say it, but if that chain is a general truth of human nature, the problem of eating at other people’s meals applies more broadly than just idolatry. I stress that the technical prohibition speaks only of idolatry and I don’t want to imply that it’s more than that. But if it teaches us that eating together is a gateway to broader social interactions, which affect how we view even the most serious areas of life (let alone less serious ones), then that should be true of eating with people who hold views that diverge from or oppose those that Hashem teaches us. We are affected by those with whom we eat, those with whom we socialize, and we should structure those interactions with the appropriate caution.
There’s more to the verse, but the two applications we have seen serve as a good reminder that the Torah knew we don’t always base our opinions on conscious thought or direct argumentation. וקרא לך ואכלת מזבחו; if we don’t accept the call, we’ll have avoided the meal, and all that comes with it.