Daf Yomi Shabbos 83: Beware of the idol in your pocket

Apparently, even idolatry the size of a fly falls under the rubric of the prohibition of idolatry.”

We have moved from the discussion of what can be carried in the public domain (it is so complicated that it might be best to just stay home) to a dialog on idolatry and impurity. Today’s Daf Yomi focuses on many things but includes an examination of how small an idol can be before it is no longer considered impure. Can I say upfront that the little I remember from Hebrew School taught me that idols are really bad and should be destroyed no matter their size? I am not sure why the Rabbis are debating the dimensions of idol impurity except for the pleasure of verbal sparring (which I suspect at times is the point to the many of the deliberations.) I especially love when the text says “the matter should remain unresolved.”

The Rabbis debate if idols can transmit impurity through their limbs. The Rabbis, including Rabbi Akiva who has been quite vocal on the topic of idolatry, agree that the idol can stretch out its arms and legs and you can touch them all you want without transmitting impurity. They invoke the image of a hapless Zav, who places someone’s groceries on a scale and as he tips it over causes the food and drink to become impure. However, if the tipping of groceries occurs without intervention by the Zav but by other means, including movement from an idol, the food is saved from being contaminated from impurity.

The Rabbis debate what size is too small to render an idol impure. They gravitate to the standard measure of an olive-bulk and decide that even an idol the size of a fly is impure. Such a small idol can be carried in one’s pocket and frequently removed and “embraced and kissed.”  In the spirit of pairing odd concepts, the idol is compared to a corpse which transmits impurity when measured at least an olive-bulk. We are told that “so too, idolatry transmits impurity only when it is at least an olive-bulk.”

In the spirit of the fourth wall, today’s Daf Yomi digresses and tells us that it is straying from the topic at hand and presents a riddle: “From where is it derived that the [Jordan] ship is ritually pure, in the sense that it cannot become impure?”  Rav Yehuda summons Rav who says that one must attend study hall every day and possibly for years and years if he wants to understand the “way of a ship in the midst of the sea.”

We are told that students sat diligently in study hall learning that a Jordan ship can become ritually impure, but it was only after a great while when they had a visit from a Rabbi from far away that they learned why.  It is a lesson in being patient and digging for the truth and doing the hard work to gain learning and enlightenment. There is also a lesson here in staying away from false idols no matter how small they may be. Carry something useful in your pockets instead, like hand sanitizer and a face mask to keep you safe.

About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at
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