We have learned (daf 45) that one natural formation that is considered to be avodah zarah is an asherah – a tree set aside for pagan idol worship.
The Mishnayot on today’s daf (=page) focus on the asherah, and attempt to define what such a tree is. According to the Mishnah, there are three types of asherah –
- A tree planted specifically for avodah zarah
- A tree that was sculpted or pruned in the name of avodah zarah
- A tree where an idol was placed underneath it.
In the first case, there is nothing that can be done. Such a tree is an asherah and must be destroyed. In the second case, although the tree that is formed is forbidden, if the tree continues growing, what grows anew is not considered to be avodah zarah and is permitted. In the final case, according to the tanna of the Mishnah, if the idol was removed, the tree is permitted.
In the following Mishnah we learn that there is a difference of opinion regarding the third case. Rabbi Shimon believes that when an idol is placed under a tree, it has no effect on the tree – it is only if people worship the tree itself that it is forbidden as an asherah. The Mishnah relates that there was a tree in Tzaidan where Jews refrained from benefiting from a tree because it was known as an asherah. Rabbi Shimon suggested that they check a mound of dirt and rocks that was under the tree, and, in fact, they discovered an idol buried within it. Rabbi Shimon ruled that the tree was permitted, since the pagans had been worshiping the idol, and not the tree.
As a general rule, the Gemara explains that a clear indication that a tree is an asherah is when the pagan priests guard the tree and do not allow the fruit to be eaten, clearly indicating that it is set aside for those who worship it.