י״ט בשבט ה׳תשע״ח (February 4, 2018)

Avoda Zara 20a-b: Traditional Values

Traditional values regarding sexuality seem somewhat old-fashioned in the modern age. Nevertheless, the Gemara on today’s shows a deep understanding of sexual drives and the need to avoid situations that will lead to inappropriate thoughts and actions.

The Gemara quotes a baraita that interprets the passage in Sefer (23:10) that warns people to avoid all evil things – venishmarta mi-kol davar ra – to be referring specifically to issues of sensuality. Thus the baraita forbids a man from gazing at a beautiful woman, even if she is unmarried, or at any married woman, even an unattractive one. Similarly, the baraita forbids watching animals engage in sexual relations or even looking at the colorful clothing worn by women. In the Gemara, Rav Yehuda quotes Shmuel as extending this prohibition to the clothing itself, even if the clothing is hung out and is not being worn; Rav Pappa limits this prohibition, however, only to cases where the man knows the woman to whom these clothes belong.

The emphasis on colored clothing should be understood in the context of the times of the Mishna. From the limited archaeological evidence that we have, together with information that we find in histories of the time, men’s clothing was usually a single color – either the original color of the fibers or else yellowish brown or black. Special clothing would have stripes of a brighter color, like blue or purple. Women’s work clothing also was ordinarily a single, plain color. Clothing that women wore for celebratory purposes – or for purposes of intimacy – were specially made to be colorful (see Sefer Shoftim 5:30). Such clothing was, therefore, considered to be sexually “suggestive” in-and-of itself.

Thus we find that the Gemara attempts to limit activities that will lead a man to gaze upon out-of-the-ordinary sights that may be sexually stimulating.