We have learned (daf 45) that one natural formation that is considered to be avoda zara is an ashera – a tree set aside for pagan idol worship.
The Mishnayot on today’s daf focus on the ashera, and attempt to define what such a tree is. According to the Mishna, there are three types of ashera –
- A tree planted specifically for avoda zara
- A tree that was sculpted or pruned in the name of avoda zara
- 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 ashera 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 avoda zara and is permitted. In the final case, according to the tanna of the Mishna, if the idol was removed, the tree is permitted.
In the following Mishna 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 ashera. The Mishna relates that there was an incident in Tzaidan where Jews refrained from benefiting from a tree because it was known as an ashera. 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 ashera 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.