As we learned on yesterday’s daf (=page) although Abayye understands the Mishnah as teaching that shehitah – ritual slaughter – performed by a Kuti is valid, nevertheless Rabban Gamliel and his court voted about the trustworthiness of theKutim and decided that shehitah performed by a Kuti is forbidden.
The Gemara on today’s daf explains that this decision was made after an interaction with ha-hu saba – “a certain old man.” The Gemara relates:
Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar was sent by Rabbi Meir to fetch some wine from among the Kutim. He was met by a certain old man who said to him, “Put a knife to thy throat, if thou be a man given to appetite” (Mishle 23:2).
Whereupon Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar returned and reported the matter to Rabbi Meir who thereupon proscribed them. Why? – Rabbi Nahman ben Yitzhak explained: Because theyfound a figure of a dove on the top of Mount Gerizim and they worshipped it.
We find many stories in the Talmud where ha-hu saba – “a certain old man” – plays a prominent role. Tosafot bring an opinion that suggests that this must refer to Eliyahu ha-Navi, although they point out that this is certainly not the case in every situation where he appears. The reason that he is identified as such probably stems from the fact that ha-hu saba‘s statements are accepted by those to whom he spoke, indicating that he must have been someone who they held in great esteem.
The story told by the Gemara most likely took place after the Bar Kokhba revolt was put down, when a pagan temple was built on Mount Gerizim. Although not all of the Kutim became idol worshippers, there was a significant minority that was drawn to idolatry. The figure of the dove that is mentioned is most likely one of the symbols of the goddess Aphrodite, as such forms have been found in various places in Israel. Due to pressures from the foreign government as well as internal issues, it appears that most of the Kutim assimilated into pagan culture, which led to the Sages’ decision regarding their status.