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Mending the World

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 25, Numbers 3–4

To understand how the concept of tikkun olam arose, we have to travel back in time to one of the turning-points in Jewish history: the Spanish expulsion and its aftermath. For centuries Spain had been the home of medieval Jewry’s golden age. Under relatively liberal regimes, Jews had risen to eminence in business, the sciences and public life. Their expertise was sought in finance, medicine and diplomacy. They sustained a rich intellectual and cultural life. Jewish learning flourished. Spanish Jewry was noted for its achievements in Jewish law, mysticism and philosophy. But the Jews of Spain were also well versed in the wider culture and made significant contributions to its poetry, politics, astronomy, medicine and cartography.

They were never totally secure. There were periodic attempts to convert them to Christianity. In 1263 the Jewish community was summoned to a public disputation. The Jewish spokesman, Nahmanides, successfully refuted the arguments of his opponent, but he had to pay a price. Two years later he was sentenced to exile. Then, in 1391, there was a volcanic explosion of anti-Jewish feeling. Throughout Spain there were riots. Synagogues were burned, houses and businesses looted, and many Jews killed.

For the first time, significant numbers of Jews converted to Christianity. The next hundred years saw wave after wave of conversionary activity, accompanied by anti-Jewish legislation. Jews who converted were offered equal citizenship. Those who remained Jewish were confined to special areas, forced to wear distinctive clothing, barred from public life and forbidden to mix with Christians. Eventually, in 1492, the remaining Jews were expelled.

The trauma was intense. For medieval Jewry, Spain was the one country that seemed to signal that Jews could find a place where they were not persecuted, humiliated and deprived of rights. The length and intensity of the anti-Jewish activity when it came was deeply disturbing, not only in the suffering it caused but because it seemed to close the door on hope itself. The great Jewish statesman and biblical scholar Isaac Abrabanel has left us a vivid picture of how Jews felt:

In the days of the redemption… I shall relate how I used to say in those days [i.e., the times of despair that followed the expulsion] … all the prophets who prophesied about my redemption and salvation are false.… Moses, may he rest in peace, was false in his utterances, Isaiah lied in his consolations, Jeremiah and Ezekiel lied in their prophecies, and likewise all the other prophets… Let People remember all the despairing things they used to say at the time of the exile.2

Some of the exiles travelled to the small hill town of Safed in northern Israel where, together with other Jewish scholars, they wrote one of the most glorious chapters in the history of Jewish spirituality. The group included the Talmudist Rabbi David ibn Abi Zimra (Radbaz), the mystic Moses ben Jacob Cordovero, Joseph Caro, author of one of Judaism’s greatest law codes, the Shulhan Arukh, and the mystical poets, Shlomo Alkabetz and Eliezer Azikri. Among their innovations was a new ceremony, Kabbalat Shabbat (‘Welcoming the Sabbath’), which eventually found a permanent place in the Jewish prayer book. Dressed in white robes, they would go out into the field on Friday afternoon, reciting Psalms and welcoming the Sabbath as if it were a bride.

Many of these figures produced works of genius, but they acknowledged one in particular as a towering figure in their midst: Rabbi Isaac ben Solomon Luria (1534–1572), known as the Ari. Luria had grown up in Egypt, acquiring expertise in both Jewish law and mysticism (the kabbalah). He had spent two years on an island in the Nile, pondering the great mystical text, the Zohar, and came to Safed to study with Moses Cordovero. Although he was only there for the last two years of his short life, he attracted a devoted following and a legendary reputation. It is hard to summarize his teachings, which were complex and profound.3 He committed few of them to writing, and instructed his disciple Rabbi Hayyim Vital to keep them secret after his death. Their impact, though, was too great to be hidden, and within decades had added a new vocabulary to the lexicon of Jewish thought.

There are certain questions that, once asked, seem obvious, yet it takes a special genius to formulate them for the first time. That was the case with Rabbi Luria. He posed a question, seemingly naïve in its simplicity yet far-reaching in its consequences: If God exists, how does the world exist? If God is infinite, filling the world with his presence and every place with his glory, how is there room—physical or metaphysical—for anything else? Two things cannot coexist at a single time in a single space. Infinity must always crowd out finitude. How then is there a universe?

Luria’s radical answer was the doctrine known as tzimtzum, a word that means contraction, self-effacement, withdrawal or concealment. God, he said, contracted into himself to leave a space for the world. The universe that unfolded day by day during the six phases of Genesis 1 was necessarily only the second state of creation. The first was the act of divine self-effacement, a withdrawal into himself on the part of God. The Hebrew word for ‘universe’ and ‘eternity,’ olam, comes from the root ‘‑l‑m’ which also means ‘hiding’ or ‘concealment.’ Only when God is hidden can the universe exist.

To this must be added a second idea, shevirat ha-kelim (‘breaking of the vessels’), a catastrophe theory of creation. God, in making the world, could not leave it devoid of his presence. He therefore sent forth rays of his light (strangely, this is not unlike the ‘background radiation’ discovered by scientists in 1965 which eventually proved the Big Bang theory of the birth of the universe). The light was, however, too intense for its containers, which thereby broke, scattering fragments of light throughout the world. It is our task to gather up these fragments, wherever they are, and restore them to their proper place. Hence the third idea: tikkun, healing a fractured world. Each religious act we do has an effect on the ecology of creation. It restores something of lost harmony to the cosmos. Or, to use another term from Lurianic kabbalah, it ‘unifies the divine name’ and helps mend the breach between God’s essence and his indwelling presence (Shekhinah) which is currently in exile.

This is a vision of cosmic catastrophe progressively healed by individual deeds which, though they seem small and local, ‘mend the world.’ Lurianic kabbalah spoke to a Jewry shattered by persecution. It still does, as a metaphor for a post-Holocaust world. The world is fractured, filled with ‘broken vessels.’ However, by a life suffused with the love of God, it is possible to redeem these fragments and restore them to their proper place as containers of divine light. Lurianic kabbalah explained catastrophe without diminishing it, transforming its negative energies into a force for healing and restoration.

* * *

How did Rabbi Isaac Luria come by these ideas? They represent the synthesis of several elements long present in Judaism, but never before brought together in quite this way. The first is the phrase tikkun olam itself. It appears in a series of Mishnaic teachings, where it serves as the explanation of certain laws relating, among other things to divorce, the freeing of slaves, and the redemption of captives.4 Common to these provisions is that they address areas in which the law contains anomalies which, if not rectified, would have adverse consequences for individuals or for society as a whole. Tikkun olam is, in this sense, a jurisprudential principle, which we might translate as ‘for the better ordering of society.’ It is a legal maxim directing attention to the long-term impact of rules, not merely their application to particular cases. Within Jewish law, tikkun olam is a concept of limited scope, not a theory of the cosmos.

The phase, however, also appears in one of Judaism’s best-known prayers, Alenu, said at the end of each of the daily services. The paragraph in which it occurs is one of the great universalistic statements of the prayer book:

Therefore it is our hope, O Lord our God, that we may soon see the glory of Your power, to remove abominations from the earth so that idols are utterly cut off, to perfect the world [le-takken olam] under the sovereignty of the Almighty. Then all humanity will call on Your name… For the kingdom is Yours and You will reign for all eternity in glory as it is written in your Torah, ‘The Lord shall reign for all eternity,’ and as it is said, ‘The Lord shall be king over all the world: on that day will the Lord be One and His name One.’5

The idea here is indeed cosmic—but it has little if anything to do with human action. The prayer is an expression of the prophetic vision of the end of days, envisaging a time when all humanity will acknowledge the One God and serve him with one accord so that his ‘name’ (the way God is known by different cultures) will be one. This outcome is part of a historical process which is divine rather than human. It is God, not us, who will perfect the world. Alenu is not a call to action, but a prayer.

In choosing the phrase tikkun olam, Rabbi Luria was thus bringing together two ideas, one of Jewish law, the other from Jewish prayer, neither of which had the sense that he attached to it. None the less, Lurianic kabbalah does express an idea fundamental to Judaism, spanning the whole of history from creation to the ‘end of days.’

The first chapter of Genesis sets out creation in seven phases or days. It is intended less as a protoscientific document than as a spiritual-metaphysical affirmation whose fundamental concern is with order. On the first three days God creates a series of domains (day and night, heaven and earth, sea and dry land). On the second three days he fills each domain with its appropriate objects (sun and moon, birds and fish, animals and humankind). The result is ontological harmony—the still point of the turning world—expressed on the seventh day, the Sabbath, the first thing God calls holy. The world ‘good’ appears seven times in this chapter (three-, five- and sevenfold repetitions are always thematic markers in the Pentateuch). The verb b‑d‑l, to separate or divide, appears five times. R. Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that the phrase ‘very good,’ which appears at the end of the sixth day, has an ecological dimension—each aspect of creation was good in itself; very good in the harmonious integration of the whole.6

God creates order; man creates chaos. That is the message of the early chapters of Genesis. Each element of creation has its proper place. The Hebrew word averah, like its English equivalent ‘transgression,’ signifies that sin involves crossing a boundary, entering forbidden territory, failing to respect the separation between different spaces and times. Adam and Eve transgress the boundary between permitted and forbidden foods; Cain transgresses the boundary of human life itself. The punishment or consequence of sin is exile. The measure-for-measure result of an act in the wrong place is that the agent finds him- or herself in the wrong place, in exile, not at home in the world. So Adam and Even are exiled from Eden, Cain from habitation—and eventually the Israelites from their land.

Justice in the Hebrew Bible is thus more than a matter of law. It restores a broken order. By suffering the wrong he inflicted on others, the wrong-doer comes to feel remorse. He or she repairs the damage they have done. Exile ends in homecoming and something of the lost harmony of the world is restored. Jewish mysticism thus shares with the non-mystical side of Judaism a fundamental vision of order disrupted and repaired.

There is, however, one feature of Lurianic kabbalah of far-reaching significance, because it bridges a gap in the basic structure of Jewish thought. The prophets and sages, virtually without exception, shared a vision of ‘the end of the days’ (the messianic age, the world to come) in which restoration would be far-reaching and macrocosmic. At one level, the political-historical, it would be the return of Jews to their land and the renewal of the covenant between God and Israel. At a deeper, spiritual-metaphysical level it would mean the end of war and strife and the dawn of a universal sense of the presence of God, as in Isaiah’s great vision:

They will neither harm nor destroy
On all My holy mountain,
For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
As the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:9)

The question is, how do we get from here to there, from historical to messianic time? That was always a difficult question in Judaism. On the one hand, redemption comes from God; on the other, without human initiative, there is nothing through which God can act. The history of Zionism is a good example. Many of the early Zionists (Hess, Pinsker, Herzl) were secular. For them, the return of Jews to their land was something that Jews must do for themselves without relying on either prayer or God. For their part, many of the religious leaders of East European Jewry believed that redemption can only be brought about by God. Zionism was, from a religious perspective, misconceived, an attempt to wrest history from divine to human hands, thereby ‘forcing the end.’

The significance of Lurianic kabbalah is that it is a redemption of small steps, act by act, day by day. Each act mends a fracture of the world. The way from here to there, like the journey of the Israelites through the wilderness, takes time. There are setbacks on the way—sins, rebellions, false turns. A journey of a few days takes 40 years. But there are no short cuts, no miraculous leaps. This seems to me an immensely helpful way of resolving one of the most significant lacunae in Jewish thought.

The controversy in the early years of the Zionist movement was like the disagreement, almost 2,000 years earlier, between the Sadducees and Essenes, as described by Josephus. The Essenes believed in fate. God alone wrote the script of history. The Sadducees believed in choice. Human history is written by human hands. The Pharisees alone, says Josephus, believed in interaction through which God and man become co-authors.7 Rabbinic Judaism is the legacy of the Pharisees, but for profound historical reasons, Jews had tended to spiritualize redemption to discourage political activism to hasten the ‘end of days.’ One reaction against this was the series of messianic movements that made their appearance throughout the Middle Ages, culminating in the one associated with Shabbatai Zevi in the seventeenth century. If the journey from here to redemption can only be conceived as a single giant leap brought about by God, pent-up longing can sometimes explode in false messianism, the feeling that exile is about to end. Lurianic kabbalah is an alternative way of thinking about redemption as the slow, patient process of transforming the world, in which each act plays a part.

One thing I must make clear. Tikkun olam as R. Issac Luria conceived it, is a mystical and spiritual idea. It is not social action. For the kabbalists, we mend the world not by healing the sick and feeding the hungry, but by prayer and the observance of the commands. Jewish mysticism is about the commands linking us to God, not those relating us to other people. To be sure, each of our acts has an effect on the ‘upper worlds,’ the deep structure of reality, but this is not through normal channels of causation. Tikkun olam in the Lurianic sense is about the soul, not the world; the spirit, not the body; metaphysical fracture, not property and disease. Lurianic kabbalah is at best a metaphor, not a prescription, for the forms of social action I have described in this book. But it remains a compelling metaphor none the less. It suggests that our acts make a difference. They repair fractures in the world. They restore a lost order. They rescue fragments of the divine light. They mend the damage done by the evil men—even the imperfections that are part of creation itself. Our moral imagination is shaped by such metaphors.8 Lurianic kabbalah is not afraid to look at catastrophe without concluding that the world is irreparable, evil endemic, that history is a meaningless sequence of events and the human situation irredeemable. Out of broken fragments, it shapes a mosaic of hope.

* * *

It is anachronistic to read back into ancient sources ideas that made their appearance many centuries later. That certainly applies to the concept of ‘progress’ as that word has been used in the West since the eighteenth century. It belongs to the historic transformation of Europe set in motion by the rise of science (testing hypotheses by experiment and observation), the secularization of knowledge and the growth of technology. Judaism’s classic texts, biblical and rabbinic, do not speak of massive transformations in our understanding of the universe, our ability to control nature, create economic growth, cure disease or eliminate poverty. They are silent on these subjects because they were not, until relatively recently, part of the horizon of human possibility.

That said, we find in both biblical and post-biblical sources, the attribution of a remarkable dignity to human action. It is there at the beginning. God charges humankind, in the Bible’s first chapter, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground’ (Genesis 1:28). In the magnificent eighth Psalm the poet says:

When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers
The moon and stars that You set in place,
What is man that You are mindful of him,
Mortal man that You take note of him?
Yet You have made him little less than the angels
And adorned him with glory and majesty. (Psalms 8:3–5)

Homo sapiens is the one creation that is itself creative. To a degree unique among life-forms, human beings are not confined to adapting to their environment. They are capable of adapting the environment to themselves.

Max Weber, the nineteenth-century sociologist, traced the roots of Western scientific rationality back to the Hebrew Bible. For the first time in history, God was conceived of as something apart from and above nature. The universe was demythologized or, in his word, ‘disenchanted,’ stripped of its overlay of magic and mystery. Without this vision of God, man and nature, the scientific revolution would simply not have happened—as indeed it did not happen in long-established, sometimes technically advanced civilizations such as that of China.

There can be no doubt, however, that the Jewish imagination does not value technology as such. Genesis 4 attributes the invention of musical instruments to Jubal, and of bronze and iron tool-making to Tubal-Cain, without endowing either with special significance. The description of the invention of brick-making in the story of the Tower of Babel is, if anything, anti-technological. No sooner have human beings mastered a new technique, the Bible seems to say, than they are ready to storm the heavens and take the place of God. Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, by far the most sophisticated cultures of their age, are the very places the people of the covenant move away from—Mesopotamia in the days of Abraham, Egypt in the time of Moses. The Hebrew Bible embodies serious concern about technology as a source of hubris on the one hand, social control and human enslavement on the other. In Judaism, power must always be subordinate to purpose, science to ethics, technology to human dignity. The why matters more than the how.

Yet we find great openness to scientific knowledge in the Talmud. At one point, comparing Jewish and Greek astronomy, it states with astonishing lack of concern, ‘Their view seems more correct than ours.’9 Crucial to both biblical and rabbinic thought is the distinction between Torah (divine teaching) and hokhmah (human wisdom). The sages regarded wisdom as part of the heritage of humankind. It had nothing to do with revelation. It could be found in many cultures, the property of many nations. The sages said, ‘If you are told there is wisdom among the nations, believe it.’10 They invested it with religious dignity, going so far as to coin a blessing to be pronounced over seeing ‘one of the sages of the nations.’11 This sharp differentiation between religious and scientific knowledge meant that Judaism was untroubled and unthreatened by secular disciplines as such.

No less significant was the idea, articulated by some of the sages, that God had deliberately left creation incomplete, to leave room for the work of man. That is the idea behind this remarkable passage, a confrontation between a Roman governor and one of the great sages of the Mishnaic period, R. Akiva:

The wicked tyrant Rufus once asked Rabbi Akiva, ‘Which are more pleasing, the works of God or those of human beings?’ Rabbi Akiva replied, ‘The works of human beings.’ Rufus asked, ‘Behold the heavens and the earth—can human beings make anything like them?’ Rabbi Akiva replied, ‘Do not bring an argument from things which are altogether beyond human capacity. Speak only of things which human beings can do.’ Rufus replied, ‘Why do you circumcise your children?’ Rabbi Akiva said, ‘I knew this was the point of your question. That is why I pre-empted you and said that the works of human beings are more pleasing than those of God.’ Rabbi Akiva then brought out ears of wheat, and cake, and said, ‘These are the work of God and those the work of human beings. Are the cakes not more agreeable than the ears of wheat?’12

To be sure, the text is polemical in intent, countering a Roman suggestion that circumcision was barbaric: had God wanted children to be circumcised, he would have created them without a foreskin. None the less, the assertion is radical. Creation is God’s unfinished symphony, and he has entrusted its completion to us.

Equally characteristic of the rabbinic literature is the refusal on the part of the sages to see the sufferings and injustices of the world as given, unchangeable, part of the divine will. This refusal is constitutive of Judaism. There may be poverty in every age, but that does not make it God’s will for the world. There may be injustice, but we may not be silent in the face of it. The unsentimental clear-sightedness of rabbinic Judaism here reaches heroic heights. Jews did not believe, with the Manichaeans or Gnostics, that the physical world is a vale of tears to be transcended. It is the world God made and pronounced good. On the other hand its failings, inequities and corruptions are neither inevitable nor to be accepted with resignation. It is this ability to hold together a sense of the goodness of creation and the evil it contains, thanking God for the one, working in God’s name against the other, that marks Judaism as an activist, future-oriented faith. Tikkun olam involves the recognition that the world does need repair, rather than Stoic acceptance or ascetic denial. Hence, the positive endorsement of scientific progress by R. Joseph Soloveitchik in his essay, ‘The Lonely Man of Faith:’

Men of old who could not fight disease and succumbed in multitudes to yellow fever or any other plague with degrading helplessness could not lay claim to dignity. Only the man who builds hospitals, discovers therapeutic techniques, saves lives is blessed with dignity… The brute is helpless, and therefore not dignified. Civilized man has gained limited control of nature and has become in certain respects her master, and with his mastery he has attained dignity as well. His mastery has made it possible for him to act in accordance with his responsibility.13

To be human is to be creative, a master of fate, not its slave.

To this must be added the idea, noted above, of the universality of hokhmah, human wisdom. Revelation is particular; scientific knowledge is not. This stance allowed the sages to recognize and salute the technical and medical achievements of their age. Exception in this context, though not unique, is the tribute paid by R. Israel Lipschutz (Tiferet Yisrael, 1782–1860) to great benefactors of humanity and the religious significance of their work:

We find that many of the pious [of the nations] did more than recognize the Creator, and believe in the divine revelation of Torah, and perform acts of kindness to the Jewish people, but also that they conferred benefit on humanity as a whole. Among them were [Edward] Jenner who discovered [smallpox] vaccine, thus saving tens of thousands of people from sickness, death and disfigurement; [Sir Francis] Drake who brought the potato to Europe, mitigating famine on several occasions; and [Johannes] Gutenberg who invented printing. Some of them were not rewarded in this world at all, like [Johannes] Reuchlin who risked death to prevent the burning of Talmuds … and died, heartbroken, in poverty. Is it possible to imagine that these great deeds went unrewarded in the world to come. God forbid! Surely we know that the Holy One, blessed be He, does not withhold the reward of any creature… The advantage of the [other] nations over Israel is that they, through their own free choice and efforts made themselves—and this is certainly a greater [human] achievement than Israel, who were led toward perfection by the force of God and who therefore cannot claim the credit for what God did for them in the merit of their ancestors.14

Here ‘perfecting the world’ is seen in its full universal scope: the human project as such through which we use our creative gifts to ‘confer benefit on humanity as a whole.’ It is from this tradition Rabbi Soloveitchik speaks when he states as a self-evident truth that:

We have always considered ourselves to be an inseparable part of humanity and we were ever ready to accept the divine challenge, ‘Fill the earth and subdue it.’ We have never proclaimed the philosophy of contemptus or odium seculi. We have steadily maintained that involvement in the creative scheme of things is mandatory.15

I have tried to show some of the complex tributaries that converge in the idea of tikkun olam, ‘mending the world,’ some theological, others mystical, combining in the imperative to ameliorate the human situation by constructive engagement with the world. It is not a concept given to precise definition, still less is it spelled out in the crisp imperatives of Jewish law. But it bestows religious dignity on those, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, who work to eliminate the evils of the world, as David Baum sought to do, an act at a time, a life at a time. Each generation, said the sages, has its own seekers and search, its own leaders and challenges.16 So each of us has our own task, our unique gifts, our singular contribution to make. For each of us there is something no one else could do, and it is not least for this that we were created.

As long as there is hunger, poverty and treatable disease in the world there is work for us to do. As long as nations fight and men hate, and corruption stalks the corridors of power; as long as there is unemployment and homelessness, depression and despair, our task is not yet done, and we hear, if we listen carefully enough, the voice of God asking us, as he asked the first humans, ‘Where are you?’

Hassidim tell the story of the second Lubavitcher Rebbe (the ‘Mitteler’ Rebbe) who was once so intent on his studies that he failed to hear the cry of his baby son. His father (R. Shneur Zalman of Ladi) heard, and went down and took the baby in his arms until he went to sleep again. Then he went in to his son, still intent on his books, and said, ‘My son, I do not know what you are studying, but it is not the study of Torah if it makes you deaf to the cry of a child.’ To live the life of faith is to hear the silent cry of the afflicted, the lonely and marginal, the poor, the sick and the disempowered, and to respond. For the world is not yet mended, there is work still to do, and God has empowered us to do it—with him, for him and for his faith in us.

* * *


* Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility (New York: Schocken, 2005), pp. 73–83. The JPSR is publishing this chapter with the publisher’s permission.

  1. Don Isaac Abrabanel, Zevah Pesach (Constantinople, 1505); cited in H.H. Sasson (ed.), A History of the Jewish People (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976), p. 692.
  2. The classic scholarly presentation is Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (London: Thames & Hudson, 1955), pp. 244–286.
  3. Mishnah. Gittin 4:2, 4–9; 5:3; 9:4; Eduyot 1:13.
  4. The Authorised Daily Prayer Book (London: United Synagogue, 1992), pp. 134–136.
  5. Samson Raphael Hirsch, Commentary to Gen. 1:31; trans. Isaac Levy (Gateshead: Judaica Press, 1982), pp. 37–40.
  6. Josephus, Wars ii, 8, 14; Antiquities xiii, 5, 9. In Antiquities xviii, 1, 3, he adds that the Pharisees believe ‘that it was God’s good pleasure that there should be a fusion and that the will of man with his virtue and vice should be admitted to the council-chamber of fate.’
  7. See George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).
  8. Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 94b.
  9. Eikhah Rabbah 2:13.
  10. The Authorised Daily Prayer Book, pp. 749–750.
  11. Tanhuma, Tazria 5.
  12. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith (New York: Doubleday, 1992), p. 17.
  13. Tiferet Yisrael to Mishnah, Avot 3:14.
  14. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, ‘Confrontation,’ in Norman Lamm and Walter Wurzburger (eds.), A Treasury of Tradition (New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1967), p. 69.
  15. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 38b, Avodah Zarah 5a.