||The tractate in the two Talmuds contains much aggadic material, important historical traditions, especially on the relations between Jews and non-Jews in general and between Jews and non-Jewish authorities in particular. It also conveys much information on idolatrous, including oriental, religions, on Christianity, and Gnosticism. The Babylonian Talmud deals also with the Persian religion. Nonetheless the Babylonian amoraim admitted that not everything in the Mishnah was clear to them: "R. Hisda said to Avimi: There is a tradition that the (tractate) Avodah Zarah of our father Abraham consisted of four hundred chapters. We have learnt only five, and yet we do not know what we are saying" (Av. Zar. 14b).
Avodah Zara , which consists of five chapters, treats of the following subjects: (1) prohibitions concerning dealings with Gentiles (who are presumed to be idolaters) in their festival periods; objects which may not be sold or hired to Gentiles as they may be required for idol worship; objects which may not be sold to Gentiles as they may cause public damage (e.g., arms); prohibitions of sale or lease of real estate in Erez Israel to Gentiles (chapter 1); (2) prohibitions arising from Gentiles being suspected of incest and murder (2:1–2); (3) laws concerning articles belonging to Gentiles - differentiating between those which are entirely prohibited for benefit, or only for food, since they may be offered up in idolatrous worship, and those which are entirely permitted (2:3–7); (4) the prohibition of actual idolatrous objects (images, shrines, etc.) and the ways in which they are to be abolished or destroyed (3:1–4:7); (5) laws about wine produced or handled by non-Jews, which is presumed to have been used, or intended for use, as a libation before an idol; the procedure of making utensils that have been bought from a Gentile fit for use (4:8–5:12).
The Mishnah (4:7) contains a question asked by "philosophers" of some sages, apparently R. Gamaliel, R. Joshua, and R. Eleazar b. Azariah, when they were in Rome: "If [your G-d] does not want idolatry, why does He not abolish it?" The sages answered: "If something is worshiped which the world has no need of, He would abolish it. But the sun, the moon, and the stars are worshiped. Should G-d, then, destroy His world because of fools?" "If so, He should destroy what the world has no need of, and leave what is essential for the world." "We would then merely be strengthening the hands of those worshiping these things, since they would say, 'See, these are deities, for they have not been destroyed.'"
Copies of the tractate were rare even at an early period, probably because in the course of the centuries it suffered greatly at the hands of Christian censors. This led many Jewish scholars to issue apologetic declarations to the effect that the statements in the tractate are directed only against the nations of antiquity, and to adopt a lenient attitude to some of its prohibitions (see Meiri, Beit ha-Behirah on Av. Zar., 53).
A rare tractate of the first Talmud edition of the Isaac b. Aaron of Prostitz (Prossnitz) printing press. Isaac who was trained in Italy and received a 50 years' licence from Sigismund II Augustus to set up a Hebrew press in 1569. He acquired his equipment from the Venetian printers Cavalli and Grypho and also brought with him from Italy the scholarly proofreader Samuel Boehm. In the next 60 years Isaac and his successors (sons and nephews) produced some 200 books, of which 73 were in Yiddish. The Babylonian Talmud was printed twice, this edition 1602–08 and again in 1616–20.