of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel


Bet Midrash Virtuali

, , , , , , , . , . , . , . , :

The crime of idolatry can involve an act of worship, offering a sacrifice, burning incense, offering a liquid oblation, making obeisance, confession of deity or saying "You are my god". But putting one's arms around an idol, dusting it, spraying it with water, washing it down, dressing it in its clothes or putting on its footwear - such acts are [only] a contravention of a negative commandment. So is swearing an oath in its name. Excreting in front of Ba'al Pe'or is its regular worship, as is also throwing stones at Hermes.


This mishnah, too, is based on Mishnah Four of our present chapter, which, you will recall, gave a list of all the eighteen offences for which the punishment was death by stoning. One of the items on that list is idolatry - the worship of a deity other than Israel's God.

The Reisha [first section] of our mishnah details certain actions which when performed on or for a certain deity constitute an act of idolatry. This act may be one that is uniquely associated with one particular god ("an act of worship") or it may be one or more of several acts that inevitably constitute idolatrous worship: offering a sacrifice (which was usually part of a family celebration), burning incense (which was needed to prevent the temples smelling like an abbattoir, offering wine or water or prostration. Alternatively the act of idolatry may be one taking place in the mind: intellectual (or emotional) acceptance of a god as one's acknowledged deity, and even saying so out loud. On the other hand, our mishnah enumerates certain acts which, while being forbidden, are just "ordinary" sins and do not constitute the capital offence of idolatry. These secondary acts are acts of "housekeeping" - more associated with statue of the deity than of the spiritual value that it represents. (The late Professor Yeĥezkel Kaufmann, erstwhile head of the Bible faculty of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, in his monumental work "The Religion of Israel" (i.e. Biblical Israel) opines that Israel's prophets, railing against idolatry, really didn't understand it at all, and mistook fetishism for idolatry. That is to say that they looked upon the statue of the god as the actual god (idol), which no true pagan would ever have done.)

The Seifa [last section] of our mishnah is concerned with two acts that are uniquely problematic. Obviously, if one performs an act towards an idol that is hardly respectful or complimentary this could not be considered an act of idolatry (though in our day and age it would presumably be considered not to be PC). The worship of a certain Middle Eastern deity called the Ba'al [god] of Pe'or required the devotee to uncover himself and excrete in front of the god's statue. (This is the rabbinical view, which is at variance with the Biblical evidence; but that is of no consequence to our present topic.) The statue of the Greek deity Hermes (the Roman Mercury) was more often than not the upper half of a man's body with very conspicuous genitalia, set on top of a low wooden pillar. These 'herms' were set up at crossroads and entrances. It would seem that it was the custom to cast a stone in the direction of the little statue. Neither of these acts would be considered respectful when performed in different circumstances, but because they are the specific form a worship associated with these deities anyone performing them, even if he claims that he was doing so in disrespect, is guilty of an idolatrous act.

Perhaps it would not be amiss to consider the implications of our mishnah for our own times. To what extent does Jewish tradition consider other religions to be idolatrous? We certainly should not mistake fetishism for idolatry (see my comment above about the view of Professor Kaufmann). If the representation of the deity in plastic form (icon or statue) constitutes idolatry, then which of the modern religions could not be considered idolatrous? But this is obviously not the case. The deity is a concept, and to the pious Christian Michaelangelo's depiction of God on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel in Rome is no more God than the same artist's statute of David in Florence is the biblical king! They are both representations. So the question must concern itself with what is being represented and not with the plastic representation.

Rambam [Moses Maimonides, North Africa, 12th century CE] was of the opinion that Islam is certainly not idolatry and that Christianity certainly is. A certain Ovadyah converted from Islam to Judaism (perhaps Ovadyah was a Hebraization of Abdullah). As part of his learning his teacher told him that Moslems were idolaters. As an erstwhile Moslem himself he was sure that this was not the case and told his teacher so. Ovadyah's teacher became angry, called him an ignorant and impudent idiot... Ovadyah wrote to Rambam asking which of them was correct. Here is part of Rambam's responsum:

Your teacher reacted inappropriately when he caused you distress, shamed you and called you a fool: this is a great sin on his part. I must assume that he didn't really mean it, but it is appropriate for him to ask your forgiveness, even though you are his student. Having done that he should fast and pray hard: maybe then God will forgive him too. Was he drunk or something, that he did not know that in thirty-six different places the Torah warns us concerning the Ger? Where, for him, was the injunction not to distress the Ger with words? Even if he had been right and you wrong he should have spoken to you politely and softly; how much more is this the case when it is you who was correct and he was the one who was mistaken...

The Moslem's intellectual conceptualization of God is not really different from that of the Jew: an uncompromising monotheism. For Judaism, however, the Christian's conceptualization of a Trinitarian God is problematic. Rambam, living as he did far distant from a Christian civilization, had no hesitation as branding Christianity as idolatry:

You must know that the Christian people with their messianic claim are all idolaters; all their holy days are forbidden and all the laws of the Torah concerning idolaters must be applied to them [Mishnah Commentary, Avodah Zarah, 1:1]. Christians are idolaters and Sunday is their holy day [Mishneh Torah, Avodah Zarah 9:4].

Rambam, of course, was the greatest and foremost champion of an unadulterated and uncompromising Jewish monotheism in the Middle Ages. The very concept of a Trinitarian deity was for him anathema.

The reason why Rambam mentions Sundays and holy days is because all social and commercial intercourse with idolaters was forbidden by the sages before and during their holy days. That is probably why, in Europe, where his contemporaries were living under the Medieval Christian regimes, the attitude of the rabbis was understandably different. When a certain rabbi in Europe prohibited all contact with Christians on their holy days (which was more often than not when the great fairs were held) Rabbenu Gershom [Germany, first quarter of 11th century CE] demurs:

But in [the Land of] Israel it is already customary to barter with non-Jews on their holy days, and we should not forbid this. It is better that [the Jews] contravene the law in ignorance than that they should do so knowingly, [which they will inevitably do] since their livelihood depends on their wares and most days of the year are [Christian] holy days.

Rabbenu Tam [France, 12th century CE] and his fellow Tosafists did not condemn Christianity as idolatry.

The fact that most people do business with the non-Jews on their holy days is problematic... It would seem that the reason for this permissiveness is that the non-Jews among whom we live are not to be considered idolaters... Rabbenu Tam was of the opinion that the prohibition of doing business with idolaters before and during their holy days was only meant to apply to items that they might use in their worship, and did not apply to buying from them... [Tosafot to Avodah Zarah 2a].

It is, of course instructive to note that these arguments were not based on the intellectual acceptability or otherwise of the concept of the trinity. As we have seen, the Mishnah prohibits commercial and social contacts with idolaters before and during their holy days. The application of this law to Medieval Christian Europe would have been economically devastating to the Jews themselves. Therefore, for economic reasons, Christianity was seen by the sages of Europe not as idolatry but as a "compromised monotheism".