Avodoh zora is a prohibition that has been in the news
recently. It is arguably the most serious issur that
there is, in all times and in all places, but it has been
basically very remote from modern life, boruch Hashem.
However, this leaves us very unfamiliar with it, and the
intuitions that we have developed over years of experience
with other mitzvos and issurim often do not apply to
avodoh zora, since it is so much more serious and in
many ways unique. A brief introduction to its laws,
highlighting some of the special stringencies that apply to
it, is thus a very worthwhile and enlightening study.
It is well known that avodoh zora is one of three
aveiros that are so serious that if offered a choice
between martyrdom and transgressing them, one should choose
martyrdom, even though generally speaking Torah is very pro-
life, and the requirements of life, when it is threatened,
override most mitzvos. However, of the three mitzvos that do
oblige us to martyrdom, avodoh zora is the only one
that has substances associated with it. The other two, murder
and arayos, are pure actions and do not create and
leave around products that are associated with those
prohibitions. Avodoh zora is associated with wood,
stone, silver and gold -- that is, it involves many
Avodoh Zora as a Central Prohibition
We find that the Chazal said quite strong and amazing things
in relation to avodoh zora: Chamuroh avodas kochovim
shekol hakofeir boh ke'ilu modeh baTorah kuloh -- Avodoh
zora is so serious that whoever denies it is like agreeing to
the entire Torah (Nedorim 25a). This is not said of
any other mitzvah. The denial of avodoh zora is
actually considered characteristic of a Jew (Yehudi --
Megilloh 13a): "Whoever denies avodoh zora is
called a Yehudi."
It is not just one mitzvah. In fact, the Rambam counts 51
separate mitzvos that are part of the laws of avodoh
zora: two positive mitzvos and 49 prohibitions.
The Rambam is even more explicit and detailed in his
explanation of the centrality of this prohibition (Hilchos
Avodoh Zora 2:7): "Whoever agrees with avodoh
zora, denies (kofeir) in the entire Torah, and in
all the prophets, and in all that the prophets were commanded
from the time of Odom until the end of the world, as it says,
". . . From the day that Hashem commanded and onward, through
the generations" (Bamidbar 15:23). And whoever denies
avodoh zora, agrees to the entire Torah. And it is the
essence of absolutely all the mitzvos."
The punishment for avodoh zora is sekilloh the
most severe death penalty, but there is an extra step of
teliyoh, hanging up the criminal for a brief time.
This extra step is taken only for avodoh zora and
megadeif, cursing Hashem which is considered close to
avodoh zora in its content and severity.
Avodoh zora may not be used even to heal someone, even
though most other prohibited things may be so used. This is
learned out from the familiar posuk of the first
section of Krias Shema: "And you should love Hashem
your G-d, . . . with all your soul . . . " -- as the
gemora reasons in Pesochim (25a) that one's
love for Hashem must be so strong as to entail giving up
one's life for Hashem. The gemora does not find it
necessary to explain in full detail, but its point is that
love of Hashem is absolutely incompatible with any avodoh
zora -- so extremely incompatible that the basic
obligation to love Hashem requires us to be willing to give
up our lives rather than worship avodoh zora.
In every way and in many ways, the Torah and Chazal were
concerned to keep us as far as possible from avodoh
zora and even any shred or hint or trace of avodoh
zora. And this does not just mean to avoid actually
prostrating oneself in worship or offering a child to
Molech. Even just thinking of avodoh zora in a
positive light, admitting to it in one's heart, is already a
grave sin. While thinking of doing most aveiros does
not incur immediate punishment unless the thought is
translated into action, in the case of avodoh zora,
the thought of doing avodoh zora is already evil
without an action (Chulin 142a).
But it is not only the thought of worshiping avodoh
zora that is a sin. One should not use a house of
avodoh zora as a landmark, and should not acknowledge
that an avodoh zora object or person is nice.
One should not even look at avodoh zora. This
certainly means that it is forbidden to look at ancient idols
that archaeologists find and display in museums.
Avodoh zora is completely forbidden and one is not
even allowed to have any benefit from avodoh zora; it
is osur behano'oh.
Although most things that are prohibited can be ignored if
they become mixed in with things that are permitted, this
concept does not apply to avodoh zora. "If an idol got
lost among ornamental objects, even one [idol] in several
thousand, one must take the entire lot to the Dead Sea"
(Hilchos Avodoh Zora 7:11). The reason is that we must
not have any sort of benefit from avodoh zora and if
we know that there is an element of avodoh zora in the
mixture, we should not benefit from it. The normal rule of
considering a mixture according to the majority of its
contents does not apply and we are not allowed to ever ignore
or forget that there is a substance of avodoh zora in
It is a special mitzvah to destroy all avodoh zora.
This includes not only the idol itself, but also anything
that is made for it and serves it. "And in Eretz Yisroel, it
is a mitzvah to actively pursue it until we completely
destroy it in our Land. But in chutz la'Aretz we are
not commanded to pursue it, but just that in every place that
we conquer we must destroy all the avodoh zora there"
(Hilchos Avodoh Zora 7:2).
The Torah itself tell us that we should not investigate their
methods of worship. Hilchos Avodoh Zora 2:3: "The idol
worshipers authored many books about its worship, about its
laws and deeds. Hakodosh Boruch Hu commanded us not to
read those books at all, and not to think about avodoh
zora and not about anything associated with it. Even to
look at a picture of it is prohibited, as it says
(Vayikra 19:4): `Do not turn towards the idols.' And
regarding this it says, `Lest you investigate their gods in
this way, asking how do they worship . . . (Devorim
12:30), that you should not ask how they worship even if you
do not intend to worship since doing this causes people to
turn towards it and to do like they do, as it says ` . . .
and I will do likewise' (Ibid.). . . . and whoever
turns towards it in such a way that he does something, is
We must stay as completely away from avodoh zora as
humanly possible. We must not listen to the musical
instruments of avodoh zora. We should not look at
avodoh zora for pleasure, even though it would seem
that the connection to the avodoh zora through that is
quite insubstantial. Nonetheless, this is off-limits as
We must not even mention their name. Even though the main
mitzvah relevant here (86 according to the Chinuch) is not to
take an oath on avodoh zora, Chazal said that this
also means that we should not mention it or use it as a
landmark. In explaining the roots of the mitzvah, the Chinuch
writes, "We must distance all avodoh zora from our
hearts, and even from our speech, to the extent that we do
not ever think of them." He notes that Chazal counted 44
times that the Torah warned us in a general way against
avodoh zora and all of its aspects, because it is so
repulsive. If one takes an oath on an avodoh zora, he
is whipped. Even though usually one does not get
malkos for improper speech, an exception is made
"because of the seriousness of avodoh zora."
It is Our Problem
In Mitzvah 87 in the Chinuch, lo yishoma al picho, it
says that we should not encourage others to do avodoh
zora even if we do not worship it ourselves. The
Chinuch explains that even though we find that the
Torah goes to great extremes in distancing us from avodoh
zora, and prescribes very severe punishment, and warns us
against it 44 times in the Torah, and even says that Hashem
is, as it were, jealous of those who worship or follow
avodoh zora, the reason for these extremes is not
because of problems that it causes Him, chas vesholom,
but because of the problems that it causes to us.
If a person takes his mind away from Hashem and follows these
false gods, the Chinuch explains, he or she makes
himself totally unworthy and really unable to receive any
sort of goodness or blessing. On the contrary, he or she
deserves the opposite of blessing: curses, and sickness and
suffering and pestilence. By his actions and beliefs he has,
aside from the intellectual error, actually distanced himself
as far as humanly possible from any good whatsoever.
Therefore he will find only evil and suffering in all
possible ways, shapes and forms.
It is along these lines that Hashem is said to be jealous, as
it were, of those who leave His worship, since jealousy is
the greatest source of hatred among people. The Or HaChaim
Hakodosh (Shemos 20:4) notes that Yisroel is compared
to Hashem's bride, as elaborated in Shir Hashirim.
Just imagine what might happen, he explains, if the young
queen takes a fancy to one of the court slaves, and she hugs
him and kisses him, and waits on him and attends to his
needs, even as she remains otherwise faithful to the King. In
such a case, explains the Or HaChaim Hakodosh, the King may
become so jealous as to run her through with a sword.
That is the case with Hashem and Klal Yisroel. They
are bound in such a close and intimate relationship that
introducing a third party is a treachery that arouses the
jealousy of the King, even if we remain basically committed
The Torah itself tells us of avodoh zora, Abeid te'abdun
(Devorim 12:2), meaning destroy it and then destroy it
again. The gemora (Avodoh Zora 45b) explains that the
Torah is giving us a unique obligation with regard to
avodoh zora: it is not enough to destroy it. Even
after we have finished destroying it, in Eretz Yisroel we
must search again for any vestiges and thoroughly uproot it.
We do not want to have anything to do with it or anything
that derives from it. This includes the ashes that remain
after burning it, and even the energy that is released in
burning it. All this shows the extreme degree to which the
Torah advises us to stay away from avodoh zora.
As we noted above, since boruch Hashem, avodoh zora is
very uncommon nowadays, we have very little experience with
it and very limited intuitive knowledge of how to react to
it. Nonetheless, as the Ramchal explains in Mesillas
Yeshorim (Chapter 18, "Explaining the Middoh of
Chassidus"), one who loves Hashem will extrapolate from what
He told us explicitly, to understand and do what Hashem wants
and to bring nachas ruach to our Creator.
People often think that avodoh zora necessarily
involves positive feelings towards the object, either love
and adoration or at least awe and respect. The concept of
avodoh zora in the Torah and Chazal, however, includes
modes of worship that damaged or debased the avodoh
zora. Most notable is the worship of Pe'or which required
the worshiper to relieve himself on the idol. This is
considered the normal way to worship Pe'or and anyone who
does so may be stoned, even though he is debasing Pe'or and
even though his intent was to debase it. The Chinuch
writes this very explicitly (Mitzvah 29): "And even if the
worship of [the avodoh zora] is through debasing, such
as one who relieves himself to Pe'or, or who throws a stone
at Mar Kulis, or who cuts off his hair to Kemosh. As it is
said, `Lo so'ovdeim' (Shemos 20:5)."
See also Sefer Mitzvos of the Rambam with comments of
HaRav Chaim Heller, Lo sa'aseh 6, which also mentions
the hair to Kemosh (the Chinuch is basically quoting
the Rambam) and notes that this does truly refer to the hair.
It is interesting these days to note that the Yad
Ramah in Sanhedrin (60) writes that the usual
worship of Mar Kulis required tonsure -- cutting the hair --
in addition to throwing stones.
Avodoh zorah worship can even be done with a blank
mind; it does not need to be with deep intent or any intent
at all. There is a concept of stam machsheves oveid
kochovim le'avodoh zora -- the unspecified thought of an
idol worshiper is assumed to be for his idol. Even his empty-
headed act is avodoh zora. He does not have to focus
his thoughts on his idol in any way.
There is another interesting way in which the gemora
broadens the concept of worship that is not intuitive to
modern people, especially those of us in the West whose main
exposure to non-Jewish religion is to the various forms of
Christianity. If an object is regularly used in the worship
of a certain idol, then of course the regular form of worship
is forbidden on the usual penalty of stoning. However this is
extended to apply also where the object is used even in a
nonstandard way, if that way is destructive of the object
involved. "If an avodoh zora has worship involving a
stick, if he breaks a stick in front of it, he is liable and
the stick is prohibited. If he throws the stick down in front
of it, he is liable and the stick does not become prohibited"
(Rambam, Hilchos Avodoh Zora, 3:4).
End of Part I