Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

14 Tishrei 5765 - September 29, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









Produced and housed by
Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
Understanding the Depths of Avodoh Zora

by Mordecai Plaut

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 problematic substances.

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 the mixture.

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 lokeh."

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 well.

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 to Him.

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

All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.