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Grave Issues about Graven Images

Where do we find nowadays the Isur of Avoda Zara? What are the relevant Isurim of Avoda Zara? Decorative statues are Asur?


Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff

Iyar 5768
Miriam recently asked me these two questions regarding avodah zarah:

1) I received some figurines from a museum shop which resemble various Egyptian gods. May I keep them to demonstrate at the Seder what silly gods the Egyptians worshipped?

2) My non-observant, but very respectful, father has a rather eclectic collection of various art objects -- including a four-foot-tall bronze statue of some Hindu figure. Do I have any obligation to say or do anything?

Zev, a chess enthusiast, asked me the following:

"I just received a present of a very nicely carved chess set. Unfortunately the king has a cross. May I keep the set as is, or must I break off the cross on the king?"

Each of these shaylos revolves upon the question of whether a Jew may own an item that has idolatrous overtones even though he has no idolatrous intention. Is this lack of intent sufficient to avoid any Torah violations?

As we will see, there are several potential shaylos that we must analyze to determine the halacha:

I. May a Jew look at an icon?

II. Does it make a difference whether it is worshipped?

III. May a Jew own an icon that represents an idol, even if it was never worshipped?

IV. If owning this icon infringes on no other prohibitions, does it violate maris ayin, doing something that looks suspicious?

In Parshas Eikev, the Torah commands: "Burn their carved gods in fire. Do not desire and obtain the silver or gold that is upon them, lest you become snared by it, for it is hideous to Hashem your G-d. Nor shall you bring this repugnancy into your house; rather, you should ban it. Abhor it and revile it for it is banned" (Devorim 7:25-26).

This pasuk includes the following mitzvos:

1. Burn their carved gods in fire commands us to destroy avodah zarah (Rambam, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 7:1). This mitzvah is also mentioned in Devorim 12:2.

2. Do not desire and obtain the silver or gold that is upon them prohibits benefit even from the decorations on an idol (Chinuch, Mitzvah 428). One may not own or sell idols even if one thinks that they are the silliest things on earth, since he gains financially or in other ways.

3. Nor shall you bring this repugnancy into your house bans bringing an idol into your house and also forbids benefiting from idolatry (Rambam, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 7:2).

4. Furthermore, the Torah states al tifnu el elilim, do not turn to idols (VaYikra 19:4). What is included in this proscription? Does it include looking at idols or images that represent idols?

The Sifra (VaYikra 19:4) quotes two interpretations of this verse, one that prohibits studying idolatry, including its beliefs and how the idol is worshipped. A second approach understands the verse to forbid even looking at idols (Yerushalmi, Avodah Zarah 3:1). The poskim rule that both approaches are accepted halacha, the Torah thus prohibits studying idolatrous practices and beliefs as well as looking at icons (Rambam, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 2:2; Sefer HaMitzvos, Lo Saaseh #10; Chinuch #213). The Rambam (Sefer HaMitzvos, Lo Saaseh #10) states that one receives malkus for violating this prohibition. Therefore, someone who violates either interpretation of this mitzvah is halachically invalid to provide testimony even if he has no idolatrous intent.

The Magen Avraham (307:23) explains that the Torah prohibits only gazing at an idol, but does not prohibit glancing at it. Therefore, seeing it is not prohibited, but intentionally looking at it is.

May one look at articles that only represent the actual idol even though they are not themselves worshipped, or is the prohibition limited to idols that are worshipped? The answer to this question depends on how one understands the following passage of Gemara:

"One may not read the caption underneath a painting or image on Shabbos. [This is included in the violation of reading documents on Shabbos.] Furthermore, one may not look at the image itself even on weekdays because one thereby violates ‘Do not turn to idols.’ How do we derive this law from this verse? Rav Chanin explained, ‘do not turn to works created by man’s own initiative’" (Shabbos 149a).

This passage implies that one may not look at any image, even one not worshipped, because looking at any image is already considered a form of idolatrous practice.

On the other hand, elsewhere the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 50a) praises the Talmudic scholar Rabbi Menachem ben Sima’ie as a holy man because he never looked at the images that one finds on coins. This implies that an especially holy person does not look at figures, but a person who observes halacha without chumros may do so. Thus, we are faced with a seeming inconsistency: one Gemara statement prohibits looking at any image, the other implies that one may (although it is meritorious to avoid).

The Rishonim suggest several different approaches to resolve this quandary:

1. First opinion: Some contend that the prohibition of looking at an image applies only to what was actually worshipped, and a coin’s image is not worshipped. According to this opinion, although the Gemara seems to derive that one may not look at any painting or image whatsoever, it really means to limit the prohibition to actual worshipped idols. Nevertheless, it is praiseworthy not to look at any pictures or images at all.
(Tosafos, Shabbos).

2. Second opinion: The Rosh expands the previous approach moderately, prohibiting looking at an image meant for worship, even if the image has not been worshipped. In his opinion, the Gemara prohibits looking at any painting or image that was made for idolatrous purposes, even if it was never worshipped.

3. Third opinion: A third approach understands the Gemara literally -- that it prohibits looking at any image whatsoever (Rashi; Tosafos Rid). If this approach is correct, why does the Gemara in Avodah Zarah imply that Rabbi Menachem ben Sima’ie’s acts are meritorious but not required, when the Gemara in Shabbos prevented looking at any image?

To answer this question, some explain that although it is prohibited to look at any image, this is so only when someone may be led astray from the Torah by the image. Since coins are in common use all the time, they do not tempt us to violate the Torah (Tosafos, Avodah Zarah 50a).

Whether one may own a replica of an ancient Egyptian icon depends on the above-quoted dispute among the Rishonim. According to the first opinion quoted above, since these icons were meant for educational purposes rather than to encourage worship, it is technically permitted to look at them (although it is meritorious to refrain). On the other hand, according to the other opinions, even looking at these pieces violates the Torah’s mitzvah since they are not common and therefore attract attention, all the more so that owning one is problematic.

How does the Shulchan Aruch adjudicate this question?

Surprising as it may seem, two statements of Shulchan Aruch appear to contradict one another. In Orach Chayim (307:16) he cites the above-mentioned Gemara in Shabbos in a way that implies that he prohibits looking as any image at all. On the other hand, in his laws on idolatry, he limits the prohibition to looking at bona fide worshipped idols. It is also noteworthy that there he cites a different reason to prohibit looking at idols, because enjoying the artwork is considered benefiting from idolatry (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 142:15, quoting Rabbeinu Yerucham).

However, the major commentators on the Shulchan Aruch in both places note that the accepted practice is to prohibit only icons manufactured for worship (Shach; Magen Avraham). Therefore, as far as the prohibition of looking at icons is concerned, Miriam may save her figurines for the Seder, although it is more meritorious not to. Thus, the better choice of action is to dispose of the figurines rather than saving them for educational purposes.

I will discuss shortly another possible prohibition involved, that of maris ayin.

A stamp dealer-collector asked Rav Moshe Feinstein whether he could own, buy and sell stamps that contain crosses and other idolatrous images. Rav Moshe ruled that since stamps are a common item, like coins, one may own or sell their images, and may also look at them. Rav Moshe mentions that it is meritorious not to, presumably for the same reason that Rabbi Menachem of the Gemara avoided looking at coins (Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 1:69).

According to the reasons we have applied so far, Zev may be able to keep his fancy carved chess set. No one worships the cross on the king, and one could perhaps argue that this is familiar enough that no one is led astray by these pieces. As mentioned above, it is meritorious not to have any images at all, and this is certainly a good reason why the custom is to break off the cross of such chess pieces.

However, Miriam’s Dad’s Hindu statue involves a more serious halacha problem. Firstly, if this image was manufactured for worship all opinions prohibit looking at this idol and enjoying it. Furthermore if it was once worshipped, then several other Torah violations are involved, including that of having an avodah zarah in one’s house and benefiting from avodah zarah (because he enjoys looking at the artwork). In addition, there is a mitzvah to destroy it.

Are we required to assume that the Hindu statue was worshipped? After all, it looks as if it was created as a collector’s item, not for worship.

The answer is that if this statue was manufactured in a place where images of this nature are worshipped, he must assume that this icon is a bona fide idol (Rama, Yoreh Deah 141:3 and Shach ad loc. 17).

In addition to the halachic problem of looking at these idols, the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 43b) raises a concern that someone might suspect that the owner worships them.

Are we today still concerned that someone might worship idols?
The answer to this question goes back to understanding the basics of maris ayin. Doesn’t the concept of maris ayin conflict with the mitzvah of judging people favorably? If everyone always judged others favorably, there would never be a reason for maris ayin. Yet we see that the Torah is concerned that someone might judge unfavorably and suspect a Torah Jew for violating a mitzvah.
Indeed, although we are required to judge favorably, we are also not permitted to do something that others may misinterpret as violating halacha. Therefore a person’s actions must be above suspicion, while people watching him act in a suspicious way are required to judge him favorably. In other words, a person should not rely on his sterling reputation to do something that might be misinterpreted.
However, if circumstances dictate that people will assume that nothing wrong was done, there is no violation of maris ayin. Indeed, even in cases where there was maris ayin at the time of the Gemara, the prohibition is rescinded in places and times when the concern no longer exists.
Concerning maris ayin and the prohibition of avodah zarah, the poskim conclude that if no one worships these icons anymore anywhere in the world, one need not be concerned of suspicion that they are worshipped (see Rama, Shach, and Gra, Yoreh Deah 141:3). However, as long as these idols are worshipped somewhere, one must be concerned about maris ayin.
Thus, it makes a difference whether this particular idol is still worshipped somewhere in the world. Since, unfortunately, there are still Hindus in the world, one may not own an idol that they might worship because of the prohibition of maris ayin, even if no other prohibition to its ownership exists. On the other hand, since no one worships the ancient Egyptian idols any more, it is not maris ayin to own these figurines.

I mentioned above that the Sifra rules that studying idolatry, including what the religion believes and how the idol is worshipped, is prohibited min hatorah as part of the mitzvah of al tifnu el elilim, do not turn to idols.
Does this include studying ancient religions or archeology? Does this prohibit reading mythology as a form of literature?
In Nisan 5740 (1960), Rav Yehudah Parnas, a prominent Rosh Yeshivah, asked Rav Moshe Feinstein regarding an observant public school teacher whose required ancient history curriculum included teaching the beliefs of ancient Greece and Rome. Rav Parnes inquired whether the fact that the entire world now views these religions with disrespect validates studying and teaching their beliefs. Do we therefore permit teaching these religions since one is mocking them, or is this teaching and studying still prohibited?
Rav Moshe rules that the prohibition to study idolatry exists regardless of why one studies the religion. This also prohibits reading mythology that includes idolatry even as a study of ancient literature.
However, Rav Moshe contends that the Torah prohibits studying only what is authored by a proponent of the religion. One may study something written by someone who scoffed at the religion, just as we see that even the Torah sometimes describes the way idolaters worshipped in order to ridicule the practice. Therefore Rav Moshe rules that one may only study these matters if the teacher derides their beliefs and does not have the students read texts written by believers in the idols.
Rav Moshe point out that the students may even benefit from this instruction if they realize that, although most of the world’s population once accepted these ridiculous beliefs, this does not demonstrate that these beliefs are true. Similarly, the fact that millions of people accept certain other false notions as true is not evidence to their veracity (Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 2:53).
In conclusion to our original questions, Miriam may save the Egyptian figurines although it is praiseworthy to dispose them, but her father may not hold onto his Hindu statue even as art or to mock it. Zev may keep his chess set.
Our belief in Hashem is the most basic of mitzvos. Praiseworthy is he who stays far from idols and their modern substitutes and directs his heart to Hashem.

This article was originally published in the American edition of the Yated Neeman

This Shiur is published also at Rabbi Kaganof's site
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