Class Notes - Class #7

Mitzvot #25 – 29, on Theology and Idol Worship


In this class, we start the aseres hadibros, the “Ten Commandments,” or, literally the “ten statements.”  (Count them to see how many mitzvot Rambam sees in the Ten Commandments.)  Specifically, in this class we will deal with the mitzvot related to believing in God, and not participating in idol worship. Read the relevant verses, even if they are already familiar. We will start with the theological aspects of these mitzvot, then go on to the more technical aspects.  We will end with a discussion of the supplementary readings, trying to figure out what idol worship was about and how this concept might still be relevant.

Two general observations before we begin.  First, many halachic texts were subject to censorship in Christian Europe during the Middle Ages. The censors were especially concerned with things that might be understood as accusations again their own religion. Different censors understood some terms to be unacceptable at different times. Because of that, the terminology we have in texts related to idol worship cannot be relied on to be accurate, as authors and scribes would vary the terms depending on what local censors were reacting to.  Second, it would be better to place the author’s discussion of these mitzvot in the context of medieval philosophy and theology.  I do not have the background to provide that context.


            The source verse of mitzvah #25 does not sound like a mitzvah; rather it is a statement “I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”  The mitzvah is to believe that statement every moment of every day.

            Indeed, our author treats this statement as the basis of the system of Judaism, the foundation of knowledge the “y’sod hadaas.”  He explains the axiom in the introduction to this mitzvah/essay:  the world has one God who created everything, and He brought us out of Egypt and gave us the Torah.  In other words, it is crucial to accept God as creator, as showing watchful care to His creation, and as revealer of His will.  Everything else is built on those assumptions.

            There is something difficult about a mitzvah to believe something: what if one doesn’t believe, or has doubts.  Our author struggles with this problem.  First, he says that one who does not believe this is “kofer b’ikar,” denies a basic principle, and has no part in the Jewish people and its merit.  But the author goes on to explain that, if one is not sure, one should determine in his mind that this is the truth and then “act as if.”  He advises not to hesitate to say it, as one’s heart is influenced by one’s speech and actions.  In other words, treat it as an axiom and act as if you believe it.  If that works, and one comes to accept this as if there was clear-cut proof, one would then be doing this mitzvah in the best possible way.  Apparently, our author expects most of us to be on a lesser level.

            In the dinei hamitzvah section, our author faces another problem: how to explain what exactly one must believe about God, given that we are unable to understand God.  The author gives us several general guidelines.  We should believe that God is glorious, grand, splendid, the source of all blessing, perfect and excellent.  By implication, God must be incorporeal, because physical bodies have flaws.  Although that is a long list of attributes, it is not all that specific.  The theologians, who can understand this better, fulfill the mitzvah better; those of us who need more information should look to those experts.  It is not clear whether the author means philosophers like Rambam, or those more mystically oriented like Ramban, or both.     Here, again, we see the author referring us to other sources, but this time it is the words of the theologians rather than to Gemara.


The rest of the mitzvot for this week prohibit idol worship, “avodah zarah.  We will take mitzvot #26, 28 and 29 together, and then come back to #27. 

In the Rambam’s count that our author uses, mitzvah #26 prohibits believing in other gods, mitzvah #28 prohibits worshipping an idol by any of the four standard methods (see below) one of which is bowing down to an idol, and mitzvah #29 prohibits worshipping an idol in the way that idol is usually worshipped. Our author explains, in mitzvah #27, that according to Ramban, those three mitzvot are only one mitzvah.  Mitzvah #27 is a separate mitzvah according to both authorities.  Our author lists each of these as a separate mitzvah, and writes an essay about each one, but the content of the essays follows Ramban rather than Rambam.  There is little difference in content between the two approaches.

            Mitzvah #26 prohibits believing in other gods.   Conceptually, this is a companion to mitzvah #25.  Mitzvah #25 is an axiom to believe in God; mitzvah #26 is an axiom to be a monotheist, not to believe in other gods, even gods that are inferior to God.  And it prohibits believing in other gods, whether or not an idol is involved.

            That could mean that there are other gods, but one is prohibited from believing in them, or that there are no other gods and that one is prohibited from holding the false opinion that there are other gods. Here, the author affirms the second meaning.  He cites Ramban, who explains that the Torah mentions other gods only when it is discussing belief.  The Torah never mentions other gods when it is referring to reality because, in reality, there are no other gods. 

There are four standard ways of worshipping idols, and this set of mitzvot prohibits each of them.  1. Sacrifice – “zivuah.”   2.  Burning something on an alter – “kitur.”  3.  Pouring a libation or sprinkling blood – “nisuch” or “zorek.  4. Bowing down – “hishtachavayah.”  This set of mitzvot also prohibits worshipping an idol in the way that idol is usually worshipped, even if that is not one of the four standard ways of worshipping idols. 

There are other aspects our author does not explain. What constitutes a god?  What is one forbidden to believe?  None of that is made clear.  Nor does he explain how the prohibition to believe in other gods relates to worshipping idols. What, exactly, constitutes an idol? 

Mitzvah #26 is one of the few mitzvah/essays where the dinei hamitzvah section is not clearly labeled, but the topic is clearly covered.  This set of mitzvot is much more complicated that it seems at first glance, and the rabbis extended it substantially.  Let me point out a few highlights.

One is prohibited from getting any benefit from an idol or anything that has been used in idol worship.  That gets complicated if the object worshipped is a natural object still attached to the earth.  For example, are we prohibited from enjoying a mountain or a tree just because someone else has worshipped it?

  One extension is a prohibition against reading books written by idol worshippers to explain their practices, or reading anything that might cause idol worship to seem attractive.  This is a sort of “don’t even think about it” extension. 

            The author mentions the question of someone who is interested in idols for their artistic beauty or for superstition reasons, although he does not tell us what the halachah is.

            There are also restrictions on doing business with idol worshippers during the few days before a holiday, lest Jews inadvertently sell the idol worshiper something he or she will use in worship.

            Although all of this at first seems very far from our everyday experience, it does have practical implications.  Restrictions on reading about idol worship would have implications for various areas of study, such as comparative religion or anthropology.  Restrictions on artistic interest in idols might affect students of art history, tourists and museum visitors.  These and other issues look very different depending on whether Christianity, or some forms of Christianity, is considered idol worship. (Islam is not idol worship.) Do not make halachic decisions on these matters based on our author’s discussion; he is only raising questions.  You might want to discuss these issues with your own trusted authority.


            We get some new information about punishments in the concluding section of mitzvah #26.  First, note carefully what our author says is punishable.  The author does not mention believing in other gods.  That should not be a surprise.  Belief requires no action, and only actions are punishable.

The actions that are prohibited d’oraita here, worshipping an idol in the way that idol is usually worshipped, or worshipping an idol by any other the four standard methods mentioned earlier, is a capital crime.  The punishment is “skilah,” stoning.  (There are four methods of capital punishment.  We will get to them in due course.)  In mitzvah #26, our author mentions two procedural conditions for imposing capital punishment: witnesses and warning.  These conditions apply to all of the d’oriata punishments administered by a Jewish court.  Those punishments only apply when there are two eye witnesses to the crime.  Both witnesses must be Jewish men, qualified to give testimony, and unrelated to each other or to the perpetrator.  The second requirement is a warning.  The witnesses must address the perpetrator, and explain that he is about to commit a specific violation and that the violator is subject to capital punishment for his action.  The violator must acknowledge the warning, saying that he knows all that and is going to commit the violation anyway.  The point of the warning is to assure that the violation is intentional, b’mazid.  That brief summary should alert us that the d’oraita punishments we have been learning about probably were not administered very often.  If the violator is guilty but cannot be punished for lack of witnesses and/or warning, the punishment is karet. (See mitzvah #28.)  In other words, if the human court cannot punish him, we assume God will. If the violation is b’shogeg, the violator is required to bring a korban hatas.


            There are several topics in this essay that are not specific to idol worship, but are worthy of attention.

 The author introduces a concept that is relevant to other areas of halachah as well as this one.  What happens when someone is speaking and retracts something as soon as the person said it.  That is called “toch kdai dibur,” “within the time it takes to speak” just a few words.  Normally, such a retraction is effective, but not for stating a belief in false gods. (As our author points out, it does not work for marriage, either.)

Last, the author mentions that this is one of the “sheva mitzvot b’nai noah,” the seven commandments that apply to all human beings.  Procedurally, according to the theory, violations of these mitzvot by non-Jews are punished under a different judicial rubric from punishments for Jews, and our author lists several of the differences.  Witnesses and warning are not required, although the author does not tell us what the standard of proof is.  A confession can establish guilt for a non-Jew; a Jew can only be convicted based on eyewitnesses, but not based on confession. Although there are a variety of punishments for violations by Jews, only the death penalty applies to non-Jews.  As with other aspects of potential punishments, we have little evidence that this was ever done in practice.


Mitzvah #27 forbids Jews from making idols.  This is an ordinary negative commandment, a lav, and is punishable with malkos.  The author does not give much additional information about this mitzvah, but he does raise two questions.

First, Rambam says that one can violate this mitzvah by making an idol himself or by commissioning another to make an idol.  This is puzzling since it seems to violate a more general principle in halachah of “ain shaliach l’dvar aveirah, “there is no agent in a matter of sin.”  That mean that, if a person commissions another to do something wrong, the person who actually does the wrong deed is responsible for the bad behavior, and the person who commissioned the deed is not responsible for the deed. Here, then, the person who actually makes the idol should be responsible, rather than the person commissioning it.  Our author points out the problem and does not know any explanation for why Rambam does not follow that principle in this case.

            Second, Rambam includes in this mitzvah a prohibition on making an idol even if the one who makes has no intention of worshipping that idol.  Ramban thinks this mitzvah only prohibits making an idol one intends to worship.  Also, he finds the source of this prohibition in a different verse.  Since the other prohibitions in this passage are capital offenses, and making an idol is not a capital offense, he does not want to read this verse as the source for the prohibition.


Now that we have seen the mitzvot in this week’s reading, I wanted to take a broader look at the issues of belief in God and idol worship. Please do not expect me to have answers; nevertheless, I think the inquiry is worthwhile.  In light of the supplementary readings, and your own experience and beliefs, consider the following questions:

What was attractive about idol worship? 

Assuming people who worshiped idols were not stupid, how did they understand the world and why did that understanding make sense to them?

            What does it mean to worship something?   

            How does Judaism deal with the two questions raised by Tikva Frymer-Kensky?

            Is Kenneth Seeskin correct in his formulation of how a Jew is required to understand God?  If so, can it be done?  If not, is there any real alternative?

            Haym Soloveitchik describes several models of believing in God.  Can you restate each one?  Do they seem familiar to you?  Are they the ideal?  How do they fit with Seeskin’s ideal?  How is believing in God different from having an imaginary friend?

            What is so bad about idol worship? 

            How are the mitzvot prohibiting idol worship relevant to our current Jewish practice?

            What does it mean to believe in God?