Season Three‎ > ‎Class #12‎ > ‎

Class Notes - Class #12

Mitzvot #425 – 429 bring us back to the topic of idol worship and idol worshippers.

            Recall that Deuteronomy recounts the speeches Moses gave to the Jews before the Jews entered Israel.  Mitzvah #425 apparently requires us to kill every member of the seven nations that inhabited Israel before Joshua led the Jews into Israel.  (The source verse, Deut. 7:2, lists seven nations.  The Feldheim translation lists only six of the seven.  The Hebrew text lists two and then says “etc.”) This is the first mitzvah we have seen about war, and it is disturbing.  We will summarize what our author has to say about this mitzvah, and save an overall evaluation until we see other relevant mitzvot.

Our author explains that these nations were the worst of the worst, engaging in all sorts of abominable behavior.  They were the role models for idolaters.  When we eliminate those people, we rescue ourselves from being tempted to join in their evil actions.  If people know idol worshippers are likely to be killed, people will avoid idol worship.  Therefore members of those nations deserve to be and should be obliterated. 

            If the people of these seven nations were so evil, one might wonder why these people were created only to be wiped out later. Our author explains that even the people of these seven nations have free will and have the ability to choose good behavior.  Perhaps some individuals from those nations actually did behave well or perhaps the nations as a whole were better behaved at some time.  Note that even in the context of discussing a mitzvah to wipe these people out, our author speaks of them with a sense of equality; the people of the seven nations are ordinary people gone astray.

            By way of dinei hamitzvah, the author gives us a snippet to introduce the more general law of war.  One category of war is “milchemet mitzvah,” a war that is a religious obligation.  A war is a milchemet mitzvah if it is mandated by this mitzvah or the mitzvah to annihilate Amalek, or a defensive war to protect the Jews from enemy attack.  For those wars, the king can act independently, without consent of the Sanhedrin.  That implies there are other types of permitted wars, and that those wars require consent of the Sanhedrin. 

The author discusses why Rambam counts this mitzvah in the official 613, a mitzvah that is still in effect, although the people it requires us to kill are long since gone.  Some mitzvot were given at a specific time and were meant to be in effect only for that specific time.  For example, the Jews in the desert were fed with manna and were commanded not to leave any manna over from one day to the next.  That mitzvah was a one-time affair applicable only to the Jews in the desert; it did not apply at any other time and is not counted as one of the 613 mitzvot.   This mitzvah fell primarily on the Jews who originally entered Israel, but the Torah put no theoretical time limit on this mitzvah.  Historically the possibility of fulfilling this mitzvah is remote, probably impossible.  But in theory the mitzvah is still in effect.

            Two other points the author makes are worth noting.  In the penultimate paragraph, where the author discusses David’s attempt to wipe out Amalek, the author says David destroyed almost all of them and the remnant were assimilated into other nations so we can no longer identify them.  In the final paragraph the author says that someone violates this mitzvah if the person had the opportunity to kill a member of the seven nations without creating risk to the killer and fails to do so. 

This mitzvah is obviously disturbing and morally difficult.  The author says the behavior of these seven nations left them deserving of annihilation because they were the worst of the worst.  That may or may not have been historically accurate.  We will defer discussion of the larger moral issues until we see other related mitzvot.

Mitzvah #426 prohibits us from having mercy on idol worshippers.  If we develop positive emotions toward idol worship or idol worshippers, we are more likely to develop relationships that will lead us into trouble.  We should not accept that there is anything positive about idol worship or people who are involved in idol worship.  We should avoid admiring idol worshippers’ physical attributes or personalities.  We should not give gratuitous gifts to idol worshippers.  We should not speak well of idol worshippers.

The author mentions some limitations on this mitzvah.  The prohibition on giving gifts applies to actual idol worshippers, and not to non-Jews who do not worship idols.  A ger toshav, a non-Jewish resident of Israel who formally promises to observe the mitzvot that apply to non-Jews, has a special, respected status.  (The status of ger toshav was part of the complex of mitzvot that apply only when yovel is functioning.)  We may praise idol worshippers if the goal is comparing the Jews favorably to non-Jews, a sort of “damning with faint praise.”  We may give charity to non-Jews along with Jews, as a reflection of “darchei shalom,” “the ways of peace.”  That explanation is vague.  It might mean that peace is a basic positive good, a reflection of a name of God.  Or this might just be practical.  If we support poor Jews and not poor non-Jews, the non-Jews will resent the Jews.

We have reflected before on related mitzvot that raise related problems.  We need to stay away from bad behavior, especially idol worship.  But this mitzvah goes farther, apparently requiring us to be less than fully honest with ourselves about the reality around us.  And this mitzvah apparently requires us to limit our generosity, to treat others less well than we normally would.  Striking an appropriate balance is difficult.

Mitzvah #427 prohibits Jews marrying non-Jews and prohibits Jews from arranging marriages for their children with non-Jews.  The Biblical prohibition here applies to marriages and long term sexual relationships.  Casual sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews are only prohibited d’rabanan.  This mitzvah is a missing piece of the picture of forbidden sexual relations we saw earlier in our study.  This mitzvah/essay is written for a male audience, and there are strains of dehumanization in this essay that are not easy to deal with.

The source verse for this mitzvah, Deut. 7:3, prohibits marrying people descended from the seven nations we met in mitzvah #425, and then specifies that a Jewish parent should not arrange a marriage between a Jewish child and the child of those seven nations.  Recall what we said earlier, and that in this essay the author cites to the Talmud, that a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew does not take effect.  If so, the verse seems to be prohibiting something that wouldn’t work anyway.  We have seen other examples of that, but it still that seems odd.  The rabbis came to the rescue by interpreting the source verse to mean a prohibition on marrying a member of the seven nations even if that person converts to Judaism.  The second part of the source verse, prohibiting a Jewish parent from arranging a child’s marriage with the child of the seven nations, leaves room to extend the Biblical prohibition to marrying unconverted non-Jews.

The author reiterates the special status of the seven nations as the originators of and worst practitioners of idol worship.  In the shoresh section the author says that a spouse influences the family, so marriage to a non-Jew runs the risk that the whole family will be influenced away from Jewish behavior.  The author singles out the role of the wife and mother; if the wife is influenced by idol worship, she will lead the family astray.  The author did not originate focusing specifically on the woman; he is echoing the Torah’s own explanation for this mitzvah.  (Deut. 7:4.) 

The mitzvah applies at all times, to men and women.  Much of this essay is devoted to the punishments for breaking this mitzvah, which turn out to be complicated. The first situation our author deals with is based on the Biblical story of Pinhas which appears in Num. 25.  Jewish men became sexually and religiously involved with women from Moav.  God required Moses and the judges to kill the men involved and hang their corpses in the sun.  Meanwhile, a Jewish man had sex with a Midianite woman in public, in front of Moses, the Jews and the corpses.  Pinhas, grandson of Aaron, was so incensed by this behavior that he ran the couple through with a spear as they were in the act of having sex.  God praises Pinhas and ends a plague that was happening to the Jews.  Since God praised Pinhas’ behavior, we might think of that behavior as a precedent.  But the rabbis read that precedent narrowly, presumably to avoid people feeling free to run each other through.  If a Jewish man has sex with a non-Jewish woman in public, in the presence of ten Jews, then we may kill the couple while they are still having sex.  Once the sex is over, though, the case goes to trial.  If the court fails to punish the wrongdoers, God will apply karet.

If a non-Jewish man has sex with a married Jewish woman, the man is subject to the death penalty, whereas if the woman is not married the man is not subject to the death penalty.  Since non-Jews are also prohibited from having illicit sex, including adultery, that distinction makes sense.  It is only tangentially related to this mitzvah, though.  The author does not say what happens to the woman in these cases.

Now take the case of a member of the seven nations who has converted to Judaism.  A father who arranges a marriage between his child and a member of the seven nations who has converted violates this mitzvah but is not punishable because the violation consists only of speech.  The author does not discuss a mother who arranges such a marriage, probably because the official job of arranging marriages devolved typically on men, the father or brother of the bride.  A man who married a woman from the seven nations who had converted to be Jewish, either on his own initiative or because his father arranged the marriage, is whipped.  That would seem to be a d’oraita punishment, although the author does not say specifically. 

Next take the case of a non-Jew who has not converted to Judaism, whether or not the person is descended from the seven nations.  The author does not say what the punishment is for arranging a marriage between one’s child and a non-Jew, although it seems likely it would be the same as for arranging a marriage between one’s child and a member of the seven nations who had converted to Judaism.

Here, though, a man who marries a non-Jewish woman is punishable with malkot after his first post-marriage sexual encounter with her.  The woman is subject to the death penalty.  This leaves several unanswered questions.  What do we mean by a marriage here, given what we said earlier that in halachah a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew does not take effect?  What is the punishment for a Jewish woman who marries a non-Jewish man?  What evidence would be needed t0 justify these punishments?  

Most important, why is the woman in this case subject to punishment?  We know of no prohibition on the non-Jewish woman to have a casual or even long-term sexual relationship with a Jewish man, although the prohibition might be a sub-category of the prohibition on all people on illicit sexual practices.  Our author says that the woman is killed because she was the means of the Jewish man’s misbehavior.  That careful language does not actually blame the woman, but it does treat the woman as an object rather than as a person, the instrumentality of the man’s actions.   And it does not take account of who initiated the sexual encounter. 

The author may be echoing a follow up to the story of Pinhas.  In Num. 31, God tells Moses to take revenge on the Midianites, presumably for having tempted Jewish men into sexual activity and idolatry.  The Jews kill all the Midianite men, but take the women and children as booty.  Moses required the Jewish army to kill all the male children and the women who were sexually experienced.  Moses explains the need to kill the sexually experienced women, saying that those women led the Jewish men astray.  But this is a strange precedent.  The actions God required in these stories were one time occurrences, specific to a unique time and situation.  And the women in the story led Jewish men into illicit sexual activity along with idol worship.  It seems strange to treat the stories as precedent for women who were only guilty of improper sexual behavior but who were not necessarily initiating that sexual contact or luring others into idol worship. 

Finally, the author makes an analogy between capital punishment for a non-Jewish woman who has casual sex with a Jewish man and an animal that was involved in a sex act with a person.  We saw in mitzvah #210 that that animal is killed lest it be a constant reminder of the bestiality and a source of rumors and tale bearing.  Our author is echoing Rambam’s similar statement, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Issurei Biah 12:10, which according to commentators has not obvious source.  That is obviously a disturbing comparison.   It dehumanizes the woman involved, perhaps because she is a woman, perhaps because she is a non-Jew, or perhaps for both reasons.  The statement seems entirely out of character for our author, who did not have to quote the opinion or the explanation.  It may help a bit that a parallel notion appears in Roman, Christian and Islamic sources, with the casual sex partner of an insider compared to an animal requiring killing.  The notion seems to be that such a sexual union is violating the natural order, mixing things that ought not to be mixed. S. Cohen, The Beginning of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties, University of California Press, 1999, p. 302 – 303.  But it doesn’t help much.

We noted earlier that casual sex between a Jew and non-Jew is prohibited d’rabanan, so the punishment is makkat mardut. 

Later in our study, in mitzvah #466, we will see a mitzvah that prohibits getting benefit from a worshipped item.  Mitzvah #428 prohibits our having any benefit from any ornament associated with an idol.  That holds even if there is no prohibition on having benefit from the worshipped object, for example if the worshipped object is a natural object rather than an artifact, a river or a mountain.  We are still forbidden to get benefit from any ornament associated with worshipping that object.

Mitzvah #429 prohibits taking any worshipped object into our possession to get benefit from it.  It also prohibits taking possession of the accoutrements of worshipped items to get benefit from them.

Consider a case where someone takes possession of a worshipped item and then gets benefit from it.  For example, let’s say someone uses the wood from a worshipped tree to burn for a cooking fire.  That person breaks two mitzvot:  when the person takes possession of the wood, the person violates this mitzvah.  When the person burns the wood the person violates the prohibition on getting benefit from a worshipped object.  Apparently the person would not be punishable solely for taking possession of the worshipped object.  But once the person gets benefit from the object the person is subject to two sets of malkot, one for violating each mitzvah.

This mitzvah prohibits taking possession of things we shouldn’t have because they were dedicated to idol worship.  Our author extends the notion:  we should also not take possession of other things we ought not to have, for example stolen goods, interest taken on a loan to another Jew, forced purchases.  God graciously blesses us with our worldly goods, and we should not corrupt that process by adding illicitly gotten goods to our inventory.  Those possessions are cursed rather than blessed.  It is not entirely clear whether our author is saying that taking possession of ill-gotten possessions is a halachic violation, or whether the author is expanding the underlying concept of the mitzvah as he has done before with other mitzvot.  Either way, the author takes an obscure mitzvah we would be unlikely to encounter at all and turns it into a vivid moral concept relevant to our daily lives.

Mitzvah #436 requires us to destroy idols and institutions of idolatry in Israel if we have the power to do so.  Ideally there should be no trace of idol worship in Israel when the Jews are able to enforce that, although Jews need not destroy idolatrous institutions elsewhere.


 Mitzvah #431 requires us to treat converts with love.  This would seem to be redundant with mitzvah #243 that we saw earlier to love other Jews.  We saw a parallel pair of mitzvot earlier in our study.  Mitzvah #338 prohibits us from cheating one another, but we are additionally prohibited by mitzvah #64 to wrong a convert in financial matters. Converts need our special attention.  In most ancient societies, converts made great sacrifices by choosing to join the Jews, leaving behind friends and family to associate with an alien people. Even now converts make a difficult choice with implications for all of their relationships with others. This mitzvah requires us to make that choice as easy as it can possibly be. 

Our author gives us examples of things we might say that would violate this mitzvah.  We might remind a convert of his or her origins, something the convert might not be proud of.  Even mentioning the conversion to a distant descendant of the convert is forbidden; the family may still be sensitive on that topic for generations.  These are not hard and fast rules.  What we ought to say or ought not to say depends on the situation, but it is up to the convert to set the tone, to choose whether the conversion should be a topic of conversation.  If the convert doesn’t bring it up, the rest of us should avoid the topic.

Most striking to me in this mitzvah/essay is the compassion the author expresses for converts.  We can hear how deeply he felt the painful choice a convert made, and how much he respects the convert for having made that choice.  When we treat the convert well, we show compassion.  God will be pleased with our compassion, and others who observe our behavior will think well of Torah and the people who adhere to it.

It should not surprise us that the author extends the notion of compassion to others who might be lonely or lacking a support system.  Anyone who is away from friends and family needs our support.  The Torah repeats that we were gerim, strangers in Egypt.  We know how painful it is to be a stranger in a strange land.  We should learn from that experience, lending a hand to help others in similar situations. 

Mitzvah #432 requires us to have “yirah” awe and fear of God.  We have seen a mitzvah to love God, but that love needs to be accompanied by humility in our awareness of God.  We are motivated to avoid bad behavior because we love God and long to please God, but we are also motivated to avoid bad behavior for fear of punishment.  We need both.  This mitzvah applies everywhere, constantly and to all people.  Recalling the fear we ought to have for God is particularly apropos when we are tempted to misbehave.

The source verse for mitzvah #434, Deut. 10:20, says we should “cling” to God.  The rabbis actualized the notion by interpreting this mitzvah to mean we should cling to Torah scholars, supporting them and spending time with them.  When we associate with Torah scholars, their wisdom and good behavior will rub off on us.  We should try to have our children marry into learned families.  We should help support Torah scholars financially and through our actions.  Our author says we should concentrate on the moral teachings we will hear when we spend time with Torah scholars and thereby become ethical ourselves.  The author might have said that we will learn to do ritual mitzvot more correctly, as indeed we certainly will if we spend our time with Torah scholars.  But the author’s choice here is significant. This echoes what we have seen the author imply before, that the emphasis is morality rather than ritual.

The author says this mitzvah applies to men.  He is less clear about whether the mitzvah applies directly to women, but he does say that women have a mitzvah to hear what Torah scholars have to say so the women will learn to know God.  Our author said earlier that women are not included in the obligation to study Torah.  Clearly, though, if women are to live within halachic parameters, they have to know something about what to do and why to do that.  Here the author seems to be trying to navigate that middle path.

Our author says Ramban understands this mitzvah very differently, as a requirement that we swear to fulfill mitzvot.

Now we return to the topic of swearing.  Mitzvah #30 prohibits us from taking useless oaths.  But in some civil court cases when there is insufficient evidence the court allows a party to take an oath.  For example, we discussed the Mishnah’s case of two people holding on to an object, each one claiming to have found the object first.  We have no evidence with which to resolve the conflict, so the two claimants split the value of the object, but first the court requires each party to swear that he or she is entitled to at least half of the object.  According to Rambam, mitzvah #435 requires someone to take that oath and to swear by God.   If someone swears by anything else, swearing by the sun or moon, for example, the person implies that the sun or moon is really important, maybe even more important than God.  Sometimes people swear by things in the natural world meaning to swear by God the creator of those things.  That sort of oath is fine, and the author says Jews do that all the time.  According to Rambam, someone who is required by a court to take an oath who swears by something other than God or who refrains from swearing by God violates this positive mitzvah.

Our author explains that Ramban understands this mitzvah differently.  When someone is in court and the court decides that the litigant has to take an oath in order to prevail, the litigant has a choice.  If the litigant takes the oath, the litigant should swear by God and go home with his money.  But the litigant may choose not to swear at all.  The litigant forfeits the money, but it is fine for the litigant to make that choice.  And people who refrain from swearing are behaving well.  Swearing by God is a serious matter and people are justifiably reluctant to take such an oath.