16-5768: Mitzvah N-11

Talmidav Shel Aharon
16-5768: Mitzvah N-11
February 25, 2008

Negative Mitzvah 11 – It is a negative commandment not to bow down and prostrate oneself to an idol.
Hafetz Hayim: For Scripture says, “you shall not bow down to them” (Ex. 20:5) since it is a form of worship of the blessed G-d, if one acted in this way toward an idol he would deserve death by stoning, even if this is not the usual way of worshipping it. If he did this deliberately without a [prior] warning, he would deserve karet [Divine severance of existence]; and if it was done unwittingly, hew would have a duty to bring a Hattat [sin offering]. So also if someone ritually slays a sacrifice, sprinkles its blood, burns its parts, or pours a libation : Since these were forms of Divine service to the blessed G-d at the Sanctuary, he is punishable over them if he performed them toward an idol, even if they are not usual ways of worshipping it. One should accept death [if necessary] and not commit such transgression.
If one’s coins become scattered, or if a thorn lodged in his foot, before an idol, he should not bow down before the idol to take it out or gather them, because he will seem to be bowing down and prostrating himself to the idol. He should rather turn his back or turn aside. It is in effect everywhere, at every time, for both men and women.

We have established that Judaism is seriously anti-idolatry. One is supposed to bow down and prostrate oneself only to the one G-d of Israel. The scriptural passage is from the Ten Commandments. It is a fundamental principle of Judaism. If you worship any other “god” the same way one is supposed to worship our G-d, then one is liable for the death penalty. When the Rabbis limited the death penalty to those who had a prior warning that what they are about to do (worship an idol) is a capital offence, punishable by death; the penalty for idolatry was changed to karet, a divine punishment that implies the extinction of one’s soul. No more life in this world or the next. If you meant to worship the G-d of Israel and somehow you ended up doing all those things for some pagan god, even if what you did was not the usual way of worshipping that god, you are still guilty of an offence and would need to bring a sin offering (Korban Hattat) if the Temple was still in existence.
Buried in this negative mitzvah is something much deeper. Judaism has, as a prime directive, to always choose life. One is supposed to violate almost any law and live so that you can keep that law in the future. One can violate Shabbat and Kashrut for health reasons. One can ride to the hospital or eat unkosher animals if it will return us to health. There are only three laws in all of Judaism that one must die rather than violate. Only three laws that require us to die rather than sin.
This is one of the three.
If some one says “worship this idol or die!” Jews are to die first. Remember the story of Hanna and her seven sons? She watches six of them die for refusing to bow to the idol and when the youngest is brought forward she tells him not to bow down either. The king even offers to drop his ring and the boy can pick it up, not really bowing to the idol but everyone gets what they want, even this the boy refuses and he dies like his brothers. Maimonides notes in the tenth century that if one, out of fear, does not choose death over idolatry, we judge such a person with charity since none of us know what we would do if faced with that very terrible choice. Still the rule remains. A Jew is to die rather than worship a pagan god for any reason and in any fashion. Actions that are very innocent but could be construed as “maybe” it was a “bow” (like picking up coins, a ring or tying shoelaces) still can be a violation of the law and we need to be careful where and how we bend down. The penalties are even more severe if our “bowing to the idol” causes other Jews to be disheartened or leads them astray.
I know that paganism is not so prevalent today, but the law still applies. We don’t worship pagan gods. Not in any way shape or form.

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