17-5768: Mitzvah N-12

Talmidav Shel Aharon
17-5768: Mitzvah N-12
March 2, 2008

Negative Mitzvah 12 – This is a negative commandment: Do not worship an idol in the way that it is usually venerated.
Hafetz Hayim: For Scripture says, “you shall not serve them” (Ex. 20:5) Even if it is in a disrespectful manner, for example, urinating as worship for Peor; or throwing stones to Merkulis, it is punishable by stoning to death. If it was done without prior warning, it is punishable by karet (Divine severance of existence). And if it was done unwittingly, there is an obligation of a Hattat (sin offering). But if someone were to urinate to Merkulis, he would be free from penalty since such is not its usual way of worship, and it is an approach of disgrace.
If someone hugs and kisses an idol, or he sweeps and sands the ground before it, or he does some other act of homage, if he does them to any one of the species of idols he violates a prohibition, but whiplashes are not suffered for them, since it is a composite, omnibus prohibition (forbidding a variety of things and for violating such a prohibition whiplashes are not given.) If there are faucets of water in sculptured images before some idolatry, one should not put his mouth to them to drink, since he would seem to be kissing an idol. It is in effect everywhere, at every time, for both men and women.

Welcome to the weird world of Idolatry. It sometimes seems as if the Rabbis know of every bizarre ritual that was ever performed for some idol. I am not sure that the Hafetz Hayim ever studied what idolaters do, but for this lesson, I am sure that his understanding comes from the Talmud.
Last week we noted that one could not worship an idol the same way we would worship our G-d. Here we find the separate Mitzvah of not being permitted to worship an idol in its own style. This means we cannot do what is important to an idol even if we think that the action in question is not a ritual act, but a degrading one. We can have nothing at all to do with the idol, if the action could be construed as worship. This applies all the more so to times when paganism interferes with what we might normally do for other reasons.
Does this seem rather far-fetched? Not in a pagan world. In the Jan 2008 issue of National Geographic, in the story on Indonesia’s Volcanoes, on page 48 there is a picture of the sacred pool on the slopes of Mount Penanggungan, where men are bathing beside the sacred statues of Sri and Lakshmi, the consorts of the Hindu god Vishnu. One man is filling a water container from water that is spilling from the breast of the Hindu image. To drink water here would be kissing the breast of this pagan goddess. It would not get you whiplashes but it would be a violation of this Mitzvah. When I was thinking of bringing meditation into my life when I was stressed out in college, I came across Transcendental Meditation and though it might be useful to me. However, when they told me that to get my mantra, I would have to bring a handkerchief, some flowers and fruit, this prohibition came to mind. That the people who were to train me would not talk about what they would do with these items, just that they were for some “personal ritual” that did not involve me, I declined the ceremony and declined the meditation. You just never know when paganism will become an issue.
As for the matter of whiplashes, punishment in Judaism depends on the law being clear about what is prohibited. When a law is written with many different parts and prohibitions, it is hard to know which laws are for punishment or if you have to do all of them for punishment. Therefore we don’t punish at all, just note that the matter is forbidden.
Christianity and Islam are not usually considered pagan religions. They are also monotheistic and these rules do not apply to them. This does not mean that we should co-opt their rituals, as this would be a serious breach of etiquette. It just is not respectful to have Christian or Islamic images in a Jewish home.
If you are doing something in front of the image that could not be considered a form of worship for that image, you are not in violation of this commandment even if that action could be construed as a form of worship to a different image.

2 thoughts on “17-5768: Mitzvah N-12

  1. What about art that illustrates Old Testament stories? Many famous pieces were created by Christian artists, and some reflect subtle (or not so subtle) Christian theology and interpretations. Unfortunately, I would guess that many Jews today would not recognize these Christian influences.

  2. You are correct that many illustrations of the Jewish Bible have Christian overtones. But a subtle Christian interpretation of the text is not the same as doing an action that is Jewish on behalf of Christianity or a Jew performing a Christian ritual. In addition I need to remind everyone that Islam and Christianity are considered monotheisitic and NOT idolatry. The prohibition would not apply to these faiths.

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