ח׳ באדר ה׳תשע״ח (February 23, 2018)

Avoda Zara 40a-b: Statues and Idols

The Torah forbids deriving benefit from idols, and requires that such idols be destroyed at every opportunity (see, for example, 7:25-26, 12:2-3). Given that pagans prayed to many different things – including the sun and the moon, hills and valleys, rivers and seas – it is clear that these things cannot all become forbidden.

The third perek of Massekhet Avoda Zara, Perek Kol ha-Tzelamim, which begins on today’s daf, deals with the questions that evolve from this reality. What is included in the command to destroy pagan idols? Under what circumstances may idols remain intact?

The first Mishna in the perek teaches that according to Rabbi Meir, all publicly displayed statues are forbidden – i.e. one cannot derive benefit from them – since they are worshipped once a year. The rule that this is only the case if the statue grasps in his hand a staff, a bird or an orb. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel extends this to idols that are portrayed with anything in their hands.

The Meiri explains that this Mishna is not referring to cases where the statues are in a pagan house of prayer, because it is obvious in that case that all statues would be forbidden. This is talking about statues that are spread out in different places in the city. Since many idols had a specific day on the calendar when they were worshipped – according to the Rambam, the date was based on astronomical calculations – Rabbi Meir forbade all similar statues, as well.

According to the Meiri, the only statues that are of concern are those in human form, but other forms are not assumed to be worshipped. This appears to be the simple reading of the Mishna. Nevertheless, the Rambam rules that any statue may be used in worship, and therefore the discussion in the Mishna relates to all types of statues.