Can a Sheitel be Prohibited Because of Avodah Zarah?

I wrote this article originally several years ago when this topic was very hot in the news. I have revised it, based on currently available information. The purpose of this article is not to give a final decision on the topic, but to present some background of the issues.

Can a Sheitel be Prohibited Because of Avodah Zarah?

A Background Discussion of the Halachic Issues Involved in the Use of Indian Hair

Introduction to the Laws of Avodah Zarah

In addition to the cardinal prohibition against worshipping idols, the Torah distanced us from any involvement with or benefit from avodah zarah. Furthermore, the money received in payment for the avodah zarah is also tainted with the stigma of avodah zarah and may not be used. As will be described later, this money must be destroyed in a way that no one will ever be able to use it.

Chazal prohibited benefit even from the wages earned for transporting an item used in idol worship. Thus, the wages of a person who hired himself to transport wine used in idol worship are prohibited (Mishnah, Avodah Zarah 62a). He is required to destroy whatever he received as payment, and he must destroy it in a way that no one else can use it. The Gemara rules that if he received coins as payment, he must grind up the coins and then scatter the dust to the wind, to guarantee that no one benefit from idolatry.

In this context, the Gemara recounts the following story: A man who had rented his boat to transport wine owned by idolaters was paid with a quantity of wheat. Since the wheat may not be used, the question was asked from Rav Chisda what to do with it. He ruled that the wheat should be burnt, and then the ashes should be buried. The Gemara asks why not scatter the ashes, rather than burn them? The Gemara responds that we do not permit this out of concern that the ashes will fertilize the ground where they fall. Thus, we see how concerned Chazal were that we not gain any benefit from idols, even so indirectly.

Takroves Avodah Zarah – An Item Used to Worship an Idol

One of the laws relating to idol worship is the prohibition against using takroves avodah zarah, that is, not to benefit from an item that was used to worship avodah zarah. According to the accepted halachic opinion, the prohibition against using takroves avodah zarah is min hatorah (Rambam, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 7:2; cf. Tosafos, Bava Kama 72b s.v. de’ei, who rules that the prohibition is only miderabbanan).

It should be noted that one is permitted to use items that are donated to avodah zarah, provided these items are not used for worship. Thus, gold, jewelry, and other valuables donated to a Hindu temple may be used.

Mitzvos Pertaining to Avodah Zarah

There are several mitzvos of the Torah pertaining to avodah zarah, all of which convey the Torah’s concerns that we be distanced extensively from avodah zarah. For example, the Torah forbids having an avodah zarah in one’s house (Avodah Zarah 15a). This is based on the verse, velo sovie so’eivah el beisecha, “you shall not bring an abomination into your house” (Devarim 7:26). Furthermore, we are prohibited from providing benefit to the avodah zarah (Avodah Zarah 13a). Thus, it is prohibited to make a donation if a neighbor or business contact solicits a contribution for his church.

There is also a positive mitzvah to destroy avodah zarah. This is mentioned in the verse, abeid te’abdun es kol hamekomos asher ovdu shom hagoyim … es eloheihem, “you shall completely destroy all the places where the nations worshipped their gods” (Devarim 12:2). According to Rambam, the mitzvah min hatorah applies only to destroy the avodah zarah itself and that which decorates and serves it. There is no Torah requirement to destroy items used in the worship of avodah zarah (Hilchos Avodah Zarah 7:1-2, as proved by Kehillas Yaakov, Bava Kamma end of #3). However, as mentioned above, one is required, miderabbanan, to destroy anything that is prohibited to use, to make sure that no one benefits from the avodah zarah items (see Avodah Zarah 51b; Rambam, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 8:6).

Some Background Facts in the Contemporary Shaylah About Indian Hair

The Indian sub-continent is the home of the largest population of Hindus in the world. Hinduism is a religion that falls under the category of avodah zarah.

Most Hindu sects do not cut their hair as part of any worship ceremony. However, there is one large sect whose members sometimes shave their hair as an acknowledgement of thanks to one of their deities. This practice is performed by thousands of Hindu men, women, and children daily at their temple in Tirupati, India. The temple then collects the hair shavings and sells the women’s hair for wig manufacture. Although the majority of human hair used in wig manufacture does not come from India, a significant percentage of hair in the international wig market comes from Indian idol worshippers.

A very important halachic issue is whether the hair shaving procedure that takes place in this Hindu Temple constitutes an act of idol worship, or whether the hair is simply donated for the use of the idol. This question is both a practical question, that is, what exactly do they do, and a halachic issue, whether what they do renders the hair takroves avodah zarah, which is prohibited to use min haTorah. As mentioned above, it is permitted to use an item that was donated to an avodah zarah. Such an item does not carry the halachic status of takroves avodah zarah, which is prohibited to use. However, if the shaving is an act of idol worship, then the hairs may not be used.

The Earlier Ruling

Many years ago, Rav Elyashiv ruled that there is no halachic problem with using hair from the Indian temples. This responsa is printed in Kovetz Teshuvos (1:77). The person who asked Rav Elyashiv the shaylah provided him with information based on the opinion of a university professor familiar with Hinduism. According to the professor, the Hindus who cut their hair did so only as a donation to the temple, just as they also donate gold, jewelry and other valuables to the temple. Although there is presumably still a prohibition in purchasing the hair from the temple (because of the prohibition against providing benefit to an idol), Rav Elyashiv ruled that, based on the information provided, there is no halachic prohibition to use this hair.

However, Rav Elyashiv and several other prominent gedolim later ruled that the hair sold by this Hindu temple is prohibited for use, because of takroves avodah zarah.

What changed?

The critical difference is that, although this professor did not consider the haircutting to be an act of idol worship, not all Hindus necessarily agree with his opinion about their religion. Although it may seem strange to quote the story of an idolater, I think this small quotation reflects how at least one Hindu views this ceremony of shaving hair:

Rathamma has made the two-day journey to India’s largest Hindu temple with her family and friends to fulfill a pledge to her god. Provide us with a good rice crop, she had prayed, and I’ll sacrifice my hair and surrender my beauty.

This quotation implies that this woman was not coming to make a donation of a present to her god, but that this is a method of worship. Of course, it could very well be that the author of these words is taking very liberal license with what Rathamma believes and does.

It should be noted that Rav Moshe Shternbuch, shlit”a, currently Rosh Av Beis Din of the Eidah HaChareidis in Yerushalayim, published a teshuvah on the question about the Indian hairs about the same time that Rav Elyashiv published his original ruling. Rav Shternbuch concluded that it is prohibited to use any sheitel produced with Indian hair, because of takroves avodah zarah.

Bitul — Nullifying the Prohibited Hair

What happens if the Hindu hair is mixed in with other hair? This is a very common case, since Indian hair is less expensive than European hair and, at the same time, is not readily discernible in a European sheitel. (As a matter of fact, it has been discovered that some manufacturers add Indian hair on a regular basis into their expensive “100% European hair sheitlach.”)

Assuming that hair shorn in the Hindu temple is prohibited because of takroves avodah zarah, does that mean that a sheitel that includes any Indian hair is prohibited to be used? What about the concept of bitul, whereby a prohibited substance that is mixed into other substances in a manner that it can no longer be identified is permitted?

The answer is that the concept of bitul does not apply in most cases when avodah zarah items became mixed into permitted items. Chazal restricted the concept of bitul as applied to avodah zarah because of the seriousness of the prohibition. Therefore, if a sheitel contains hair from different sources, such as hair made of European hair with some Hindu hair added, the sheitel should be treated as an Indian hair sheitel. Thus, according to Rav Elyashiv, this sheitel should be destroyed in a way that no one may end up using it. It is not necessary to burn the sheitel. It would be satisfactory to cut it up in a way that it cannot be used, and then place it in the trash.

However, there is some halachic lenience in this question. Since the concept that avodah zarah is not boteil is a rabbinic injunction and not a Torah law, one may be lenient, when it is uncertain that there is a prohibition. This is based on the halachic principle safek derabbanan lekulah, that one may be lenient in regard to a doubt involving a rabbinic prohibition.

Thus, in a situation where a sheitel is manufactured from predominantly synthetic material, European hair, or horse hair (this is actually quite common), and there is a question whether some prohibited hair might have been added, the halacha is that the sheitel may be worn.

It should be noted, that when attempting to determine the composition of a sheitel, one cannot rely on the information provided by a non-Jewish or non-frum manufacturer. In general, halacha accepts testimony from these sources only when certain requirements are fulfilled, which are not met in this instance.

Many synthetic sheitlach contain some natural hairs to strengthen the sheitel. In this instance, there is an interesting side-shaylah. One can determine whether there are human hairs in these sheitlach by checking the hairs of the sheitel under a microscope. The human hairs will look different from the synthetic material. However, there is no way that this can tell us the country of origin of the human hairs, and it certainly cannot tell us whether the hairs were involved in any worship. Is one required to check the hairs of a synthetic sheitel under a microscope to determine whether there are any human hairs? All the poskim I have heard from have ruled leniently about this issue – one is not required to have the sheitel checked.

Color of Sheitel

I have heard people say that there should be no halachic problem with blond- and red-headed sheitlach, since Indian women have dark hair. Unfortunately, based on my conversations with sheitel machers, there does not seem to be any basis for this assumption. In most instances, the hair used in sheitlach is bleached, removing all color, and then (much later in the process) dyed to a specific color. Thus, there is no reason to assume that simply because a sheitel is a fair color that it cannot have originated in a Hindu temple.

Who could imagine that in the modern world, shaylos about the laws of avodah zarah would affect virtually every frum household. It goes to show us how ein kol chodosh tachas hashemesh, there is nothing new under the sun (Koheles 1:9).

 

Understanding the Prohibition of Avodah Zarah

As there are several references to the prohibition of Avodah Zarah in this week’s parsha, we present:

Understanding the Prohibition of Avodah Zarah

Question #1: Defining Idols

Many people ask: “Are idol worship and Avodah Zarah the same thing?”

Question #2: The Only G-d

Rav Efrayim discusses: “May a gentile accept ideas that we consider Avodah Zarah, providing that he believes in G-d?”

Question #3: Nothing but G-d

Rav Moshe asks: “If all mankind is required to believe in one G-d, why do we say Shma Yisroel, that Hashem is One. Shouldn’t we say Shma Bnei Odom…?”

Introduction:

The most basic belief underlying our observance of Torah is that Hashem is the Creator of the world and the ongoing Director of all that transpires. He does not delegate authority to anyone or anything else, and we are to pray only to Him.

Idol worship vs. Avodah Zarah

Are idol worship and Avodah Zarah the same thing? The question, as phrased, is almost meaningless, since it does not define what is meant by idol worship. Truthfully, most people do not understand the extent of the prohibition of Avodah Zarah. They think that Avodah Zarah is limited to believing that some force other than Hashem decides our destiny. However, the prohibition of Avodah Zarah is far more encompassing. To quote the Rambam: “In the days of Enosh, mankind committed a major mistake…. This was their error: They said that, since G-d created the stars and the other cosmic forces with which to run the world, placed them in the heavens, gave them honor and they serve Him, it is appropriate to honor and praise them. They said that this is G-d’s Will – to honor that which honors Him” (Rambam, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 1:1). The Rambam proceeds to describe that this was the primary form of Avodah Zarah — not that any of those who worshipped the sun, moon or stars ascribed power to these celestial creations.

“With time, false prophets arose who claimed that G-d had commanded the people to worship specific stars or forces” (Rambam, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 1:2). The Rambam explains that this developed into extensive cults. “The primary commandment of Avodah Zarah is to not worship anything that was created, not an angel, not an extraterrestrial force and not a star… even when the worshipper knows that Hashem is the only G-d” (Rambam, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 2:1). We see that worshipping or performing any act of reverence to a force other than Hashem is included in Avodah Zarah, even when one accepts that all decisions are made by Him. To explain this further, let us discuss the term shituf.

Shituf

In most contexts, the word shituf is translated as “partnership.” When applied to the prohibition of Avodah Zarah, the term is used to mean worshipping something other than Hashem, even though the individual believes in one G-d Who created the universe. As we just read, the Rambam describes this mode of worship as the primary violation of Avodah Zarah.

There are several ways that one could violate Avodah Zarah through shituf. Above, we described one way: there is nothing wrong with the belief system, but the object being worshipped makes it into an act of Avodah Zarah.

Another form of shituf is the mistaken belief that, although Hashem is indeed the Creator of all, He authorized some other force to make decisions. This constitutes Avodah Zarah. Many religions believe that Hashem created the world, but believe that He delegated authority on some matters to angels or others whom He created. Some religions even believe that He passed authority to humans or to former humans. Any belief that G-d allowed some other entity or force to have a decision in helping or saving mankind is pure Avodah Zarah. Practicing or believing in any of these religions is Avodah Zarah.

Praying

Another way of violating the prohibition of Avodah Zarah through shituf is by directing one’s prayers to something other than Hashem. Even asking an angel to convey my prayers to Hashem qualifies as a very serious prohibition of Avodah Zarah. To quote the Rambam, “Only to G-d is it appropriate to serve, to praise, and to promulgate His greatness and His directives. One may not pray to anything beneath Him, not His angels, not the stars, not the celestial creations, not the elements of creation, nor anything developed from them. All of them are fixed in their deeds and have neither control nor independent free choice, with the exception of G-d. One may not make them intermediaries to use them to contact G-d. All our thoughts must be directed only to G-d, and one should ignore anything else. All this is included under the prohibition of Avodah Zarah. Most of the Torah’s purpose is to command us concerning this” (Rambam, introduction to his commentary on the tenth chapter of Sanhedrin, fifth principle).

This belief comprises the fifth of the thirteen basic beliefs of Judaism, formulated by the Rambam, that Klal Yisroel has accepted as the core belief system of Torah. In the words of the unknown author of the 13 ani maamins, it is structured as: Ani maamin be’emunah sheleimah, shehaborei yisborach shemo lo levado ra’ui lehispallel, ve’ein ra’ui lehispallel lezulaso, “I believe with complete faith that it is appropriate to pray only to the Creator, blessed is He, and that it is inappropriate to pray to anything else.”

Some well-meaning people may be making a serious mistake when they daven at a graveside. To avoid the possibility of inadvertently transgressing the prohibition of Avodah Zarah when visiting a gravesite, one should be careful that all one’s prayers are only to Hashem. (We will leave for a different time the discussion as to whether it is permitted to ask a deceased person to be a guta beter, to pray on our behalf. See, for example, Gesher Hachayim, Volume 1, Chapter 29, Section 9.)

One of the 613 mitzvos of the Torah is a prohibition against causing an oath to be expressed that includes the name of an idol. The Torah says, Vesheim elohim acheirim lo sazkiru, lo yishama al picha, “you may not mention the name of an idol, nor may your mouth allow it to be expressed” (Shemos 23:13).

Chazal understand that this includes a prohibition of swearing an oath mentioning the name of Avodah Zarah. They also understand that this prohibition includes causing an idol worshipper to take an oath, in which he uses the name of his idol. Again, to quote the Rambam, “It is prohibited to include something else together with Hashem’s Name in an oath. Someone who includes something else with Hashem’s Name in an oath is uprooted from the world. There is nothing else in the world that should be given honor” (Hilchos Shavuos 11:2).

Because of this mitzvah, until the modern era, Jews were excluded from holding office in most European countries, because assuming such a position required an oath of office that included a reference to what halacha recognizes as idolatry.

Gentiles

Although it may seem strange for a non-Jew to ask a rav a shaylah, it should actually be commonplace. After all, there are thousands of gentiles for every Jew in the world, and each one of them should be concerned about his or her halachic responsibility. Many non-Jews are indeed concerned about their future place in Olam Haba and, had the nations not been deceived by spurious religions, thousands and perhaps millions more would observe the mitzvos of Bnei Noach that they are commanded. It is tragic that they have been misled into false beliefs and practices.

The prohibition of Avodah Zarah applies not only to Jews, but to any human being walking the face of the earth. One of the mitzvos that bnei Noach are required to observe is a prohibition against worshipping Avodah Zarah. What is included in this prohibition?

On an obvious level, there should be no difference between the prohibition of Avodah Zarah as it applies to gentiles and as it applies to Jews, and this is the understanding of most halachic authorities. This approach is certainly implied by the Rambam, when he introduces the prohibition of Avodah Zarah by saying, “in the days of Enosh, mankind committed a major mistake,” which happened over a thousand years before the Torah was given to Klal Yisroel.

Between Israel and the nations

If, indeed, the prohibition of Avodah Zarah is the same for Jew and gentile, are there any differences between a Jew’s mitzvos regarding G-d’s existence and a gentile’s?

Yes, there are. A Jew has several positive mitzvos that a gentile does not, such as the mitzvah of ahavas Hashem, to love Hashem, and the mitzvah of yiras Hashem, to be in awe of Him. In general, the mitzvos of a ben Noach are prohibitions banning him from specific activities, but do not require him to perform any positive acts.

Other mitzvos

Several other laws that pertain to Jews germane to Avodah Zarah, such as the prohibition against entering a house of idol worship, or the prohibition of allowing an Avodah Zarah to be in one’s house, do not apply to bnei Noach.

Similarly, the prohibition of lo yishama al picha, “your mouth shall not cause the name of an idol to be expressed” does not apply to bnei Noach. Thus, they would not be prohibited from taking an oath by the name of something in addition to or other than Hashem.

At this point, let us analyze one of our opening questions: “Rav Efrayim discusses: ‘May a gentile accept ideas that we consider Avodah Zarah, providing that he believes in G-d?’”

The Rav Efrayim we mention was the author of the Shaar Efrayim, Rav Efrayim ben Yaakov Hakohen, one of the great Ashkenazic halachic authorities of the 17th century. He was the grandfather of the Chacham Zvi and the great-grandfather of Rav Yaakov Emden. The Shaar Efrayim was born and raised in Vilna, and became one of the dayanim of the city at the age of 20 in a beis din that included the Chelkas Mechokeik, the Shach and the Birchas Hazevach, Rav Aharon Shemuel Kaidenover. During the upheavals of the period of the Gezerios Tach veTat that destroyed the Jewish communities of Poland and Lithuania, the kingdom of Sweden invaded Lithuania (then under the control of the king of Poland).  During this era, the Shaar Efrayim fled southwestward, finding himself first in Moravia (now in the Czech Republic), then in Vienna and ultimately in Budapest, where he became the rav and opened a large yeshivah. He corresponded with the great poskim of his era, both those of the Ashkenazic world and those of the Sefardic world in Turkey and Eretz Yisroel. Eventually, he was offered and accepted the rabbonus of Yerushalayim, but, unfortunately, died in a plague before he could assume the position.

The question we are addressing, “May a gentile accept ideas that we consider Avodah Zarah, providing that he believes in G-d?” is published in Shaar Efrayim, in the context of the following halachic discussion.

Partnering with a gentile

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 63b; Bechoros 2b) prohibits creating a business partnership with an idol worshipper, because of concern that, should one need to have him make an oath, which was a common procedure in earlier generations, the gentile would swear in the name of his deity. This would cause the Jew to violate the prohibition of lo yishama al picha, “you may not cause the name of an idol to be expressed.” This ruling is codified in Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 156).

Medieval gentiles

At the time that the Gemara prohibited creating a partnership with an idol worshipper, most gentiles were pagans. In the course of time, most European gentiles began to follow different religious beliefs and practices that accepted that there is one Creator, but included various other beliefs that qualify as Avodah Zarah. In the time of the rishonim, the following question was raised: Does the prohibition against forming a business partnership apply to a gentile who observes these practices?

Rabbeinu Tam, cited by Tosafos (Sanhedrin 63b s.v. Asur; Bechoros 2b s.v. Shema), ruled that it was permitted to have the gentiles of his day make an oath. The words Tosafos uses to express this idea is that a non-Jew is not commanded concerning shituf. This opinion is quoted authoritatively by the Rema (Orach Chayim 156). The question is, what did Tosafos mean?

Some authorities understood Tosafos to mean that shituf is not included in the ben Noach’s prohibition against worshipping idols (Olas Tamid, Orach Chayim 156). This interpretation understands that although the Torah is strongly opposed to any recognition or worship of any force other than Hashem, this aspect of Avodah Zarah was not included in the mitzvah that bnei Noach were commanded.

However, most authorities rule that this is a misunderstanding of Tosafos. In their opinion, there is no difference between Jews and non-Jews regarding the prohibition of idol worship. Any belief in another power that shares power or decision-making is a form of idolatry. It is also forbidden for a gentile to worship or pray to anything other than Hashem, even with the understanding that this object of worship is only an emissary of G-d.

According to the more accepted approach, Tosafos means the following: It is true that the gentiles in his day believed in ideas that qualify as Avodah Zarah. In addition, they prayed to their saints, whom they believed had a power to sway how G-d would treat them. When they swore oaths, they would include the name of the saint and the name of G-d. Tosafos rules that causing a gentile to swear an oath in which he mentions the name of a saint does not violate the Torah’s prohibition of lo yishama al picha, since the gentiles, themselves, view the saint only as a means to get Divine help, but not as a source of help himself. They did not consider their saints to be deities.

Furthermore, although the gentiles have strange idolatrous notions defining and understanding the nature of G-d, causing them to swear an oath in G-d’s Name does not violate lo yishama al picha, since the name of the idol is not mentioned. Even though they think of their idol, they don’t mention his name in their oath. Therefore, the Jew does not violate any prohibition when the gentile takes an oath (Shu”t Shaar Efrayim #24; Shu”t Mahara Sasson #95; Shu”t Meil Tzedaka #22; Machatzis Hashekel 156:2).

Stumbling blocks

Thus far, we have explained why Tosafos holds that when a gentile swears, the Jew does not violate lo yishama al picha. However, there is another halachic question: If a gentile must observe Avodah Zarah exactly as does a Jew, are we not causing the gentile to violate his prohibition of Avodah Zarah? This is included under the Torah’s violation of lifnei iver lo sitein michshol, “Do not place a stumbling block before a blind person.” In this context, the verse means: Do not cause someone to sin if he is blind to – i.e., he is unaware of – the seriousness of his violation (Avodah Zarah 6b). This mitzvah applies also to a Jew who causes a gentile to transgress his mitzvos.

Lifnei iveir and swearing

The Ran (end of the first chapter of Avodah Zarah) explains that there is no violation of lifnei iveir, since the ben Noach’s prohibition not to worship idols does not include a prohibition of swearing in the name of an idol. Thus, although a gentile may not serve Avodah Zarah, he is permitted to take an oath of allegiance to an idol in which he does not believe. A result of the Ran’s ruling would be that, in a country in which swearing allegiance to the local religion is a requirement for holding public office, a ben Noach would be permitted to swear this oath.

Shma Yisroel

Having concluded that a non-Jew is required to believe that there is only one G-d, we are left with a question based on a posuk that we recite several times every day: Shma Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad. Why does the Torah say Shma Yisroel, when all non-Jews are prohibited from worshipping idols and from practicing shituf (see Maharam Shik’s commentary on Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah 418)?

This is the third question we asked above. Rav Moshe asks: “If all mankind is required to believe in one G-d, why do we say Shma Yisroel, that Hashem is one. Shouldn’t we say Shma Bnei Odom…

The Rav Moshe that I am quoting is Rav Moshe Shik, the Maharam Shik, who was the posek hador of the mid-nineteenth century in Hungary.

There are several answers one can give to explain this. I will share with you an answer that the Maharam Shik himself provides: The mitzvah of Shma Yisroel is that Jews are required to believe in one G-d because of the mesorah we have from our forefathers of the miracles that we saw at Har Sinai and in Egypt, and not because of logic. A gentile is permitted to believe in G-d even if his belief is only on the basis of his having been convinced through logic. Thus, Isaac Newton, who believed in G-d because His creation proves it, fulfilled the requirements of belief in G-d required of a gentile. However, Albert Einstein, who was Jewish and also believed in G-d because His creation proved it, but rejected the mesorah, did not fulfill the mitzvah of Shma Yisroel.

 

Can a Sheitel be Prohibited Because of Avodah Zarah?

Although Eisav’s wives presumably did not wear sheitlach made of Indian hair, according to Chazal, they were idol worshippers. But what would have happened if they had used sheitlach made from hair used in idol worship?

A Background Discussion of the Halachic Issues Involved in the Use of Indian Hair

This article was written originally several years ago, around the time that there was a huge ruckus concerning the halachic permissibility of wearing sheitlach manufactured from hair of Indian origin. The purpose of this article is to provide background to some of the halachic issues and considerations involved.

Introduction to the Laws of Avodah Zarah

In addition to the cardinal prohibition against worshipping idols, the Torah distanced us from any involvement with or benefit from Avodah Zarah. Furthermore, money received in payment for Avodah Zarah is also tainted with its stigma and may not be used. As will be described later, this money must be destroyed in a way that no one will ever be able to use it.

Chazal prohibited benefit even from the wages earned for transporting an item used in idol worship. Thus, the wages of a person who hired himself to transport wine used in idol worship are prohibited (Mishnah, Avodah Zarah 62a). He is required to destroy whatever he received as payment in such a way that no one else can use it. The Gemara rules that if he received coins as payment, he must grind up the coins and then scatter the dust to the wind, to guarantee that no one benefit from idolatry.

In this context, the Gemara recounts the following story: A man who had rented his boat to transport wine owned by idolaters was paid with a quantity of wheat. Since the wheat may not be used, Rav Chisda was asked what one should do with it. He ruled that the wheat should be burned and then the ashes buried. The Gemara asks why not scatter the ashes, rather than burying them? The Gemara responds that we do not permit this out of concern that the ashes will fertilize the ground where they fall. Thus, we see how concerned Chazal were that we not gain any benefit from idols, even so indirectly.

Among the mitzvohs concerning idol worship is the prohibition against having an Avodah Zarah in one’s house (Avodah Zarah 15a). This is based on the verse Velo savie soeivah el beisecha, You shall not bring an abomination into your house (Devarim 7:26). In addition, we may not benefit from that which decorates an Avodah Zarah, and we are prohibited from providing benefit to the Avodah Zarah (Gemara Avodah Zarah 13a). Thus, it is prohibited to make a donation if a neighbor or business contact solicits a contribution for his Avodah Zarah.

There is also a positive mitzvah to destroy Avodah Zarah. This is mentioned in the verse, Abeid teabdun es kol hamekomos asher ovdu shom hagoyim es eloheihem, “You shall completely destroy all the places where the nations worshipped their gods” (Devarim 12:2). According to Rambam, the mitzvah min haTorah applies only to destroying the Avodah Zarah itself and that which decorates and serves it. There is no Torah requirement to destroy items used in the worship of Avodah Zarah (Hilchos Avodah Zarah 7:1-2, as proved by Kehilos Yaakov, Bava Kamma end of #3). However, as mentioned above, one is required miderabanan to destroy anything that is prohibited to use, to make sure that no one benefits from the Avodah Zarah items (see Avodah Zarah 51b; Rambam, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 8:6).

Tikroves Avodah Zarah – An Item Used to Worship an Idol

One of the laws relating to idol worship is the prohibition against using tikroves Avodah Zarah, that is, not to benefit from an item that was used to worship Avodah Zarah. According to the accepted halachic opinion, the prohibition against using tikroves Avodah Zarah is min haTorah (Rambam, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 7:2; cf. Tosafos Bava Kamma 72b s.v. de’i, who rules that the prohibition is only miderabanan).

It should be noted that one is permitted to use items that are donated to Avodah Zarah, provided these items are not used for worship. Thus, gold, jewelry, and other valuables donated to a Hindu temple may be used.

Some Background Facts in the Contemporary Shaylah About Indian Hair

The Indian sub-continent is the home of the largest population of Hindus in the world. Hinduism is a religion that falls under the category of Avodah Zarah.

Most Hindu sects do not cut their hair as part of any worship. However, there is one large sect of Hindus that shave their head as an acknowledgement of thanks to one of their deities. This practice is performed by thousands of Hindu men, women, and children daily at their temple in Tirupati, India. The temple then collects what is cut and sells the women’s hair for wig manufacture.

An important halachic issue is whether the hair-shaving procedure that takes place in this Hindu Temple constitutes an act of idol worship, or whether the hair is simply donated for the use of the idol. This distinction has major halachic significance. As mentioned above, it is permitted to use an item that was donated to an Avodah Zarah. Such an item does not carry the halachic status of tikroves Avodah Zarah, which is prohibited from use. However, if the shaving is an act of idol worship, then the hair may not be used.

The Earlier Ruling

Many years ago, Rav Elyashiv, zt”l, ruled that there is no halachic problem with using the hair from the Indian temples. This responsa is printed in his Kovetz Teshuvos (1:77). The person who asked Rav Elyashiv the shaylah provided him with information based on the opinion of a university professor familiar with the Hindu religion. According to the professor, the Hindus who cut their hair do so only as a donation, just as they also donate gold, jewelry and other valuables to the temple. Although there is presumably still a prohibition in purchasing the hair from the temple (because of the prohibition against providing benefit to an idol), Rav Elyashiv ruled that there is no halachic prohibition to use this hair.

However, several years later, Rav Elyashiv and other prominent gedolim ruled that the hair sold by this Hindu temple is prohibited for use because of tikroves Avodah Zarah.

What changed?

As explained above, the critical question is whether the hair-shaving ceremony in this temple is simply a donation or is a form of worship. At the time of Rav Elyashiv’s earlier responsum, he was told that the haircutting was not an act of idol worship. When the second controversy erupted, he was told that the ritual does constitute Avodah Zarah.

It should be noted that Rav Moshe Shternbuch, shlit”a, currently Rosh Av Besdin of the Eidah HaChareidis in Yerushalayim, published a tshuvah prohibiting the use of any sheitel produced with Indian hair, because of tikroves Avodah Zarah. This was published about the same time that Rav Elyashiv had published his lenient ruling.

Bitul — Nullifying the Prohibited Hair

What happens if the Hindu hair is mixed in with other hair? This is a very common case, since Indian hair is much less expensive to purchase than European hair and at the same time is not readily discernable in a European sheitel. (As a matter of fact, it has been discovered that some manufacturers add Indian hair on a regular basis into their expensive “100% European Hair” Sheitlach.)

Assuming that hair shorn in the Hindu temple is prohibited because of tikroves Avodah Zarah, does that mean that any sheitel that includes any Indian hair is prohibited to be used? What about the concept of bitul, whereby a prohibited substance that is mixed into other substances in a manner that it can no longer be identified is permitted?

However, the concept of bitul does not apply in most cases when Avodah Zarah items became mixed into permitted items. Chazal applied different parameters to the concept of bitul as applied to Avodah Zarah because of the seriousness of the prohibition. Therefore, if a sheitel contains hair from different sources, such as hair made of European hair with some Hindu hair added, the sheitel should be treated as an Indian hair sheitel. Thus, according to Rav Elyashiv, this sheitel should be destroyed in a way that no one may end up using it. It is not necessary to burn the sheitel. It would be satisfactory to cut it up and place it in the garbage.

However, there is some halachic lenience in this question. Since the concept that Avodah Zarah is not boteil is a rabbinic injunction and not a Torah law, one may be lenient when it is uncertain that there is a prohibition. This is based on the halachic principle called safek derabanan lekula, that one may be lenient in regard to a doubt involving a rabbinic prohibition.

Thus, in a situation where a sheitel is manufactured from predominantly synthetic material, or predominantly European hair, yet there is a concern as to whether some prohibited hair might have been added, the halacha is that the sheitel may be worn.

It should be noted that, when attempting to determine the composition of a sheitel, one cannot rely on the information provided by a non-frum or non-Jewish manufacturer. In general, halacha accepts testimony from these sources only in limited instances.

Hairs and Sheitlach of Undetermined Origin

What happens if one has a human hair sheitel, but cannot determine the origin of the hair used in it? In this situation, the determining factor is the status of most sheitlach. If most sheitlach contain non-kosher hair, then the sheitel of indeterminate origin may not be worn. However, if most sheitlach are permitted, than this sheitel is also permitted.

Many synthetic sheitlach contain some natural hairs to strengthen the sheitel. In this instance, there is an interesting side shaylah. One can determine whether there are human hairs in these sheitlach by checking the hairs of the sheitel under a microscope. The human hairs will look different from the synthetic material. However, there is no way that this inspection can tell us the country of origin of the human hairs, and it certainly cannot tell us whether the hairs were involved in any worship. Is one required to check the hairs of a synthetic sheitel under a microscope to determine whether there are any human hairs? All the poskim I have heard from have ruled leniently concerning this issue – one is not required to have the sheitel checked.

Color of Sheitel

I have heard people say that there should be no halachic problem with blond- and red- sheitlach, since Indian women have dark hair. Unfortunately, based on my conversations with sheitel machers, there does not seem to be any basis for this assumption. In most instances, the hair used in sheitlach is bleached and then (much later in the process) dyed to a specific color. Thus, there is no reason to assume that simply because a sheitel is fair, the hair from which it is made cannot have originated in a Hindu temple.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, this critique was written to supply background material to the question that became a big controversy several years ago. To the best of my information, this issue is not a major problem now. However, I would like to close the article with an unedited part of the original article I wrote then.

“Had someone told me six months ago that I would be dealing with a shaylah pertaining to Hilchos Avodah Zarah, I probably would have laughed. Who could imagine that in the modern world, shaylos about these issues would affect virtually every frum household? It goes to show us how ayn kol chodosh tachas hashemesh, There is nothing new under the sun (Koheles 1:9).”

Grave Issues about Graven Images

When reading the parsha in which Rochel "stole" her father’s idols, I thought it appropriate for us to study:

Miriam recently asked me these two questions regarding avodah zarah:

1) I received some figurines from a museum shop which resemble various Egyptian gods. May I keep them to demonstrate at the Seder what silly gods the Egyptians worshipped?

2) My non-observant, but very respectful, father has a rather eclectic collection of various art objects — including a four-foot-tall bronze statue of some Hindu figure. Do I have any obligation to say or do anything?

Zev, a chess enthusiast, asked me the following:

3) “I just received a present of a very nicely carved chess set. Unfortunately, the king has a cross. May I keep the set as is, or must I break off the cross on the king?”

Jack, an archeology student, sends me an e-mail:

4) "As part of my studies, I will be joining a dig. What happens if we find an idol? Even though it is not worshiped today, would the mitzvah of destroying it still be applicable? Also, in examining the object, one has to gaze on and familiarize himself with the piece. Does this violate the prohibition of gazing at avodah zarah?"

Each of these actual shaylos that I was asked revolves around the question of whether a Jew may own an item that has idolatrous overtones, even though he has no idolatrous intention. Is this lack of intent sufficient to avoid any Torah violations?

As we will see, there are several potential shaylos that we must analyze to determine the halacha:

I. May a Jew look at an icon?

II. Does it make a difference whether it is still worshipped?

III. May a Jew own an icon that represents an idol, even if it was never worshipped?

IV. If owning this icon infringes on no other prohibitions, does it violate maris ayin, doing something that arouses suspicion?

In Parshas Eikev, the Torah commands: “Burn their carved gods in fire. Do not desire and obtain the silver or gold that is upon them, lest you become ensnared by it, for it is repugnant to Hashem your G-d. Nor shall you bring this abomination into your house; rather, you should ban it. Abhor it and revile it, for it is banned.”[i]

This pasuk includes the following mitzvos:

1. Burn their carved gods in fire commands us to destroy avodah zarah.[ii]

2. Do not desire and obtain the silver or gold that is upon them prohibits benefit even from the decorations on an idol.[iii] One may not own or sell idols, even if one thinks that they are the silliest things on earth, since he gains financially or in other ways.

3. Nor shall you bring this abomination into your house bans bringing an idol into your house and also forbids benefiting from idolatry,[iv] since this is considered "bringing" the idol into your use and possession.

4. Furthermore, the Torah states al tifnu el elilim, do not turn to idols.[v] What is included in this proscription? Does it include looking at idols or images that represent idols?

The Sifra[vi] quotes two interpretations of this verse. One prohibits studying idolatry, including its beliefs and how the idol is worshipped. A second approach understands the verse to forbid even looking at idols.[vii] The poskim rule that both approaches are accepted halacha: the Torah thus prohibits studying idolatrous practices and beliefs, as well as looking at icons.[viii] (The Rambam states that one receives malkus for violating this prohibition.[ix] Therefore, someone who violates either interpretation of this mitzvah is halachically invalidated for providing testimony, even if he has no idolatrous intent.)

DOES THAT MEAN THAT EVEN GLANCING AT AN IDOL IS A TORAH VIOLATION?

The Magen Avraham[x] explains that the Torah prohibits only gazing at an idol, but does not prohibit glancing at it: seeing it is not prohibited, but intentionally looking at it is.

THE ICON OR ONLY THE IDOL?

Is it prohibited to look at articles that merely represent the actual idol, even though they are not themselves worshipped (icons), or is the prohibition limited to idols that are themselves worshipped? The answer to this question depends on how one understands the following passage of Gemara.

One may not look at the image itself, even on weekdays, because one thereby violates ‘Do not turn to idols.’ How do we derive this law from this verse? Rav Chanin explained, ‘do not face figures created by man.’”[xi] This unclear passage implies that one may not look at any image, even one not worshipped.

On the other hand, elsewhere, the Gemara praises the Talmudic scholar Rabbi Menachem ben Sima’ie as a holy man, because he never looked at the images that one finds on coins.[xii] This implies that an especially holy person does not look at likenesses, but a person who observes halacha without stringencies may do so. Thus, we are faced with a seeming inconsistency: one Gemara statement prohibits looking at any image, the other implies that one may (although it is meritorious to avoid it).

The rishonim suggest many different approaches to explain the Gemara in Shabbos. Here are two differing approaches that resolve the above quandary in very different ways:

1. First opinion: Some contend that the prohibition of looking at an image applies only to one that was manufactured for worship, and the image on a coin is not worshipped. According to this opinion, although the Gemara seems to derive that one may not look at any portrait or image whatsoever, it really means to limit the prohibition to actual idols. Nevertheless, it is praiseworthy not to look at any portraits or images at all.[xiii]

2. Second opinion: Others understand that one may not look at any image whatsoever.[xiv] If this approach is correct, why does the Gemara in Avodah Zarah imply that Rabbi Menachem ben Sima’ie’s acts are meritorious, but not required, when the Gemara in Shabbos prevents looking at any image?

To answer this question, some authorities explain that although it is prohibited to look at any image, this applies only when one’s attention is diverted to the image. Since coins are in common use all the time, glancing at them is not considered a diversion.[xv]

EGYPTIAN FIGURINES

Whether one may own a replica of an ancient Egyptian icon depends on the above-quoted dispute among the rishonim. According to the first opinion quoted above, since these icons were meant for educational purposes, rather than to encourage worship, it is technically permitted to look at them (although it is meritorious to refrain). On the other hand, according to the second opinion, even looking at these pieces violates the Torah’s mitzvah, since only items as common as coins are excluded. Certainly, owning these items is problematic.

How does the Shulchan Aruch adjudicate this question?

Surprising as it may seem, the two statements of Shulchan Aruch appear to contradict one another. In Orach Chayim[xvi] he cites the above-mentioned Gemara in Shabbos in a way that implies that he prohibits looking at any image at all. On the other hand, in the laws on idolatry, he limits the prohibition to looking at bona fide, worshipped idols. We should also note that there he cites a different reason to prohibit looking at idols: enjoying the artwork is considered benefiting from idolatry.[xvii]

However, the major commentators on the Shulchan Aruch in both places note that the accepted practice is to prohibit only icons manufactured for worship.[xviii]

COLLECTING ICON STAMPS

A stamp dealer-collector asked Rav Moshe Feinstein whether he could own, buy and sell stamps that contain crosses and other idolatrous images. Rav Moshe ruled that since stamps are a common item, like coins, one may own or sell their images, and may also look at them. Rav Moshe mentions that it is meritorious not to, presumably for the same reason that Rabbi Menachem ben Sima’ie of the Gemara avoided looking at coins.[xix]

ZEV’S CHESS SET

According to the reasons we have applied so far, Zev may be able to keep his fancy carved chess set. No one worships the cross on the king, and one could, perhaps, argue that this is familiar enough that no one is led astray by these pieces. As mentioned above, it is meritorious not to have any images at all, and certainly not to have anything that is reminiscent of idolatry. Thus, there is good reason for the custom to break off the cross of such chess pieces.

Miriam’s Dad’s Hindu statue involves a more serious halachic problem. Firstly, if this image was manufactured for worship, all opinions prohibit looking at it and having any enjoyment from it. Furthermore, if it was once worshipped, then several other Torah violations are involved, including that of having an avodah zarah in one’s house and benefiting from avodah zarah (because he enjoys looking at the artwork). In addition, there is a mitzvah to destroy it.

SHOULD WE ASSUME THAT THIS STATUE WAS WORSHIPPED?

Are we required to assume that the Hindu statue was worshipped? After all, it looks as if it was created as a collector’s item, not for worship.

The answer is that if this statue was manufactured in a place where images of this nature are worshipped, he must assume that this icon is a bona fide idol.[xx]

IS IT MARIS AYIN?

In addition to the halachic problem of looking at these idols, the Gemara raises an additional factor to take into consideration:  Is there concern that someone might suspect that the owner worships them.[xxi]

Are we, today, still concerned that someone might worship idols?

The answer to this question goes back to understanding the basics of maris ayin. Doesn’t the concept of maris ayin conflict with the mitzvah of judging people favorably? If everyone always judged others favorably, there would never be a reason for maris ayin. Yet, we see that the Torah is concerned that someone might suspect a Torah Jew of violating a mitzvah and judge him unfavorably.

Indeed, although people are required to judge us favorably, we are also not permitted to do something that others may misinterpret as violating halacha. Therefore, a person’s actions must be above suspicion. In other words, a person should not rely on his sterling reputation to allow him to do something that might be misinterpreted.

However, if circumstances dictate that people will assume that nothing wrong was done, there is no violation of maris ayin. (I have written a different article entirely on the subject of maris ayin in which I discussed these details.) Indeed, even in cases where there was maris ayin at the time of the Gemara, the prohibition is rescinded in places and times when the concern no longer exists.

Concerning maris ayin and the prohibition of avodah zarah, the poskim conclude that if no one worships these icons anymore anywhere in the world, one need not be concerned about suspicion that they are being worshipped.[xxii] As long as these idols are worshipped somewhere, one must be concerned about maris ayin.

Thus, it makes a difference whether this particular idol is still worshipped somewhere in the world. Since, unfortunately, Hinduism is still being practiced in the world, one may not own an idol that they might worship, because of the prohibition of maris ayin, even if no other prohibition to its ownership exists. On the other hand, since no one worships the ancient Egyptian idols any more, it is not maris ayin to own these figurines.

TEACHING ANCIENT RELIGIONS

I mentioned above that the Sifra rules that studying idolatry, including the religious beliefs and how the idol is worshipped, is prohibited min hatorah as part of the mitzvah of al tifnu el elilim, do not turn to idols.

Does this include studying ancient religions or archeology? Does this prohibit reading mythology as a form of literature?

In Nisan 5740 (1960), Rav Yehudah Parnes, a prominent Rosh Yeshivah, asked Rav Moshe Feinstein a shaylah regarding an observant public school teacher, whose required ancient history curriculum included teaching the beliefs of ancient Greece and Rome. Rav Parnes inquired whether the fact that these religions are not accorded respect in the modern world validates studying and teaching their beliefs. Do we therefore permit teaching these religions, since one is pointing out how invalid they are, or is this teaching and studying still prohibited?

Rav Moshe rules that the prohibition of studying idolatry exists, regardless for what reason one studies the religion. This also prohibits reading mythology that includes idolatry, even as a study of ancient literature.

However, Rav Moshe contends that the Torah prohibits studying only what is authored by a proponent of the religion. One may study something written by someone who scoffed at the religion, just as we see that even the Torah sometimes describes the way idolaters worshipped in order to ridicule the practice. Rav Moshe rules that one may study these subjects only if the teacher derides their beliefs and does not have the students read texts written by those who believe in the idols.

Rav Moshe points out that the students may even benefit from this instruction, if they realize that, although most of the world’s population once accepted these ridiculous beliefs, this does not demonstrate that they are true. Similarly, the fact that millions of people accept certain other false notions as true is not evidence of their veracity.[xxiii] Truth is not determined by democratic means!

In conclusion, in reference  to our original questions, Miriam may save the Egyptian figurines, although it is praiseworthy to dispose of them, but her father may not hold onto his Hindu statue, even as art, or in order to mock it. Zev may keep his chess set. Jack is prohibited from gazing at an idol that he unearths, and furthermore he would be required to destroy such an idol. Since I presume this could get him into trouble with the authorities, he would have a different question – is he required to destroy the idol, knowing that he may get into legal trouble? This is a topic for a different time.

Our belief in Hashem is the most basic of mitzvos. Praiseworthy is he who stays far from idols and their modern substitutes and directs his heart to Hashem.


[i] Devarim 7:25-26

[ii] Rambam, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 7:1.

We should note that this mitzvah is also mentioned in Devarim 12:2.

[iii] Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 428

[iv] Rambam, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 7:2

[v] VaYikra 19:4

[vi] VaYikra 19:4

[vii] Yerushalmi, Avodah Zarah 3:1

[viii] Rambam, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 2:2; Sefer HaMitzvos, Lo Saaseh #10; Chinuch #213

[ix] Sefer HaMitzvos, Lo Saaseh #10

[x] 307:23

[xi] Shabbos 149a

[xii] Avodah Zarah 50a

[xiii] Tosafos, Shabbos ad loc.

[xiv] Rashi; Tosafos Rid

[xv] Tosafos, Avodah Zarah 50a

[xvi] 307:16

[xvii] Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 142:15, quoting Rabbeinu Yerucham

[xviii] Shach; Magen Avraham

[xix] Shu’t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 1:69

[xx] Rama, Yoreh Deah 141:3 and Shach ad loc. 17

[xxi] Avodah Zarah 43b

[xxii] see Rama, Shach, and Gra, Yoreh Deah 141:3

[xxiii] Shu’t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 2:53

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