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.