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What is idol worship?

by Rabbi Mendy Hecht

A. Idol worship is a vast sweeping category of badness that human beings must not engage in.

B. Idol worship is sometimes referred to as “star worshiping,” because the original concept of idol worship began thousands of years ago when people began worshiping stars in the sky instead of G-d Himself. They figured, “Well, if G-d created them to demonstrate His power, they must be quite powerful themselves!” And they would stand outdoors at night and worship the stars as mighty knights of G-d. From outdoor ceremonies it went to indoor ceremonies, and from indoor ceremonies it went to indoor ceremonies using stone or wooden symbols of the stars and their “powers,” which were worshiped as “representatives” of the stars. Over the years, the stars were gradually forgotten, and the symbols themselves began to be viewed as self-contained powers in their own right, creating the concept of idols and idol worship. Ceremonies ever increasing in complexity were built up around the idols and their indoor housings, and they soon spawned whole cultures, which regularly worshiped these man-made physical objects as gods.

Everything is created by G-d, and to designate any piece of physical matter as “G-d” or a “Higher Power” is idol worship
C. What does idol worship mean today? Idol worship begins in the mind—it starts with an incorrect perception of G-d. It says you can turn an abstract (G-d) into a concrete (or wood or plastic), which of course, is impossible. Idol worship doesn’t just mean singing and dancing and bowing in front of funny-looking little statues—it means believing in any force, object or item outside of the infinite G-d Himself: an angel, a constellation, a force of nature, a living creature—or a funny-looking little statue. Everything is created by G-d, and to designate any piece of physical matter as “G-d” or a “Higher Power” is idol worship.

How do I not worship idols?

1. Idol worship 101

Not worshiping idols takes on several forms: besides praying to an idol, or bowing or otherwise showing obeisance to an idol, a Jew is prohibited from sculpting, building, shaping or otherwise creating the image, form or likeness of a human being, heavenly body (such as the sun or moon) or angelic creature (animals are generally fine), whether for his personal use or not. Although around 90% of these objects (such as lawn ornaments or gargoyles) are created for fun, decoration or architecture, not religion or spirituality, Commandment #2 and its entourage of laws specifically forbids one from creating a three-dimensional likeness of any of the abovementioned objects. Furthermore, it is even forbidden to own such an object. Before you get nervous about your lawn ornaments, don’t worry—although made of stone, many lawn ornaments are of animals or things, not people angels or heavenly bodies, which is OK. One may neither buy nor sell idols, and is even forbidden from performing maintenance work on one. Also, reading idol worship manuals, instructional booklets or such publications of a religious nature is out.

2. Do your homework

The above rules apply only to statuettes which were created (and are used) for decorative purposes. However, any object which was created to be worshiped, or any object which was actually worshiped, is forbidden no matter what its form. Because of the vast proliferation of statuettes and trinkets, it may become confusing as to what’s really an idol and what’s not. Here’s how to tell:

When you come across your typical suspect—a statue, woodcarving or whatever of a human or animal or member of the vegetable kingdom, inquire as to whether it was created for religious purposes. If it was, it is an idol, and you must steer clear of those. If, like most suspects, it was created for historical or nationalist purposes, it’s OK, as long as it isn't a three-dimensional reproduction of a human, etc. Dolls, chess pieces and other toys, created for recreation, not religion, are fine, as long as their faces aren't three-dimensional likenesses of the human face. But always remember...

Some places once were religious in nature... some well-known water fountains in modern-day Rome, contain statues of “saints” and “angels” are highly questionable, and should not be used
3. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

When in doubt, do without. Sometimes, it’s really hard to tell. Some places once were religious in nature, but are now mere tourist attractions, such as certain well-known water fountains in modern-day Rome. Because they contain statues of “saints” and “angels” (usually spewing streams of water from their stone lips), they are at best highly questionable, and should not be used. Other things are similarly confusing; the laws of idolatry, as explained by Maimonides (Laws of Idol Worship, Chaps. 1-12), are not simple and require your perusal to be fully understood.

In summary, the law as expounded by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the late great halachist (d. 1984), states that any item in question is assumed to be secular in origin, and therefore Kosher, until one knows for sure that it was created for truly idolatrous purposes.

Related Categories

Mitzvot » Prohibitions
Jewish Identity » Non-Jews » Other Religions - Missionaries

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