Parshat Eikev: The Admonitions against Idolatry

“The graven images of their gods you shall burn with fire; you shall not covet the silver or the gold that is on them, nor take it unto yourself, lest you be snared with it; for it is an abomination to Hashem your G-d. And you shall not bring an abomination into thy house, and be accursed like it; you shall utterly detest it, and you shall utterly abhor it; for it is a forbidden thing.” (Devarim 7:25-26)

Much of the Torah deals with prohibitions and admonitions against idolatry. According to Maimonides and most other authorities, three mitzvot relating to the destruction and rejection of idolatry are contained in the above passages. These commandments are the following:

1. We are commanded to destroy all idols and the facilities and items designated for their worship. This is a positive commandment.[1]
2. We are forbidden to benefit from the decorative gold or silver overlays and trim that are part of an object of worship. This is a negative commandment or prohibition.[2]
3. We are forbidden from bringing idols or associated objects into our homes and from benefiting from them. This is a negative commandment or prohibition.[3]

Many of the prohibitions in the Torah are stated more than once. For example, the first mitzvah in our pesukim was mentioned in the previous parasha[4] and is again reiterated in the next parasha.[5] There are a number of reasons for the repetition of a commandment. A commandment may be repeated for emphasis. Alternatively, the various iterations of the commandment may teach new details of the obligation or prohibition. However, these various iterations are all expressions of a single commandment among the Taryag Mitzvot – the 613 commandments. In other words, each iteration of the commandment is regarded as a repetition of a single mitzvah and is not counted separately among Taryag.[6] In order for the Torah’s statement of a prohibition or obligation to be counted as one of Taryag, the statement must describe a unique prohibition or obligation that differs from the others. In other words, the Taryag Mitzvot are 613 unique commandments; each differs from the others. Also, it follows from this reasoning that one commandment cannot be subsumed within another. In other words, if an activity is prohibited by a more general commandment, it cannot be the substance and subject of a second more specific commandment.

An example will help illustrate this second point. Thirty-nine forms of creative labor are prohibited on Shabbat. These 39 melachot – forms of labor – are not separate commandments. They are all subsumed in the general commandment to not work on Shabbat. Once an activity is prohibited by a general commandment – in this instance to not work on Shabbat, it cannot be the basis for an additional more specific commandment.

This raises a troublesome problem. The second two commandments in our passages seem to violate this principle. The third commandment is a general mitzvah that prohibits us from benefiting from an idol or any object or substance associated with the idol. The second commandment is a specific prohibition against benefiting from the precious metal overlay that decorates a worshiped object. Maimonides acknowledges that these overlays are one of the various substances associated with idolatry.[7] This means that these overlays should be already prohibited by the more general commandment prohibiting benefit from idols or associated objects and substances.

Sefer HaChinuch’s treatment of the prohibition against benefiting from these decorative overlays seems to address this issue. His comments require a prefatory remark. As previously explained, the Torah commands us to destroy all forms of idolatry. However, in order for this commandment to apply, the idol must be created – or fashioned by its worshipers – as an idol. For example, if a group of heathens designate a mountain or a tree as the object of their worship, this designation does not prohibit benefit from the mountain or tree. It is permitted to enjoy hiking on the mountain, to plant upon it and to benefit from it in every manner.

However, if these heathens overlay a portion of the mountain with gold or silver, this adornment is prohibited. One cannot take this overlay, or a portion of it, and fashion jewelry from the material. It is permitted to benefit from the mountain but the gold overlay is prohibited.[8]

Let us now consider Sefer HaChinuch’s comments. He explains that third mitzvah outlined in our passages prohibits benefiting from an idol or the objects and substances associated with it and used in its worship. However, in describing the second mitzvah listed in our passages, he explains that this mitzvah specifically targets overlays that adorn objects that are not in themselves prohibited in benefit. For example, this commandment prohibits the gold overlay used to adorn a worshiped mountain. The commandment communicates that the overlay is prohibited even though the object it adorns – the mountain – cannot be prohibited.[9] Minchat Chinuch explains that these comments seem to address our issue. Each of the commandments is unique and separate from the other. The final commandment in our passages prohibits benefit from an idol or objects associated with the prohibited object and used in its worship. This commandment does not extend to an adornment that overlays an object that is not itself prohibited. A separate mitzvah is required to prohibit such an overlay. The second mitzvah in our passages is the mitzvah that deals with this unique situation.[10] The following table summarizes the difference between the two commandments.

Table of Mitzvot

Mitzvah (Sefer HaChinuch): #429 Text: And you shall not bring an abomination into thy house. Prohibition: Benefit from an idol and objects associated with the prohibited idol or used in its worship
Mitzvah (Sefer HaChinuch): #428 Text: You shall not covet the silver or the gold that is on them. Prohibition: Benefit from an overlay that adorns an object that is worshiped but is not prohibited.

These conclusions suggested by Minchat Chinuch are reasonable. However, they present another question. The general prohibition (#429) prohibits the idol and objects associated with its worship. Why does this prohibition not include the objects prohibited in the more specific mitzvah (#428)? In other words, why are overlays that adorn worshiped objects which are not themselves prohibited excluded from the general commandment?

It seems there are two reasons why an object or substance associated with an idol or worshiped object may be prohibited. First, the prohibition may be an extension of the prohibition to benefit from the idol. In other words, when the Torah prohibits benefiting from a worshiped object, this prohibition extends beyond the idol to those objects and substances associated with its worship. In this instance, these objects and substances are not inherently prohibited; their prohibited status is an extension of the prohibition upon the worshiped object.

Second, the prohibition upon an object or substance associated with idolatry may be inherently prohibited. Its very association with idolatry and its role in heathen worship render the object, or substance, “prohibited”.

What is the practical difference between the two reasons? These reasons are differentiated by the case in which an object or substance is associated with an object that is worshiped but not prohibited. According to the first reason, this associated object or substance is not prohibited. Objects that are prohibited because they are worshiped “generate” a secondary prohibition that extends to substances or objects associated with it and used in its worship. According to the first reason, in an instance in which the worshiped object is not prohibited, no prohibition is generated that can be extended to secondary substances and objects.

In contrast, according to the second reason, the status of the worshiped object does not impact the prohibition against objects and substances associated with its worship. The mere association of these objects with idolatry renders them prohibited. The status of the worshiped object – whether it is prohibited or not – does not impact this association.

Now, we can better appreciate the difference between these two commandments and the reason for which each is required. Commandment #429 primarily focuses on objects that are worshiped. It prohibits benefiting from these objects. This mitzvah extends this prohibition to objects and substances associated with its worship. However, the prohibition against these associated objects is a secondary prohibition; it is an extension of the prohibition against benefiting from the worshiped object. Therefore, this commandment cannot prohibit benefit from a substance associated with a worshiped object that is not itself prohibited. A secondary prohibition can only exist as an extension of a primary prohibition.

In contrast, Commandment #428 prohibits overlays merely because of their association with idolatry. This mitzvah does not generate any prohibition against the worshiped object. It deals exclusively with the associated substance. This commandment prohibits an overlay even though the worshiped object it adorns is not prohibited. It does not prohibit the overlay as an extension of the prohibition against the worshiped object. It prohibits the substance because of its association with idolatry.

This analysis is relevant to another issue. In general, if a heathen performs bittul – he takes an action that indicates that he has abandoned worship of his idol – the idol he formally worshiped is no longer prohibited. Furthermore, objects and substances formerly associated with its worship become permitted. Minchat Chinuch raises an interesting question which he leaves unresolved. As we have explained, if a heathen designates a mountain for worship, then, although the mountain is permitted, its overlay is prohibited. If the heathen subsequently performs bittul in regard to the mountain then does the overlay become permitted?[11]

This question is a consequence of the above analysis. In the typical case, the prohibition against the associated substances and objects is a secondary extension of the primary prohibition against the worshiped idol. If bittul removes the primary prohibition against the worshiped object, then the secondary extension of this prohibition is also voided. However, in the instance of an overlay adorning a worshiped mountain, the prohibition against the overlay is not an extension of some other primary prohibition. Therefore, it is questionable whether bittul performed in regard to the mountain will impact the status of its overlay.

This analysis also explains another issue. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno makes an interesting comment regarding the prohibition against overlays. He explains that the Torah prohibits these overlays lest they ensnare us. How might these substances ensnare or mislead us? He explains that if a person takes possession of this substance and then experiences an episode of unusual success, he may attribute his “good fortune” to the efficacy of the idol.[12]

Although this is a reasonable explanation for this prohibition, it seems unnecessarily complicated. The more obvious explanation is that the Torah aggressively combats idolatry and therefore it prohibits benefit from anything associated with it. The Torah’s objective is to stigmatize idolatry and to fashion a strong taboo against idolatrous practices. Why does Sforno resort to this less-than-obvious explanation for this commandment?

However, Sforno’s comments are more reasonable when viewed in conjunction with the above analysis. Sforno is responding to the specific formulation of the prohibition against overlays. As explained above, this prohibition focuses on instances in which the adorned object is not itself prohibited. Sforno reasons that this commandment must reflect a different concern than the prohibition against idols and associated substances and objects. He reasons that the general prohibition (Commandment #429) is designed to stigmatize idolatry. However, such an objective is only fulfilled when both the worshiped object and its associated substances and objects are prohibited. Any stigmatization is undermined if the worshiped object is permitted. Therefore, Sforno suggests an alternative reason for the prohibition of an overlay that adorns and object that is itself permitted. He suggests that the prohibition is not designed to stigmatize worship of the mountain. This will not be effective; the object of worship – the mountain – is permitted. Instead, the overlay is prohibited for a different reason. If the person takes possession of the material of the overlay, he may wrongly attribute any subsequent success to the powers of the idol formerly adorned by the metal.

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh 185.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Lo Ta’aseh 25.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Lo Ta’aseh 22.

[4] Sefer Devarim 7:5.

[5] Sefer Devarim 12:2

[6] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Principle 9.

[7] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avorah Zarah 8:7.

[8] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avorah Zarah 8:7.

[9] Rav Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 428.

[10] Rav Yosef Babad, Minchat Chinuch, Mitzvah 428, note 1.

[11] Rav Yosef Babad, Minchat Chinuch, Mitzvah 428, note 3.

[12] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Devarim, 7:25.