Va’eira: Avoiding the Appearance of Idolatry in Prayer

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18 Jan 2007

When Pharaoh begs Moshe to stop the hail, Moshe agrees: “When I leave the city, I will extend my hands towards Hashem; the claps [of thunder] will cease, and the hail will be no more.” (Shemot 9:29). Rashi explains that Moshe was unable to pray in the city, because it was filled with idols. It is inappropriate to pray even to HaShem in a place where idolatry is practiced.

We find many halachot which reflect this principle. For instance, the Rema in Darkhei Moshe writes that a Beit Knesset shouldn’t have wall hangings which show idolatrous themes; and that a person shouldn’t bow in his prayers if at that moment a non-Jew passes wearing a cross (Orach Chaim 90:4 – Even though an ornamental cross is not an object of idolatry, as the Rema points out in Yoreh Deah 141:1). And candles which were originally made for a place of pagan worship, even those which are permissible for private use, can not be used in Beit Knesset (Orach Chaim 154:11).

When we avoid praying near objects of idolatry, it is another way of showing our contempt. But a closely parallel law of prayer shows instead our sense of awe. The Shulchan Arukh (OC 90:24) rules that one may not pray behind his Rebbe.

The Tosafot on Berakhot 27b explain that one might think that the student was praying to his Rebbe.

The Zohar explains that it is precisely because the awe of the Torah scholar is so great that it is in danger of diminishing the awe of the Creator. “A person should never pray behind his Rebbe. As it is written, ‘HaShem your G-d, Him shall you fear’ – the extra Him [‘et’ in Hebrew] to include the requirement to fear one’s Rebbe like the fear of the Shechina, which is itself the fear of the student towards the Rebbe [since we are all disciples of G-d]. Therefore, during prayers one shouldn’t put that awe before himself but rather the awe of the Holy One blessed be He alone.” (Zohar Chayei Sarah, I:132b). The awe of the student towards the Rebbe, who connects him with HaShem through teaching him HaShem’s Torah, is really an aspect of the fear of HaShem, but we must still be careful to distinguish this from the awe of HaShem alone.

This principle has a most remarkable extension. The Rema writes that it is forbidden to kiss one’s children in shul, to emphasize that “there is no love like the love of HaShem”. Into which of the above categories does this rule fall? Is kissing children forbidden because our love of them is so mundane that it is unworthy expressing it in the place of HaShem’s worship? Or is it forbidden because our love of them is so exalted that it could possibly compete with love of G-d?

The glosses of the Vilna Gaon refer us to the passage we just cited from the Zohar. The implication seems to be that the love of parents for their children is a very lofty and spiritual love indeed. Just as the awe of Torah scholars is nourished by the awe of HaShem, so our love for our children is nourished by our love of HaShem.

We should all fulfill this important halakha, and as we refrain from kissing our children in shul, we recall that we are not refraining because love for children is unimportant, but on the contrary exactly because of the great stature and elevation of this love.

Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.