87. E Pluribus Madiach: The prohibition against enticing Jews to idolatry

…and don’t let your mouth cause it to be heard (Exodus 23:13)

We have already discussed the concept of a “lav she’bichlalos,” a negative commandment that actually prohibits several discrete acts. (See Mitzvah #70 and The Rambam’s Ninth Principle in Taryag.) In the previous mitzvah, we said that we may not cause non-Jews to invoke or praise their idols. Additionally, these words impel us not to lead other Jews astray to worship idols.

A person who encourages others en masse to perform idolatry, though he himself does not do so, is called a madiach, one who corrupts. (Compare the root of the term madiach with “ir hanidachas,” the city that is led astray.) If a person only goes after individuals, he is called a meisis, an agitator. The meisis is the subject of Mitzvah #462, in parshas Re’eh (Deut. 13:12). (See Sanhedrin 67a for a discussion of who is a meisis and who is a madiach.)

The Sefer HaChinuch clarifies the nature of idolatry. The Torah warns against idol worship in its various forms 44 times and God is said to be “jealous” when the Jews turn to idols, but we should not be misled into thinking that idolatry in any way “diminishes” God (as if such a thing were possible!). Rather, these things are phrased the way they are for the benefit of the listener, so that we can understand them in human terms. When a person turns to idols (God forbid!), he not only disconnects himself from his spiritual “life support,” he’s hooking himself up to a source of poison and toxins! The “jealousy” God feels is a term used so we can understand that one who strays is like a faithless wife who cheats on her husband, who is always willing to take her back.

The prohibition against enticement to idolatry is in effect in all times and places for men and for women. It is discussed in the tenth chapter of the Talmudic tractate of Sanhedrin and codified in the Mishneh Torah in the fourth chapter of Hilchos Avodas Kochavim. It is #15 of the 365 negative mitzvos in the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos and #14 of the 194 negative mitzvos that can be fulfilled today as listed in the Chofetz Chaim’s Sefer HaMitzvos HaKatzar.