by R. Ari Enkin
It is quite common to discover that items in one’s possession contain religious symbols. This is often the case with postage stamps, perfumes, and even some brand name clothing whose logos include a cross. One might also live in a country whose flag contains a cross, which appears on T-shirts, passports, knapsacks, and other items produced in such countries.
Is there a problem with having such items in one’s possession?
Rav Moshe Feinstein was once asked by a stamp dealer whether it was permissible to buy and sell stamps that have a picture of a cross on them. He answered that it is permissible because the stamps are not considered to be symbols of idolatry since they have no religious significance and are not worshipped. So too, stamps are printed with the knowledge that they will eventually be defaced or marked up in some way in order to ensure that they will not be reused. It is also noted that stamps are generally thrown away, along with the envelope they are affixed to, once the contents of the envelope have been removed. All of this demonstrates that no measure of sanctity is attributed to them and that they are not treated with any reverence by anyone. It is permitted to benefit from idolatrous images that are not treated with any reverence or distinction.1 Similarly, it seems that there was once a brand of oven that included a picture of a cross as part of its logo, and the rabbis of the time ruled that it was permitted to own one.2 Nevertheless, there are authorities who advise blurring out such images, merely as a stringency, when possible.3
On the topic of stamps, it is worth pointing out that one should not reuse a stamp that was accidentally not postmarked on a used envelope. Doing so would be taking advantage of some clerk’s (or machine’s) mistake, and defrauding the postal service into delivering a letter without receiving payment for it. It is a form of theft which is forbidden whether the postal service is owned by Jews or non-Jews.4 It is also against the law to do such a thing, and one is required to follow the laws of the land one lives in.5 It is said that the Chafetz Chaim would rip a stamp whenever someone would personally deliver a letter to him, although this is not halachically required in any way.
Rav Menashe Klein was once asked by a doctor if he could wear his hospital-issued coat which includes a cross as part of the hospital’s logo on the front of the coat. He responded that the permissibility of wearing such a coat depended on the purpose of the image of the cross. If it has religious significance, then it would be forbidden. However, if it is merely illustrative or simply represents a certain group or organization, then it would be permitted to wear it.6
One may also work for or otherwise associate oneself in any way with the Red Cross humanitarian organization even though one would be forced to be in the presence of a red cross. Again, this is because the red cross of the Red Cross organization is unaffiliated with any religious movement.7 On a related note, one who is a patient in a hospital that has a crucifix in every room may not pray toward it even if one will be unable to face Jerusalem as a result.8 There is no halachic problem with using the plus sign in math.9
Chess is another area where this issue arises. A chess set often includes a cross on one or more pieces. As such, some have questioned the permissibility of owning a chess set or even playing the game. Some are known to break off the cross from the chess pieces in their chess set. Nevertheless, Rav Asher Bush argues that since everyone knows that chess has nothing to do with Christianity, there is no halachic problem with owning a decorative chess set or playing the game.10 So too, the ruling of Rav Moshe Feinstein, cited above, would apply to this issue of chess pieces, as well.
It might be surprising to most readers to learn that it is essentially permitted to sell crosses and other religious objects that are intended for decoration rather than worship.11 Indeed, both the Rema and the Shach rule that Christianity is not considered to be an idolatrous religion,12 though the many interpretations and applications of this ruling are beyond the scope of this chapter.
There is an interesting story concerning the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. It is well known that the Rebbe very much enjoyed Benedictine liqueur, and for many years he would have it on the table during his farbrengens, and he even served it to others. Eventually the Rebbe stopped drinking Benedictine, at least in public, and there are a number of theories for this. While most insiders seem to suggest that it was a decision based on Kashrut considerations, others suggest that it was due to the Cross that is part of the company logo that appears on the label.13
Igrot Moshe, YD 1:69. See also YD 141:3. ↩
She’arim Metzuyanim B’halacha 167:2. ↩
Chochmat Adam 85:1; Zera Emet 2:45; She’eilat Shlomo 1:326; Nefesh Harav, p. 230. ↩
Az Nidberu 6:74. ↩
Mishne Halachot 6:288. ↩
Mishne Halachot 12:43. ↩
Rema, YD 141:1; Yechave Daat 3:68. ↩
Lev Avraham 29; Chayei Adam 22:10; Mishna Berura 94:30. ↩
Aseh Lecha Rav 5:21. ↩
Shoel B’shlomo 60. ↩
Rema, YD 141:3. ↩
Rema, OC 156:1; Shach, YD 153:7; Pitchei Teshuva, YD 147:5. ↩
For more on the Rebbe, Benedictine, and its Kashrut status, see: http://www.crcweb.org/kosher_articles/Benedictine.php, http://myrightword.blogspot.co.il/2009/12/but-is-it-kosher.html, http://goanna.cs.rmit.edu.au/~isaac/benedictine.pdf, http://www.chabadtalk.com/forum/showthread.php3?p=43115. ↩