by R. Gidon Rothstein
Parshat Ki Tissa
Avodah zarah, the worship of any power other than God, hides today, fooling many of us into thinking there isn’t really AZ out there, in turn making it harder to resonate with the many obligations and prohibitions the Torah set up to protect us from getting caught up in it.
Given my belief there is more avodah zarah in our world than we realize, I grab opportunities to review mitzvot on the topic. In our case, Sefer Ha-Hinukh places a mitzvah in our parsha because he gives it a source verse Rambam didn’t quote. Since he generally follows Rambam’s count, this is already attention-grabbing.
We’ll start with Rambam, see how Ramban disagreed, and how Sefer Ha-Hinukh dealt with their disparity, before Arukh Ha-Shulhan puts it all together for us.
Nothing Connected to Avodah Zarah in Our Homes
Rambam’s Lo Ta’aseh 25, the ban on including any item of AZ in our moneys. Rather, Rambam says, we must distance ourselves from it, its houses, anything connected with it. For Rambam, that’s the meaning of Devarim 7;26, ve-lo tavi to’evah el beitekha, do not bring an abomination into your house.
The lashes for benefitting from such an item is defined in Makkot 22a, based on the Torah’s verses about cooks using wood from an Asherah tree, as well as Devarim 13;18, let nothing doomed for destruction stick to your hand.
Rambam then has another prohibition, number 194, about drinking yayn nesekh, wine libated to any power other than Hashem. He says there is no specific verse for it, but Avodah Zarah 29b assumes it from a verse in Ha’azinu, Devarim 32;38, which juxtaposes eating sacrifices to drinking from the wine of their libation.
Tikrovet, That Which Has Been Offered to the AZ
Ramban voiced his disagreement for many reasons, among them that Rambam’s Prohibition 25 should have obviated the one about yayn nesech. If anything connected to AZ is prohibited, why a separate yayn nesekh ban? Instead, Ramban argues the Torah prohibited tikrovet, items offered to the AZ (including wine), separately from meshamshim, support items for the service of this other power, separate from the AZ itself. For each a verse and a prohibition, I think because each is its own type of problem.
The verse for tikrovet appears in our parsha, Shemot 34;15, one reason not to make pacts with the inhabitants of Israel is their tendency to AZ. They will make a festival/feast for their AZ, call to us, and we will eat from their sacrifice [implying we may not, hence a prohibition]. We also may not benefit from these items, an idea Avodah Zarah 29b inferred from Tehillim 106;28, the Jews attached themselves to Ba’al Pe’or and ate zivhei metim, literally the sacrifices of the dead. We may not benefit from the dead, and the Gemara is sure the verse’s use of the term was to teach us the same was true about sacrifices to other powers.
Rambam has a prohibition on anything connected to worship of other powers and a separate one for yayn nesekh, where Ramban sees separate prohibitions for the avodah zarah itself, the items used to support it, and the items offered to it.
Sefer Ha-Hinukh on Tikrovet
Sefer Ha-Hinukh seems to adopt Ramban’s construct. In Parshat Re’eh (and we can leave it for there), Mitzvot 428-9 are about benefitting from the coverings of items of worship and the items themselves. In our parsha, he defines Mitzvah 111 to prohibit eating or drinking items offered to powers other than God (not all benefit, notice), because the verse says ve-akhalta mi-zivho, you will eat of his sacrifice.
His reason for the mitzvah is pretty obvious, but bears repeating, the vital importance of distancing ourselves from worship of any power other than Hashem. [To get the full impact of that statement, we’d have to think about the definition of worship and what counts as another power, a different rant.]
Avodah Zarah 51b includes water and salt in this prohibition, despite their being kalim, insignificant, Sefer Ha-Hinukh explains.
The Extent of the Wine Prohibitions
Wine is just one example, but because it was so central to their worship, Chazal also prohibited stam yaynam, all their wine, regardless of evidence they had libated it in service of another power. For wine we know was offered, the verse in Devarim lays out lashes, for the rest, it’s rabbinic. Beyond stam yaynam, general wine, Hazal also prohibited a Jew’s wine that had been left unsupervised in the presence of a non-Jew, and/or that the non-Jew touched.
Normally, people do not create prohibitions on others’ items; the difference with wine, says Sefer Ha-Hinukh, stems from the non-Jew’s performing an action on the wine itself. One person’s bowing to another’s object or animal cannot make it prohibited, but if the person physically libates it, it becomes tikrovet avodah zarah. It has to be a significant action, though, like slaughtering an animal or libating in the presence of the avodah zarah itself. Just libating it will not incur a Biblical prohibition, the reason a Jew could recover damages from the non-Jew who did it and not have it be considered benefitting from idolatry.
Mixtures and Their Stringencies
Yayn nesekh has other stringencies, such as not being nullifiable. R. Shimon b. Gamliel in AZ 74a had a way to avoid the problem when a prohibited item mixed indistinguishably with permitted items. He said we can sell it all to a non-Jew, less the value of the prohibited item. With yayn nesekh and any other idolatrous object, the strategy is not permitted, and all the more so not by throwing its value into the Dead Sea (another sometime solution to how to avoid benefit when the object in question is mixed with others).
The mixture must involve the actual items, though. Should a barrel of yayn nesekh mix with many barrels of permitted wine, we would be allowed to use R. Shimon b. Gamliel’s strategy, as we would be if it was stam yaynam rather than actually libated wine.
Nor do yayn nesekh and/or other idolatrous objects need to be present in significant enough proportions to leave a taste or be a davar hashuv, something of significance. Whatever it is, however much, it prohibits the entire mixture.
On the question of benefit, Chazal included being hired to break barrels of yayn nesekh, because the Jew wants those barrels to stay in existence until he has a chance to break them, where we are supposed to never want avodah zarah to exist.
He closes with a brief summary of Rambam and Ramban’s disagreement, and concedes he has followed Ramban, contrary to his resolute practice throughout the book, because the verse here was just too clear [my paraphrase, and also a reminder of the limits of pluralism; normally, he follows Rambam even where he prefers Ramban. Here, Ramban’s view was so convincing, he had to follow it].
Closing with Some Halakha
Some highlights of Arukh Ha-Shulchan’s rulings. In Yoreh De’ah 4;1, he records the prohibition of tikrovet, items offered to an avodah zahah in sacrifice. If it was an animal, the meat, hide, and anything else off of it are disallowed. Certainly that’s true if the person says s/he is slaughtering the animal in service to the other power, but it is also true if the slaughter is with the intent of sprinkling the blood, or offering its fat, and even if someone else will do the offering.
A specific detail not our topic here is that slaughtering an animal just to receive the blood does not count as avodah zarah unless that particular form of worship includes it (as opposed to slaughtering, which is always idolatrous). So a person who slaughters with the sole goal of receiving the blood for worship will not have caused the animal to be prohibited. S/he will have rendered it non-kosher, though, because the idolatrous intent makes the person a min, says Arukh Ha-Shulchan in paragraph two, and a min cannot perform effective kosher slaughter.
A Huge Exception
In paragraph twelve, he points out Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De’ah 145 records the Gemara’s ruling that natural items attached to the ground—a mountain is the easiest example—cannot be turned into an item of avodah zarah. Non-Jews can worship it all they want, it will not impact Jews’ right and ability to benefit from it.
If so, says Arukh Ha-Shulchan (from Rashi and Tosafot on Avodah Zarah 39b), the tikrovet will also not be prohibited. [There is a jump, an assumption the rule about tikrovet only applies to tikrovet of that which becomes identified halakhically as an avodah zarah.] They will be non-kosher, as we said, but not beyond benefit.
With some theological nuance. If the animal was offered to the angel/power that oversees those mountains or seas or deserts, it will be avodah zarah [imagine the person is about to take a trip and wants help getting to the other side; if s/he worships the sea itself, no avodah zarah because the verse put immovable parts of God’s earth beyond human beings’ ability to contaminate them as avodah zarah; with the angelic forces some thought oversee the world under God’s supervision, it would be a different story]. Angels are telushim, not connected to the ground (nor part of the human world), like the sun, moon, and stars, all clearly targets of avodah zarah.
On the other hand, Rambam, Rashba, and Ran all included the offerings to the mountains in tikrovet, thought the Gemara we were discussing meant a situation where the person had no intent to worship, thought that by slaughtering the animal this way, with this intent, it would heal somebody.
[A sticky question I am not going to take on: what kinds of thoughts of benefit are worship and what not? Here, the idea of securing healing with an action is not the same as worshipping the original power to get it to heal. I believe these are delicate distinctions.]
To bring it to terms of our times, we would have to be able to identify an avodah zarah. Assume for a moment that Hinduism is avodah zarah, as it likely is, our prohibition tells us we cannot benefit from anything people bring to their Hindu temple, as gift or offering. Because we are supposed to not only not worship other powers, by Torah law we are supposed to not partake of the worship or anything connected to that worship.