by R. Gil Student
I. Forbidden Images
With Barbie in the news, it is an opportunity to discuss the halakhic implications of Barbie dolls. From the perspective of hashkafah, there is much to discuss about the unrealistic body dimensions of Barbie dolls and their impact on the thinking of young girls and boys. Setting all that aside, the Torah might have something to say about Jews owning (relatively) life-like models of human beings. Even if young children below bar/bas mitzvah age are not obligated in the commandments, we cannot give them prohibited objects and facilitate their violation of a prohibition. Are we allowed to give Barbie dolls to children?
Right after the Ten Commandments, God instructs Moshe to tell the Jews that they may not make any physical idols, “no silver gods and no golden gods” (Ex. 20:20). This is in addition to the second of the Ten Commandments, which forbids making “any carved image or likeness of any creature in the heavens above or the earth beneath or the water beneath the earth” (Ex. 20:4). The Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 24a) says that Rabban Gamliel had pictures of the moon in different phases to show to witnesses who claimed to have seen the new moon, in order to test them. The Gemara asks how he could have pictures of the moon when it is forbidden to have images of anything in the heaven, earth or sea. The Gemara (ibid., 24b) concludes that Rabban Gamliel used one of a number of possible exceptions (e.g. he used it for learning purposes, which is allowed).
Commentators debate the parameters of the prohibition based on the discussion of Rabban Gamliel’s pictures. Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh De’ah 141:4-7) concludes that we may not make even two dimensional pictures of heavenly bodies that we see in two dimensions (e.g. the sun). However, we are only forbidden to make three dimensional representations (e.g. sculptures) of things we see in three dimensions, like people. This is true even if we make them specifically for decoration. Additionally, we may not own an object we are forbidden to make because people might suspect that we made them (Shakh, ad loc., 23). In other words, it is forbidden to buy, for example, a sculpture of a person or a drawing of the sun. There are further details about partial images but that need not detain us right now. Our question is dolls.
II. Dolls in Halakhah
The first mention I have seen of dolls in this context is in a responsum of Rav Yosef di Trani (Maharit; 17th cen., Israel; Responsa Maharit, vol. 3, no. 35). Maharit writes that the prohibition only applies to a permanent item and not something temporary, like a doll. If it is temporary, then nobody will think it could have been made or used for idolatry. Therefore, Maharit says, those dolls (partzufin) that are made for children to play with and those made for actors to use in their plays are permitted because they are temporary. Presumably, in his day toys were not particularly durable. A doll might have been a piece of cloth on top of a stick or a rock. Even though it is intended to look like a person, it is temporary and therefore permissible. Today, children’s toys last for years, even decades. While a Barbie is made out of plastic which in theory is disposable, the doll often is kept for many years. Maharit’s leniency does not seem to apply to a Barbie doll.
Rav Eliezer Deutsch (20th cen., Hungary; Responsa Pri Ha-Sadeh, vol. 3, no. 36) quotes Maharit and adds his own consideration. Shulchan Arukh (ibid., par. 3) rules like Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel in the Mishnah (Avodah Zarah 42b) who distinguishes between two cases of finding a utensil with a forbidden image on it. If you find a respectable utensil, then you must be concerned that someone used it for idolatry. If it is a disgraceful utensil, something not fit for use in a proper ceremony, then you can assume it was never used for idolatry. Rav Deutsch says that if you give something to a child to play with, it is considered disgraceful and does not fall under the prohibition because it would never be used for idolatry. Therefore, dolls and stuffed animals of various forbidden images are permitted since a child shleps them around on the floor and treats them disrespectfully. This reasoning applies to dolls and actions figures today. According to Rav Deutsch, a Barbie doll is permissible. Significantly, Rav Shlomo Zalman Braun (She’arim Metzuyanim Ba-Halakhah 168:2) and Rav Ovadiah Yosef (Yechaveh Da’as 3:64; Yabi’a Omer 3:8) quote this ruling approvingly.
III. Unworshipped Images
A more lenient approach is taken by some authorities. As mentioned above, the reason we are not allowed to own graven images is out of concern that people might think we made or worshipped them. Nowadays, when people generally do not worship idols, and those few who do only worship very specific idols, there is no real concern. Unless we buy an actual idol, no one will think that the sculptures we buy are used for idolatry. Therefore, it should be permissible to own such art. (Additionally, no one will think that you made a doll that was clearly manufactured in a factory.)
It is hard to dismiss a rabbinic prohibition just because the reason no longer applies. It is never quite clear when, if ever, the prohibition loses its force. However, in this case, eminent halakhic authorities follow this approach. Rav Avraham Danziger (19th cen., Lithuania; Chokhmas Adam 86:6) and Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (Netziv; 19th cen., Russia; Responsa Meishiv Davar, vol. 2, no. 11 and Ha’amek She’eilah 57:3) both explicitly say that it is permissible to own full-body human sculptures bought from a store. This logic would also apply to a Barbie doll.
IV. Strict Approach
However, many authorities are uncomfortable with these leniencies. They recommend defacing any dolls or sculptures by removing a nose or ear. In this way, you can still have your sculpture while completely avoiding the prohibition. For example, Rav Shmuel Wosner (21st cen., Israel; Shevet Ha-Levi, vol. 7, no. 134, par. 1) says that it is obvious that one may not own a doll because of the prohibition. Therefore, you must deface it if you want to keep it. Similarly, Rav Moshe Sternbuch (cont., Israel; Teshuvos Ve-Hanhagos 1:804) says that while some authorities are lenient, someone who is God-fearing will follow the strict view and deface a doll or sculpture.
In conclusion, opinions about dolls range from one end to the other. Some authorities believe that the prohibition does not apply today to anything that is not an actual idol. Others find an exemption for toys. Yet others believe we should be strict. My experience indicates that the general custom is to be lenient about toys but everyone should ask their own rabbi. Of course, even if it is permissible to have a Barbie doll, that does not mean it is advisable.