The Prohibition of Idolatry

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein




Dedicated in memory of 
Joseph Y. Nadler, z”l, Yosef ben Yechezkel Tzvi


Parashat YITRO



The Prohibition of Idolatry

Adapted by Binyamin Frankel

Translated by Kaeren Fish



A verse in our parasha reads:


"You shall not make with Me gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold." (20:19)


The Mekhilta elaborates:


"You shall not make with Me" –

Rabbi Yishmael said: You shall not make the form of My servants which serve Me on high: not the form of the angels, nor the form of the ofanim, nor the form of the keruvim.

Rabbi Natan said, You shall not say, "I shall make a sort of image of Him and then prostrate myself to it" – therefore it says, "You shall not make with Me." And it is written (Devarim 4:15), "You shall guard yourselves exceedingly well, for you did not see any image…."


Similarly, concerning the prohibition of idolatry, we find the following verses:


Guard yourself lest you be ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and lest you inquire after their gods, saying: "How did these nations serve their gods? I shall do likewise." (Devarim 12:30)


The statement, “I shall do likewise” may be understood in two different ways. The simple understanding is that this person seeks to serve idols in the same way that the nations do. However, Ibn Ezra offers an interesting understanding: "'I shall do likewise' – [meaning] 'in my service of God,' and you will think that you are acting well. You shall not do so, for God abhors all of their actions." In other words, Ibn Ezra warns us against adopting defective norms that belong to idolatry, and trying to use them in our service of God.


This is also explained in the Mekhilta (following on from the above):


"Nor shall you make for yourselves" – You shall not say, "Since the Torah permits [the keruvim] to be made in the Temple, I shall do the same in the synagogue, or the beit midrash." The verse therefore teaches, "You shall not make for yourselves."

Another explanation for the words, "You shall not make for yourselves" – you shall not say, "We shall make [idols] for decoration, just as others do in other places." The verse therefore teaches, "You shall not make for yourselves" [i.e., for your own esthetic purposes].


To clarify this, we must examine the prohibition of idolatry. This prohibition can be transgressed in one of two ways – "in its usual manner," and "not in its usual manner." The Gemara (Sanhedrin 60b) teaches that the actions forbidden under the category of "in its usual manner," including the particular actions that represented the service of Ba'al Pe'or, or casting a stone at Mercury, etc., apply only to that specific form of idolatry. The prohibitions that fall under the category of "not in its usual manner," such as offering sacrifices or incense, libations, prostration, etc., apply to all forms of idolatry.


These two models of idolatry in fact represent two negative elements which may attract a person's interest and lead to sin. A person may be attracted in a trivial manner. During the period of the settlement of Eretz Yisrael and the period of the kings, Bnei Yisrael repeatedly sinned and repented. However, there is one sin which recurs over and over again throughout that period, as we read:


Only the people sacrificed in the high places, because no House for God's Name had been built until those times. And Shlomo loved God, walking in the ways of David, his father; only he sacrificed and offered incense in the high places. (I Melakhim 3:2)


This theme reappears several times over the course of Sefer Melakhim. The Mishna (Zevachim chapter 14) mentions various situations in which the 'bamot' (high places) were permitted and forbidden. We find that these bamot, which were actually used lawfully during a certain period in history, were a very strong temptation for Am Yisrael. Apparently, the bamot gave people the ability to communicate with God in every situation and in every place. Man needs some connection with God that goes beyond place, and the bamot represented a distorted fulfillment of that need. This is idolatry that is "not in its usual manner." It is a type of behavior which does not belong directly to idolatry, but may be considered part of its accessories.


There is yet another type of idolatry. This is where a person wants to perform actions that are not normative by any standard, believing that this will help his connection with God.


What we learn from our parasha is that the path to God is not given over to man. One's own subjective good intentions are not the proper criterion. Rather, performing actions which God Himself defines as good must be the basis for one's orientation. The attempt to seek God in a unilateral manner, based only on one's own personal initiative, is not only missing the mark, but a form of idolatry.


(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat Parashat Yitro 5769 [2009].)