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28 Tishrei 5765 - October 13, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
Understanding the Depths of Avodoh Zora

by Mordecai Plaut

Part II

The first part discussed the basic nature of the prohibition and how it is considered central in Torah. Whoever denies it is like agreeing to the entire Torah. The Torah warns against it a total of 44 times. If avodoh zora falls into some other substance, it prohibits the entire mixture, no matter how small a proportion the avodoh zora is. We must not think about it or learn about it. We should not even use its buildings as landmarks. One should not even look at avodoh zora.

In some ways, the worship of avodoh zora is not what people intuitively think of when they think of worship. Avodoh zora can be done even in trying to debase the object if that is the usual way it is worshiped. Also, even if the worship is done with a blank mind, it is full avodoh zora if the person is in general an idol worshiper.

Why Is It So Serious?

We are very far removed from avodoh zora in many ways. Anshei Knesses Hagedoloh eliminated the yetzer hora for avodoh zora around 2,500 years ago, and certainly the old-time idol worship is virtually nonexistent in the West. When learning the words of the holy Torah that repeatedly (44 times) warn against avodoh zora, or the words of the prophets who speak against it at great length, or the halachos as codified in Chazal, it sometimes can seem as if it is all a part of the dead past and nothing more; certainly avodoh zora will not be revived in the times of Moshiach, bimheiroh beyomeinu, so we do not need to preserve these halochos for those times.

Nonetheless these are mitzvos for eternity. If we understand some of the explanations of the ideas underlying avodoh zora we will see why.

HaRav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains (in his Commentary on Chumash) that two main ideas that underlay the world view of idol worshipers were a belief in the power of blind fate and the overwhelming presence of death overhanging every step in life.

The idol worshiper is conscious of the limits to human striving and is sensitive to the always-imminent intervention of what seems to him to be the powerful but blind forces of nature. The fast track businessman who exercises regularly can be killed in a car crash. Earthquakes, floods, famines and other such occurrences can frustrate the best efforts of the best people.

The word "elilim" (Vayikra 19:4) refers to the blind forces of fate, that are generally seen as hostile to men. The poor soul feels at the mercy of these powerful, hostile forces and hopes that by offering his suffering to the avodoh zora, he can placate it. Perhaps if he offers his son to the Molech or his (or her) hair that is his pride and joy to Kemosh, the G-d will be sated with that sacrifice and will not visit further suffering on him.

Death is of course the strongest evident force. Living beings die; things decay. Nothing (material) lasts forever. Life is just a journey unto death. Each instant of it, each living present, quickly takes its place as part of what they see as the dead past. As HaRav Moshe Shapira says, "They live death. (Heim chaim es hamovet.)" It is not only the only goal that they see in life; for them death is the content of life itself.

In contrast, the life of Torah is a life of eternity in every instant. By fulfilling the words of the living G-d, the G-d of life, we not only work every instant towards eternal life, but we also partake of it in every instant of our lives.

The Modern Idol

No one has raised any doubt that the compound at Tirupati which sells millions of dollars worth of high-quality human hair each year is genuine avodoh zora, meaning that essentially it is certainly something to which all the laws against avodoh zora given to us by Hashem in the Torah apply. There is a genuine idol there and those who worship it are genuine idol worshipers whether they do so there or in their homes in India or overseas in Pittsburgh or in one of the great American universities. They are ovdei avodoh zora and their worship and the objects they worship are all subject to all the Torah laws of avodoh zora.

No one has questioned that what is going on at that shrine that tens of millions of people visit every year is genuine, real, one hundred percent avodoh zora. What some have questioned is whether tonsure, the cutting of the hair that is practiced by millions of thoroughly religious idol worshipers, is itself an act of idol worship, like those who cut their hair for Kemosh (the idol of Moav in ancient times).

Maran HaRav Eliashiv shlita determined that the hair cut off in the Tirupati shrine is tikroves avodoh zora, and he maintains this after spending hours listening to the objections raised by rabbonim from all over the world after he first issued his psak. His information about the practices in India and at Tirupati in particular are based on the reporting of Dayan HaRav Aharon Dovid Dunner of London who made a special trip to India to observe what went on there.

But overall, no one has challenged or even questioned in any way that the big picture is that what goes on at Tirupati is avodoh zora. After all, there is a big idol in the area and millions come to visit it yearly.

If we want to summarize and sloganize the Torah's attitude towards avodoh zora, and try to extract the basic essence of the attitude that the Torah has towards avodoh zora and to all the objects that it uses in its worship, perhaps it may be possible to do so in a three-word sound bite: Avodoh zora: FEH!

The laws of avodoh zora are many and complex. They are not studied as much nowadays as the many other areas that are much more relevant to modern life. However this basic lesson should never be forgotten. Avodoh zora: FEH!

Perhaps a moshol can dramatize this further.

Let us say that the powers of modern commerce have drafted the wonders of modern technology to be able to use the products of Pe'or worship to produce attractive headpieces for the modern lady. Of course they are freeze-dried in order that there should be no halachic question. No one even has to ask any questions. Freeze-dried Pe'or feces are clearly muttar lemehadrin.

But would you want to put it on your head and then go into a shul to stand before the Melech Malchei Hamelochim with a pile of that filth on your head, whether it is technically tikroves avodoh zora or not?

Would you want to sit with your wife/ daughter/ mother at the Shabbos table with such an adornment on her head, even if it is unquestionably muttar? Is that what you want to look at while you sing Shabbos zemiros?

What do you think they did when they gave their hair to Kemosh? What do you think they thought when they threw a stone at Mar Kulis? Do you think people had sublime thoughts on their mind when they were po'eir to Pe'or?

No one questions that what goes on at Tirupati generally is the real thing that the Torah was talking about: avodoh zora. There is an idol there. The people are unquestionably idol worshipers. When they come there they do so to worship their idol.

Avodoh zora is to'eivoh and it says lo sovi to'eivoh el beisecho vehoyiso cheirem komohu shakeitz teshaktzenu vesa'eiv tesa'avenu ki cheirem hu.

Muttar? FEH.

That is what everyone should say to avodoh zora.

See also Part 1.

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