That Jews are forbidden to worship idols is such a basic element of Judaism that the Talmud does not actually have much to say about it. After all, it’s right there in the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” As we saw in Tractate Sanhedrin, any Jew who dared violate this rule was condemned to death. Why, then, do we need Tractate Avodah Zarah, the section of the Talmud devoted to idol worship? The answer, as Daf Yomi readers have seen over the last months, is that the Jews of the Talmudic period lived in societies where idol-worship was universal. This meant that Jews had to take care not just to avoid actual idolatry, but not to assist the idolatry of gentiles or to be complicit with it in any way. For instance, we have seen that Jews could not do business with an idol-worshipper in advance of one of his festivals, lest they give him a reason to give thanks to his god.
In Chapter Three of Tractate Avodah Zarah, the rabbis explore a new set of issues, having to do with the problem of avoiding even peripheral benefit from idols. That a Jew may not derive any benefit from an idol, even one unrelated to the idol’s sacred purpose, is suggested by Deuteronomy 7:25: “The graven images of their gods you shall burn with fire; you shall not covet the silver or the gold that is in them, nor take it to you, lest you be snared by it.” Anything that has been implicated in idol-worship is contaminated and must be shunned. But in a society where you couldn’t visit a bathhouse without seeing a statue of Aphrodite or scan the horizon without seeing a hill or a tree that was sacred to a pagan god, how could Jews follow this rule?
Take statues, which today we tend to think of as merely art objects—the kind of thing you find in the Greek and Roman galleries of a museum. To the rabbis, however, these statues were not meant for aesthetic admiration; they were images of gods like Apollo or Jupiter, and so they were abominations. “All statues are forbidden,” says the Mishna in Avodah Zarah 40b, “because they are worshipped once a year”—presumably on the holy day of the god they represent. Still, the rabbis realized that many statues were meant for ornamental purposes, not religious ones, and so they try to find a rule of thumb to tell these categories apart. The Mishna goes on to say that, in fact, a statue is prohibited only if it “has in its hand a staff, a bird, or an orb.” The Gemara explains that these were typical attributes of gods, meant to express their power: “A bird represents dominion as the idol grasps … the entire world the way one grasps a bird.”
A later Mishna asks about the status of idols that are on display in public places. Must a Jew avoid any building that contains a statue—which, in the Roman Empire, would have been most of them? This was the question that a certain Roman, Proclus, once asked Rabban Gamliel, when he saw the sage bathing in a bathhouse that contained a statue of Aphrodite. Answering the question at all presented a problem for Rabban Gamliel, because, as he explained, “One may not answer questions related to Torah in the bathhouse,” which is a place devoted to bodily functions. (In fact, as the Gemara points out, even this demurral was problematic, because the rule that one may not discuss Torah in a bathhouse is itself a Torah matter; thus the Gemara assumes that Rabban Gamliel waited until he had left the bathhouse to explain his refusal to answer.)
Once outside, however, Rabban Gamliel gave three alternative explanations why it was permitted for him to use the bathhouse. First, he said, “I did not come into its domain; it came into my domain.” That is, he was already in the habit of using that bathhouse before the statue of Aphrodite was built. Second, “People do not say, ‘Let us make a bathhouse as an adornment for Aphrodite’; rather, they say, ‘Let us make Aphrodite as an adornment for the bathhouse.’ ” By this logic, the bathhouse is not like a temple to the goddess; rather, the goddess is an incidental decoration of a building meant for another purpose.
Finally, Rabban Gamliel presents his most interesting argument: “Even if people would give you a lot of money, you would not enter before your idol naked,” he reasoned. Clearly, he knew that pagans were as scrupulous about respecting their own gods as Jews were in respecting God. But as for the Aphrodite in the bathhouse, “this statue stands upon the sewage pipe, and all the people urinate before it.” If the statue were a true idol, people wouldn’t dare to treat it so disrespectfully; it follows that it is not an idol, merely an ornament.
However, the rabbis of the Gemara are very uncertain about the strength of Rabban Gamliel’s arguments here. Oshaya goes so far as to call them “a deceptive response” to Proclus’ question. Take the matter of urinating: Is it always true that excretion is a sign of disrespect to an idol? What about the Canaanite god Peor, who is worshipped, the rabbis believe, by defecating in front of its idol? But Chama bar Yosef rebuts this argument: With Peor, defecation constitutes the standard mode of worship. Because this is not the case with Aphrodite, her presence in a bathroom is ipso facto proof that she is not an idol.
If you wanted to be very strict, however, it would at least be possible never to visit Aphrodite’s bathhouse (though you might end up getting pretty filthy as a result). But pagans also worshipped features of the natural environment, such as hills and trees—how could a Jew avoid seeing these things and deriving benefit from them? The Mishna in Avodah Zarah 45a explains that pagans cannot turn the Earth itself into an idol: Even if a particular hill is considered sacred, it is permitted for a Jew to plant crops there. Rabbi Yosei HaGelili finds support for this idea in a Torah verse from Deuteronomy, which instructs the Jews to destroy idols “upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every leafy tree”: upon the mountain suggests that the mountain itself cannot be an idol.
An interesting problem arises when it comes to the sun, moon, and stars. These celestial bodies were worshipped by pagans as if they were gods; does this mean that a Jew was forbidden to make images of them? The Torah would seem to say so: “You shall not make with Me gods of silver or gods of gold,” says Exodus 20, which the rabbis interpreted as meaning that it is forbidden to make images of God’s “attendants,” the sun and moon. But in Avodah Zarah 43a, we learn that Rabban Gamliel had in his house diagrams of the phases of the moon, which he would use to help “ordinary people” testify about the appearance of the new moon: “Did you see an image like this or did you see an image like that?” he would ask them.
Were such images of the moon forbidden, even though they were used for what we might call scientific purposes? Clearly, Rabban Gamliel didn’t think so; and in the Gemara, Abaye tries to justify his actions. The prohibition on making images, Abaye argues, only applies to things in nature that can be realistically imitated—things that “one can possibly reproduce in their likeness.” But human representations of the sun don’t look anything like the actual sun; they are less images than symbols or reminders.
Alternatively, the Gemara argues, natural images in a public place—and because Rabban Gamliel was a public figure, his house was a public place—are not to be considered idols. A single Jew might clandestinely commit idol-worship, but it is beyond imagining that an entire Jewish community would publicly worship an idol. Any representations of the sun, moon, and stars in a public Jewish building are therefore assumed to be innocently ornamental. In this way, the rabbis explain why it was that ancient synagogues—such as the famous one at Dura Europos, in Syria—could be lavishly decorated with mosaics of the zodiac. Ironically, the rabbis’ very certainty that Jews would never worship idols made them lenient when it came to the Jewish use of graven images.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.