We recently commenced learning the Mishnayot of Masechet Avodah Zara, which, as the name of the Masechet indicates, deals with a myriad of laws pertaining to non-Jews, idol worship and idol worshipers. Masechet Avodah Zara continues teaching us the laws relating to Avodah Zara which we began learning in Masechet Sanhedrin, and is thus included in Seder Nezikin.
The Rambam, Ramban and various other Jewish thinkers identify the source of Avodah Zara originating from a corruption of Divine service. They explain that in early history it was clear to all that Hashem was the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. In attempts to pay homage and respect to Hashem, people began to display reverence towards His intermediaries, namely the sun, moon and stars, as well as the forces of nature. People then began to believe that these entities possessed powers of their own, and were thus worthy of worship and homage. The end result of the proliferation of this behaviour and fundamentally flawed outlook was the widespread forgetting of Hashem, and the evolution of the service of these various entities into Avodah Zara.
The most famous of the various enjoinders forbidding us to engage in Avodah Zara appears in the Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Commandments, in Parashat Yitro (Shmot 20:3-5):
You shall not recognise the gods of other in My presence. You shall not make yourself a carved image nor any likeness of that which is in the heavens above or on the earth below…you shall not prostrate yourself to them nor worship them, for I am Hashem your G-d.
This prohibition thus consists of three elements:
It is forbidden to believe in idols;
We are not allowed to make or own them; and
It is forbidden to worship them.
Masechet Avodah Zara primarily discusses the laws that govern the interaction between the Jewish people and goyim, with the main theme being that we must distance ourselves from non-Jews in certain personal, social, religious and economic contexts and circumstances. Kehati identifies the source of these laws in Shmot (34: 12-17):
Be vigilant lest you seal a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you come...and stray after their gods, worship and slaughter to their gods, and he invite you and you eat from the from his slaughter. And you take from their daughters for your sons…
Kehati explains that we are limited in various interactions with goyim lest we mingle with them and chas veshalom be influenced to follow in their ways which may involve Avodah Zara. We are also required to remove ourselves so as to prevent us from causing a non-Jew to participate in Avodah Zara.
Nowadays, when it is rare in our everyday lives to encounter people bowing down to the sun and various trees in worship and supplication, what practical effect do these laws pertaining to Avodah Zara have on us? Rav Yitzchak Hutner in his sefer Pachad Yitzchak explains that after the yetzer hara for Avodah Zara was “slaughtered” by the tefillot of the Anshei Knesset Ha’Gedolah, the Men of the Great Assembly (Sanhedrin 102b), “Idolatry now took a new form that represented the willing overthrowing of the Yoke of Heaven”. Modern day idolatry thus consists of actions or thoughts whereby we remove our awareness of Hashem’s commandments and constant presence in our lives, and instead choose paths of unrestrained urges, lust and greed. An example of this is that Chazal teach us that “anyone who becomes angry is like one who practices idolatry”, and this holds true when we submit to any of our primal urges in defiance of the restraint and boundaries required of us by Jewish law. Thus, the message of distancing ourselves from Avodah Zara and negative influences, and instead immersing ourselves in the wisdom and love of the Torah and Mitzvot, is still a very relevant one for us today.
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