Ask the Expert: Graven Images

Is it okay to paint or sculpt the human form?

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Question: I have a sister who is a successful artist, and draws the human form. I’m worried that she might be violating the second commandment. What are the rules in Judaism about creating images of people?
–Lori, California

The expertAnswer: Well color me excited, Lori. This gives me an opportunity to talk about one of my favorite subjects: art!

As you correctly pointed out, the second of the Ten Commandments has to do with creating artwork, idols, or icons that represent living beings or celestial objects. The text says, “You shall have no other gods beside Me. You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth.” (Exodus 20:3-4)

Over time, this commandment has been interpreted in a variety of ways. The most common prohibition, and the one that’s most obvious from the text, is against creating sculptures of people, animals, or planets for the purpose of worshipping them. One of the primary messages of the Torah is that worshipping idols is not allowed, so it’s not surprising that creating pieces of art that could be used as idols was prohibited.

You asked specifically about drawing the human form, so I’ll give you a bit more history on how that issue is treated in rabbinic literature. The Talmud comments on the second commandment, and takes a very strict stance against producing images of faces, ruling it forbidden, but sanctioning owning images of faces that were created by non-Jews (Avodah Zara 43a). The prohibition comes from a concern that even two dimensional images could be worshipped, or could represent idols. In some Jewish communities during the Middle Ages artists got around this prohibition by drawing human bodies topped with heads of other animals, including birds. The famous bird head Haggadah from 12th century Germany is an example of this phenomenon.

In the 16th century, the Shulhan Arukh expanded the ban on creating sculptures, adding prohibitions against forming any three dimensional image that could be worshipped, including images that stand out in bas-relief (such as friezes). However, the Shulhan Arukh differs from the Talmud in that it allows one to create two-dimensional paintings and images of the human body, as long as the entire body is not shown (Yoreh Deah 141-142).

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