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Shabbat 83

Tiny idols.

On today’s daf, we turn to the subject of idols. Of course, idols are strictly prohibited for worship. (Later, we will encounter a whole tractate, Avodah Zarah, devoted to the study of different kinds of prohibitions related to idol worship.) But even when not being worshipped, idols can present a serious religious problem by passing on impurity — which is the subject under discussion here.

On today’s page, the rabbis ask: Can an idol still be susceptible to impurity if it is deconstructed or broken? What about just its limbs? And how large does an idol have to be in order for it to contract and impart impurity?

Rav Ahadvoi bar Ami raised a dilemma: What is the halachah with regard to an idol that is less than an olive-bulk? Rav Yosef strongly objected to this: With regard to what use was this dilemma raised? If you say it was raised with regard to the matter of the prohibition of idolatry, let it only be like Zevuv, the Baal of Ekron, which was the size and form of a fly, as it was taught with regard to the verse: And they made Baal Brit into their god (Judges 8:33). The sages said that this is referring to Zevuv, the Baal of Ekron. It teaches that each and every person made an image of his god and placed it in his pocket. When he remembered it, he removed it from his pocket and embraced and kissed it. Even idolatry the size of a fly falls under the rubric of the prohibition of idolatry. 

Rav Yosef pushes back strongly on Rabbi Ahadvoi’s question about the minimum size an idol must be to be susceptible to ritual impurity. When Jews turned to idols after the death of the prophet and judge Gideon, he reminds us, they turned to an idol called Baal Zevuv or Baal Brit. The idol’s two possible names both indicate that it was very small — it was either crafted in the likeness of a fly (zevuv) or the tip of the male organ (brit), where a circumcision is performed. (Lest you think the idol was really big, and it was just in the likeness of a fly, Tosafot points out the detail that the idol fit in the person’s pocket.)

So no matter how small the idol, it is still susceptible to impurity.

The folly of idolatry, as Rav Yosef teaches through this analysis, is making something so incredibly tiny your master. Furthermore, the act of keeping its likeness in your pocket, and giving it a hug or a kiss, is a perversion of how it relates to other ritual objects that we kiss. We don’t kiss a mezuzah because we believe the small brass case can solve our problems, or our tzitzit because we hope that the woolen strands will save us in our darkest hour. We kiss them to remind us of our love for the expanse of mitzvot available for us to perform, and of the hope we place in the ocean of God and the Torah, which are the opposite of small, as it is written: The earth is the LORD’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants. (Psalms 24:1)


Read all of Shabbat 83 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 28, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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