The Gemara1 derives from the verse “Lo Sasun Iti Elokei Chesef Velokei Zahav“2 the prohibition to create an image of a human being. This action (“asiya”) is punishable by malkus. Further, by rabbinical decree, there is even a prohibition to retain an image of a person (“shehiya”), lest he be suspected of literally idolizing and worshipping said image3. Indeed, the Gemara relates that Shmuel commanded Rav Yehuda to deface a protruding image on his signet ring in order not to violate the above prohibitions.
Looking around my home, I notice many images of homo-sapiens abound. Gedolim photographs and paintings, figurines of dancing chassidim in the breakfront, dolls and Mitzvah Kinder in the toy box and sheitel heads in the closet.
In a generation of Yidden so careful with kalos k’bachamuros, why the cavalier attitude toward this issur (both Biblical and Rabbinical)? I mean of all the transgressions to be careless about, wouldn’t Avoda Zara be on bottom of that list? After all, it is one of the three cardinal sins!
There are basically four heterim presented in the Gemara and poskim, many of which apply to the ubiquitous manifestations of the modern graven image. It is worthwhile to note that each heter by itself may not be universally accepted, however a combination of these heterim are apparently what the velt relies upon.
Three Dimensional Images only
- The Rishonim differentiate between the prohibition of creating images of the sun, moon or other heavenly spheres and the prohibition of creating an image of man. The distinction is that the celestial bodies appear to us as two dimensional while a human being clearly appears three dimensional. Therefore, although creating a two dimensional non-protruding moon may be prohibited, the issur of creating an image of man is limited to protuberant three dimensional effigies. In fact, the Shulchan Aruch rules this way in Yoreh Deah 141:4.4
This effectively rules out many of the above scenarios. Photographs, paintings and drawings are not protruding images and are therefore are not included in this injunction. Additionally, Poskim5 add that the argument whether human images are subject to the same restrictions as celestial images is limited to protruding and concave images. However completely flat images fashioned with dyes and paints may not be included in this discussion at all. Photography may have an added leniency as it’s produced through grama which may not fit into the narrow definition of “Lo Sasun” which requires an action.
- The Rosh maintains that the prohibition is limited to complete figures. Merely a head or upper body is permitted. The Rem”a states that the prevailing custom is to follow this position.6 Similarly, the Shach7 rules that a profile is also considered an incomplete image and is thus permitted.
This would permit sheitel heads, coins, as well as the odd bust of Beethoven sitting on your piano. However Rabbi Yaakov Emden8 disagrees. When Rabbi Eliezer Rokeach accepted the position of Rav in Amsterdam, the community fashioned a coin in his honor with his image engraved upon it. Rabbi Emden felt they had transgressed this prohibition. Rabbi Nosson Gestetner zatza”l9 writes that he actually saw the coin in question and it was only a profile of the head and upper body. In addition, a hat was covering the ear, ostensibly to address this very problem by removing an ear from the image. Still, Rabbi Yaakov Emden ruled that it was forbidden. Rabbi Wosner zatza”l10 writes that “all the Gedolim argue with him” and therefore rules leniently, at least regarding the rabbinical prohibition of shehiya.
The above reason certainly apply to sheitel heads and supplies an additional reason to paintings of profiles or just the upper body. But what about dolls and figurines? They are both complete as well as 3-D replicas of a human image.
Degrading or non-permanent items
- The Mahari”t (2:35) determines dolls and children’s toys to be something with no permanence and consequently is lenient.11 This is based on the Rambam’s understanding that the prohibition of “Lo Sasun” is an avoda zara based proscription. Therefore he posits, a transitory impermanent image can never be construed as an avoda zara.12 Additionally, the Shulchan Aruch rules there is no suspicion of worship on an image engraved upon a “kli mevuzeh” – a degrading utensil. The Pri HaSadeh (3:38)applies this reasoning to dolls and toys as well, as they are usually dirty and rolled about on the floor and can thus easily qualify as a “kli mevuzeh”. Rabbi Ovadya Yosef zatz”l13 concurs with this position.
A doll, buried underneath a pile of tonka toys, covered in the sticky residue of yesterday’s peanut butter sandwich somehow does not elicit images of fanatic religious idolatry. However the Chasam Sofer (2:128 ) responding to an art student’s query whether practicing sculpture of human beings is permitted, holds that we cannot extrapolate a leniency based on the Rambam’s “taameh d’kra” – rationale behind the prohibition14. Perhaps the rationale behind “Lo Sasun” has nothing to do with Avodah Zarah at all! Indeed, the following is an alternate rationale provided by the Ritv”a.15<. A human being is a “Tzelem Elokim” and it is disgraceful to imprint an image of G-d onto sticks and stones! According to this, quite the opposite is true. The more undignified the item, the worse of an offence is committed!16
The above heter may also apply to sheitel heads, as a wig head is probably not the most honorable use of an idol. However it possibly will not be applicable to sterling silver figurines in the breakfront or prized trophies with a human figure on top. And quite conceivably not to the $200+ American Girl doll that may not qualify as “kli mevuzeh”.
Worshipping humans no longer in vogue
- The most probable heter that we rely on is that of the Chochmas Adam (85:6) and the Netziv17. They argue since no one currently worships human beings18, the cheshad of “shehiya” is just not there. 19 Even according to the opinion that the cheshad is not avoda zara related but rather that he may be suspected of fashioning the image himself and transgressing “Lo Sasun”, Rabbi Falk20 argues that nowadays with mass production of dolls it would be far-fetched to suspect the owner of actually creating his personal Barbie with his own hands.
The Chasam Sofer (6:6) in regard to a Torah breastplate with protruding images of Moshe and Aharon on it, does not feel we have the right to be lenient based on this sevara and recommends chopping off the tip of the nose. However it would appear that Klal Yisrael relies upon this position at least in conjunction with the previous heterim. 21
Fixing a broken doll
A closer look at the Chochmas Adam will reveal that he only relied on this sevara regarding the rabbinic prohibition of shehiya but not for the Biblical prohibition of asiya. Therefore if a doll broke, fixing the doll or figurine would constitute asiya which is now a question of a d’oraysa. Poskim22 write that it is best to be stringent in this regard and not to repair it if it hasn’t been otherwise defaced. However if the arm is loose fitting and sticking it back into the socket is an easy fix, Rabbi Falk is lenient.
All these heterim notwithstanding, many many contemporary poskim are still stringent and recommend defacing a full figured three dimensional doll or figurine by chopping off the tip of the nose or ear in order to satisfy the rabbinic issue of cheshad. Among them is the Chazon Ish, Rabbi Shmuel Wosner, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein23, Rabbi Elyashiv and lehavdil bchl”ch Rabbi Nissim Karelitz24. They do not rely on the Chochmas Adam and many families indeed have a custom to be stringent. However, the above heterim are certainly a limud zechus on a large portion of Klal Yisrael who appear to have adopted the Chochmas Adam’s leniency.
How can you make a Golem?
The Sefer Sifsei Chachamim25 asks that in light of the above discussion how do we find instances of gedolim creating a golem? Wouldn’t that be the quintessential graven image of a human being?26 I sent this question to Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky shlit”a who in his inimitable fashion briefly responded with two words: “Nivra BaShem”, it was created via a Shem Kodesh.27 I asked the same question of Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky shlit”a who responded, you make assumptions and ask questions. “Who said the Golem was created with a nose?”
I must admit I had never thought of that. But if this Lo Sasun issue was holding me back from creating my own Golem, I am now far better equipped to move forward. Just lose the nose.
1 Avoda Zara 43
2 Yisro 20:20
3 Alternatively, he may be suspected of fashioning the image himself thus transgressing the D’oraysa of “Lo Sasun”
4 עיין ט”ז שם שמחמיר לכתחלה בענין עשיה שהוא מן התורה אף בשוקעת
5 ט”ז ס”ק י”ג ופתחי תשובה ס”ק ו’
6 אבל עיין ש”ך שסיים והמחמיר תבא עליו ברכה
7 ס”ק כ”ה
8 שאילת יעבץ סי’ ק”ע. עיי”ש שלומד שהרא”ש לא התיר אלא בראש גולם בלי חיתוך איברים כגון אף ואזניים
9 שו”ת להורות נתן ח”ג סי’ מ”ט
10 שו”ת שבט הלוי חלק ז סימן קלד
11 וכן פסק החוות דעת והג’ כנה”ג על הב”י
12 Based on this reasoning he even allows “asiya” which is on a d’oraysa level to occur. A Yid can manufacture dolls himself. A big chiddush inhalachah.
13 יביע אומר חלק ג – יורה דעה סימן ח
14 The Chasam Sofer had a similar application of this principle to destroy the sculpture immediately after his professors have seen his work, effectively turning it into a transitory impermanent image.
15 See also Ritv”a Avoda Zara 43
16 However this dispute focuses more on the issur asiya which is Biblical in nature. But the issur shehiya which is only rabbinic in nature because ofcheshad will be more open to the lenient opinion that a temporary degrading item will not engender cheshad.
17העמק שאלה סי’ נז אות ג
18 Other than the image of “that well known person and his disciples….”
19 The Ritva appears to say the same thing in A”Z 43b. But the Rem”a (141:3) and Shach clearly disagree.
20 Am Hatorah 3:5 page 49
21 See Az Nidbaru (8:59) who allowed the purchase and display of full life size mannequins in storefronts due to this Chochmas Adam.
22 Rabbi Wosner and Rabbi Nissim Karelitz
23 Am Hatorah 3:7 page 95
24 חוט השני
25 Rosh Hashana 24
26 It is interesting to note that although the sefer was printed in the late 1800’s, his examples of golem creators were Rava (Sanhedrin 65b) and the Chacham Tzvi’s ancestor as recorded by Rabbi Yaakov Emden. The Maharal’s famous Golem of Prague is mysteriously absent. I will allow the reader to arrive at his own conclusion what this glaring and telltale omission signifies.
27 It is unclear if he meant that it would not be included in the narrow definition of “Lo Sasun” similar to the grama leniency mentioned above or because a transgression resulting from a “davar seguli” , a supernatural action, is never prohibited. See discussion about this in Rabbi Chaim’s sefer Derech Emunah, (Hilchos Shmita 1:7).