Noahide Law on Idolatry

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The following text is based on Chaim Clorfene and Yakov Rogalsky's book "The Path of the Righteous Gentile"[1]

The essence of the Seven Universal Laws is the prohibition against idolatry. One who worships another deity besides the Creator denies the essence of religion and rejects the entirety of the Seven Universal Laws. But one who guards himself against idolatry demonstrates belief in God and affirms the entirety of the Seven Universal Laws.[2]

Definition of idolatry

The commandment prohibiting idolatry teaches that one should serve no created thing - no angel, no plant, no star, nothing of the four fundamentals, earth, water, fire, and air, nor anything that is formulated from them. Even if the worshiper knows that God is the Supreme Being and worships creation as a way of glorifying God’s greatness and His ability to create great beings and things, nevertheless this is idol worship.[3]

A person may ponder the heavenly spheres and observe that they do not die like other things and that it is therefore proper to bow down to them and serve them. To do this is to place them between oneself and the Creator. For although God may have assigned these celestial beings certain roles in the conduct of the world, nevertheless, man’s responsibilities are to God and not to God’s messengers. This, in fact, is how idolatry came to exist in the world. The generations that lived immediately after Adam recognized that God had created magnificent heavenly beings, the sun to rule by day and the moon to rule by night. And these people began to honor God’s exalted messengers. Soon it was forgotten that these messengers had been appointed by the Creator, and the sun and the moon began to be honored for their own greatness. This devolved to the worship of these creations as deities themselves without awareness of the God that had created them.[4]

Although there are opinions which state that the Children of Noah transgress the prohibition of idolatry from the moment they make an idol, the final law is that the transgression does not come into effect until a person actually worships or serves the idol.[5]

According to many authorities, a Noahide is not warned about the concept of “partnership with God.”[6] The concept of partnership is the acknowledgment of the existence of the God of Israel in combination with the belief in the possibility and existence of a deity (independent will) other than God. So long as ascribing power to a deity other than the Creator remains conceptual, it is permissible to the Children of Noah according to many authorities[7]. But worship of this independent being is clearly idolatry. The danger of the concept of partnership is that it frees people to act in accord with nonexistent gods and opens a doorway to actual idolatry. Most recent authorities agree that Children of Noah are forbidden to believe in a partnership. But even according to these, the Children of Noah are permitted to swear by the name of an idol in combination with God (to swear by the Lord of Hosts and a Hindu deity, for example).

The Children of Noah are not commanded to sanctify God’s Name by refusing to bow to an idol in the face of a threat to their lives.[8] And there is a dispute whether the Children of Noah are even allowed to choose to lay down their lives in this manner, since they are not commanded to do so.[9] However, since the Children of Noah may perform any of the 613 Commandments of the Torah to receive reward (with the notable exceptions found in the previous chapter), then it would follow that the Noahide may choose to lay down his life for the sanctification of God’s name rather than bow to an idol, even though not commanded to do so.

Many books have been written by idol worshipers concerning the nature of their idolatry, the service, procedures, and laws. One should not read these books at all, nor should one think about them nor speak of them. Even studying the formation of an idolatrous figure or asking how something is served without having the intention of serving it might cause one to be led to engage in idolatrous practices.[10]

Anyone who acknowledges that an idolatrous religion is true, even though he does not serve the idol, reviles the mighty and exalted Name of God.[11]

Serving an idol; making an idol

Many different types of idolatrous service exist and the service for one idol is not like the service of another.[12] For example, the idol Peor was served by man’s defecating before it. (Note: This came about in a degenerative way, similar to the growth of idolatry itself. Original worshipers of this idol attained such a state of ecstasy that they lost control of themselves and defecated. Their children saw the effect and, misunderstanding the cause, concluded that the worship was defecation. The lesson from this is still important today. That it “feels good” is no proof of a religion’s truth or validity.)

A person transgresses only when he worships the idol in the normal manner ascribed to each respective idol. Consequently, courts of law have to know the appropriate service for the idol in any case of idolatry.

The preceding law applies to unique forms of worship. If, however, the person bows down or offers sacrifices or incense or a libation (the four forms of service of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem) to any one of the idols, he incurs the death penalty even though this may not be the way of official worship.[13]

Food placed upon an altar as an offering to an idol is forbidden to be eaten.[14] There is a difference of opinion concerning foods unlikely to be offered to an idol, such as a grasshopper or a cockroach.[15]

Things such as water and salt, which are not normally in the category of offerings to an idol, are forbidden if they are found directly in front of an idol or within the curtains that surround the idol.

It is forbidden to honor an idol even by offering things to it outside the boundaries that surround the idol. This is considered decorating the idol. (Throwing coins at an idol or even into a pool of water by an idol, such as the oriental gods and demigods commonly seen today, would seem to be in the category of honoring an idol and symbolically ascribing powers to it. Otherwise, why throw the money, which is clearly an act of beseeching a power for returned good fortune?)

If something has been prepared to be offered to an idol, but has not yet been offered, it is permitted for personal use. One should be strict, however, and not use anything found in the house of idol worship. Therefore, one should never take candles from the place of idol worship.[16]

(Note: One should not purchase or use the sticks of incense sold by any of the idolatrous religions or pseudoreligious groups. For example, as most Hindu sects are pantheistic and idolatrous, incense and health foods purchased from such groups are questionable, for the foods themselves are likely to have been worshiped. In truth, any religious food discipline wherein the foods themselves or the combinations of the foods themselves are honored as curatives or wondrous in their health-giving properties may be idolatrous. Concerning the verse, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Deut. 8:3), we are taught that it is not the bread itself which nurtures the body of man and gives it strength but the Word of God, which is enclothed in the bread and gives the bread its existence.16 These letters, “the word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” not only give the bread its existence, but when ingested by man, nurture his physical body. Obviously the same is true of any food or herb or wonder drug that heals, it is merely the power of God within that food or herb or wonder drug that is the healing agent.)

If one offers an idol excrement or pours it a libation of urine, he transgresses, as this falls in the category of sprinkling, one of the four services in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.[17]

If someone slaughters an animal that is missing one of its limbs, he is held harmless unless such is this idol’s particular service.

If a man lifts a brick and says to it, “You are my god,” and any such similar speech, he is liable for idolatry. Even if he would retract immediately and say, “This is not my god,” his retraction is of no help. This does not mean that the person cannot repent. He surely can repent and God will forgive his idolatry. But if his speech was witnessed, he will be brought to trial and condemned as an idolator notwithstanding his retraction or his repentance. Repentance is good only between man and God. Jurists and courts of law lack the power to search a man’s heart to determine the sincerity of his repentance. This only God can do.[18]

One who worships an idol according to the prescribed ritual, even if he does it contemptuously, is liable. For example, if one defecates in front of Peor in order to disgrace the idol, since he performs the prescribed worship, he is liable.[19]

So long as a person accepts the idol as god, even if he worships it only because its workmanship is stunningly beautiful or because he fears that some evil will otherwise befall him, he is liable.[20]

If a person serves an idol in the manner of one of the four forms of service used in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem -prostrating, sacrificing, sprinkling sacrificial blood, pouring libations - and serves the idol with love and fear, but without accepting it as a god, he is held harmless. If he hugs it or kisses it or dusts it off or pours water on it to cleanse the dust off or anoints it or clothes it or does other things in order to honor it, these are in the category of prostrating oneself to it.

If a thorn gets stuck in a person’s foot while he is in front of an idol, he should not bend down to remove it, as it appears he is bowing down to the idol. This holds true even if there is no one around to observe the act. This is also true if he drops his money in front of the idol and wishes to pick it up. Rather, the person should first sit, then remove the thorn or pick up the money.[21] Or he should turn his back to the idol or turn aside from it before removing the thorn or picking up the money. And if for any reason a person has to remove his hat for a personal need, he should not remove it until he passes before the idol so that it does not appear as if he is removing it to pay respects to the idol.

(Note: There is an idolatrous group in Jerusalem that brings tourists to its house of worship. The door leading to the room where the idol is kept is extremely low so that anyone entering the room has to bend down to enter, thus forcing each tourist who enters to appear as if he or she were bowing to the idol.)

If there is statuary with faces that draw in or pour out water from the mouth of the statue, a person should not drink from this water by placing his mouth to the statue’s mouth as it would appear as if he is kissing it.[22]

One is forbidden to commission a craftsman to make an idol for himself even if he does not intend to serve it. Also it is forbidden to make an idol with one’s own hands even if the idol is meant for someone else and one does not intend to serve it. All the more so, it is forbidden to make an idol with one’s own hands for oneself.[23] (Note: We are given permission to use force, if necessary, to prevent such activities.)

It is forbidden to make figures or images for ornamental purposes, even though they are not idols; that is, one should not make images of gold or silver that are merely for artistic purposes because he might cause others to mistake them for idols. This prohibition pertains to forms with human characteristics in three-dimensional relief. Though forbidden, such actions do not warrant capital punishment.[24]

An image that is concave rather than in relief, or two-dimensional such as paintings or woven tapestry, is permitted.

It is forbidden to wear a ring that has a seal on it in the image of a man (a cameo) if the image protrudes in relief, but it may be used as a seal. If the image is concave, it may be worn, but it is forbidden to use it as a seal (because the seal creates an image in relief).[25]

It is forbidden to form images of the sun or moon or stars or constellations or of the angels or of the four faces (in one form) of the Chariot that Ezekial saw, as it is forbidden to make images of the ministering angels that serve God. Such figures may not even be made in two-dimensional form.

According to other opinions, it is forbidden to make forms of the angels and the Chariot only in three-dimensional form (relief). Drawing them on canvas or weaving these images on cloth or painting them on stone would be permitted since this form of expression is not three dimensionial.[26] However, even this latter lenient opinion forbids the drawing of the sun, moon, or stars (in their complete form) in a two-dimensional drawing because they appear to us two-dimensionally in the sky. [27]

Concerning a sculpture of man, some say the face by itself is forbidden. Others say that sculpture becomes forbidden only if the whole face is made with its body. According to this second opinion, making a human body with its face is permitted as long as one does not make the complete body, but only a portion of it. However, it is proper to follow the stricter first opinion[28] (even if the sculpture is made just for beauty).

It is not forbidden to keep or physically hold the image of a man unless it is distinctly the image of one worshiped as a god. Any other human image may be kept or held, so long as the image is slightly distorted or damaged, such as by chipping the nose, to dispel any suspicion of its being an idolatrous form. This act of damaging is called nullifying the idol.[29]

It is permitted to make statuary of trees and of wild or domestic animals, even of animals which are symbols in astrology, such as the lion, ram, or bull. One may make the full form of these figures and retain them in his possession. However, one may not make one form of all twelve astrological symbols together.[30]

There is a further opinion forbidding all three-dimensional forms, whether they are in relief or concave. This opinion forbids making such forms in order to keep them in one’s possession. It is proper to heed this opinion.[31]

One should never gaze at three-dimensional images of man. Such acts of gazing are spiritually damaging. But images upon a ring, since they are commonly found without idolatrous connotations, may be gazed upon.[32]

The three chief idolatrous images in the world are:

  • The dragon, which is a derivative of the primordial serpent.[33]
  • A full figure of a man offering the beholder something from the palm of his hand.[34] (This image is commonly found today in front of certain churches.)[35]
  • A woman nursing an infant. This is the idolatrous perversion of Eve, the mother of all mankind. It became the symbol of the queen of heaven and is an image that still pervades numerous cultures and religions.[36]

Convincing others to serve an idol; false prophets

There is a difference of opinion whether the Children of Noah transgress the commandment of idolatry by convincing someone else to worship an idol. One opinion states that the Children of Noah do not transgress this commandment by leading others to serve an idol. The other opinion states that one is liable for the death penalty, but only if he leads a Jew away from the worship of the God of Israel and convinces him or her to serve an idol. If, however, one Noahide convinces another Noahide to serve an idol, he is not liable for punishment in a court of law, but since he has denied himself and the other person the opportunity of being close to God, he is punished from Heaven. [37]

If a person says, “The idol said to me, `Worship!”‘ or he says, “God said to me, `Worship the idol,”‘ he is a false prophet. If he influences a majority of a city, he is stoned.[38]

A seducer is equally liable whether he uses singular or plural expressions in his seduction. For example, if he says, “I will go and worship the idol,” or, “Let us go and worship this idol,” he is a seducer.

One who convinces others to worship him as an idol and says to them, “Serve me,” and they worship him, he is stoned to death. If they accept him as their god but do not serve him, he is not stoned.[39]

If a prophet prophesies in the name of an idol - if he says for instance, “This particular idol or this particular star said to me that it is an obligation to do such-and-such or not to do such-and-such,” - even if his words teach the law correctly, he is subject to the death penalty for idolatry.[40]

It is forbidden to establish a law or to refute a law by the authority of someone who prophesies in the name of an idol, nor do we ask him to produce a sign or a miracle. If he does so on his own, we pay no attention to it nor do we reflect about it. Anyone who thinks about these miracles and says, “Perhaps they are true,” transgresses a law.[41] Even if he were to walk on the water or raise the dead, we are to pay no attention to these acts. Such miracles are a test of our faith in God.

Similarly, a false prophet is killed by strangulation even if he prophesies in the name of God and teaches the Seven Universal Laws correctly, neither adding nor subtracting from their true meaning.

One who prophesies words that he did not hear in a prophetic vision or one who hears the words of a true prophet and says that they were received by him and he prophesies concerning these words, is a false prophet.[42]

One who holds himself back from killing a false prophet is a transgressor. And it matters not whether he fears to act because of the false prophet’s exalted position, or because he is fearful of the false prophet’s words.[43]

(All false prophets, their disciples, and other idolatrous practitioners instill fear in the hearts of their victims, usually by threats of eternal damnation, hellfire, or other similar terrors. One can strengthen his heart against these threats by remembering that God is All-Merciful and rewards and punishes according to a person’s deeds, and that even His punishments come as correction and purification of the soul. As King David wrote, “Do not place your trust in benefactors, nor in the son of man in whom there is no salvation. Fortunate is he whose helper is the God of Jacob, whose hope rests upon the Lord his God” (Ps. 146:3,5).

A man should not use an idol or a house of idolatry as a signpost, such as telling his friend, “Meet me at the side of this particular house of idolatry.”[44]

The idolatrous pillar; benefiting or profiting from idols

A pillar that serves as a central point of worship for gatherings of people is called a matzeva, a forbidden pillar. It is forbidden even if the people come to it in order to worship God, for this was the way of the ancient idolaters. (The Kaaba stone in Mecca is just such a forbidden pillar. And the concept of the forbidden pillar is still with us today in full fashion. The book and film, 2001: A Space Odyssey were written in praise of the powers of the idolatrous pillar.) Anyone who erects such a pillar performs a forbidden act, but is not killed for it.[45]

A stone floor with figures carved on it to attract the eye is called a figured stone and is forbidden. Even if one bows down on it with the intention of honoring God, he performs a forbidden act, for this was the way of the idolator, but he is not killed for it. The way of idol worship was to lay a stone floor such as this before the idol. All stood on the figured stone floor, then bowed before the idol. Therefore, one should not employ a similar practice concerning the worship of God.

The previous law applies in all places but the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, where it is permissible to bow down to God upon a stone floor.[46]

One who bows down on a figured stone floor does not transgress unless he bows in total prostration, spreading his arms and legs. But if he bows to an actual idol (if the figured stone was only a floor placed before an idol), whether he bows down in complete prostration or merely bows from the waist, he transgresses the prohibition against idolatry and is killed for it.[47]

It is commanded to destroy all idols and all things used in serving them and everything that is made because of them, and in the Land of Israel it is commanded to pursue the idol until it is destroyed and driven completely from the land.[48]

It is forbidden to derive pleasure or benefit from actual idols and all items needed for their service or sacrifices (wine, meat, or incense) and all that may be made to beautify them (candles or cloths that are spread out for their honor). Anyone who benefits from any of these transgresses but is not killed for it.[49]

One is forbidden any benefit or usage from an animal that has been offered to an idol, including the animal’s excrement, its bones, its horns, hooves or skin. Therefore, if there is a skin with a mark on it that indicates this skin was offered to an idol, such as a round hole torn opposite the heart of the animal, this skin is forbidden for use in any way.[50]

The difference between an idol belonging to a Noahide and the idol of an Israelite is that the former is forbidden immediately after its making is completed even though it has not yet been served. A Noahide’s idol becomes a god from the moment it exists as a graven image. The idol of an Israelite is not forbidden until it is served.[51]

A Noahide who inherits an idol from his idolatrous father should cast it into the sea.[52]

Figures and images that are made for artistic purposes and not idolatry are permitted for pleasure or profit. Those that appear to have been made for idolatry are forbidden. A statue that holds a staff or a bird or a globe or a sword or a crown and a ring in its hand is presumed to be an idol and it is forbidden for any use (these are all symbols of rulership - the staff because he rules over the world, a bird because it flies above all and its eyes gaze down upon all, a ball because it represents the globe of the earth which he holds in his hand, etc.). Otherwise, it is presumed to be of artistic beauty only and is permitted.[53]

Crosses that are publicly displayed are in the category of idols since people give honor to them, remove their hats before them, and bow down or genuflect to them. However, the cross that hangs around a person’s neck is considered a memorial and is permitted. Other personal uses like dangling the cross from the rear view mirror of an automobile are also permitted.[54]

However, priests who have crosses in their vestments or around the neck represent something very different from the cross of a person who wears it as a memorial, since the priest stands as a figure of religious authority. Therefore, one must never bow to such priests nor remove the hat in front of them nor do anything that may give the appearance that one worships the cross worn by a priest. If one bows or removes a hat as a gesture of giving honor to God, it must be discreetly away from the presence of such a cross, and preferably prior to the priest’s appearance. If it is in a place and a sect where it is known that these worshipers do not bow down to their images, but rather to the honor of the priests that wear them, then one can be lenient to avoid offending these priests. But where it is known that the people bow down to their statues and crosses in a manner that would clearly appear idolatrous, one must be strict and avoid this.

One need not be strict about the wearing of a medal around the neck for luck when traveling or the like, since the image on the medal is not worshiped.

If one finds vessels such as jewelry or expensive fabrics with images on them, if it is known that these images were made in the name of idol worship such as those found in India and Southeast Asia, they are certainly forbidden. But if one is not sure what the images were made for, or if they are found on nonprecious vessels, such as crude vessels used for water or other foods, they are not forbidden.[55]

Today, people are not so attached to their idols, even to the images that they serve, such as the cross or a nursing mother with her child. Because of this, if a vessel is found in Western lands, it can be assumed that the images are for beauty or a memorial and not for idolatry. Thus the vessel would be permitted for use, but it is better not to keep it in one’s possession as it might convey the impression that the owner is an idolater.

It is idolatry to consume a food or a drink with the idea that it is the substance of a god and that the person consuming them is therefore assimilating the substance of the god into his own being. (Note: The Children of Noah have historically fallen into idolatrous practices because of a lack of discernment between Elokah and Elokut, God and Godliness. One can say that all of creation is Godly because it all contains God’s life force, but to say that anything of creation is God is idolatry.)

It is forbidden to use vessels one finds, upon which appear the figure of a sun or a moon or a dragon, if the vessel is of gold or silver. Similarly if one finds a cloth of silk with scarlet color or rings or earrings with these figures on them, they are forbidden.[56]

If one finds these images on other less precious articles, they are permissible because they are presumed to have been made for artistic purposes and to be merely ornamental.

Idols and other articles used for their service cause other objects that they become mixed up with to be forbidden, even if the idolatrous articles are but a small factor in the number of objects. For example: if an idol is mixed in with ornamental figures, even if the idol is but one in a thousand of the figures, everything is forbidden and must be thrown into the Dead Sea or similar water where the metal will corrode or be lost.[57]

If a person finds money or vessels on the head of an idol, if the items appear to be placed there as an expression of contempt, they are permissible for use. For example: a purse found hanging on the neck of the idol, a cloth draped over its head, a vessel turned upside down and placed on top of its head - all these are permissible. These items were obviously placed there to disgrace the idol, and so it is with anything similar to this.[58] (Of course, if these objects appear to be there to honor the idol, they are forbidden.)

If there is a garden or pool with an ornamental idol in it, one may use either so long as it is not expressly for the benefit of the idol’s priests. But if it is for the priests, it is forbidden for use.[59]

If the garden or pool are there for the idol and for the general populace, even if the priests use it as well, one may use it so long as no fee is paid.

It is forbidden to trade in a store from which profits are used for the upkeep of an idol. However, if the profits are collected by the government and they in turn support the upkeep of the idol, then it is permissible to trade in the store.[60]

If those engaged in the upkeep of idols collect taxes for the needs of the idols, it is forbidden to pay them any taxes. However, if the profits first go to the government, which in turn dispenses money for the upkeep of idols, it is permissible to pay them taxes.

Bread that is given to idolatrous priests is permissible because this bread is not offered to the idol but is the priests’ portion.[61]

Wax candles that were lit before an idol for ornamentation are forbidden even after they were extinguished because the intention may have been to relight them. But if they were extinguished without the intention of relighting, they may be used. However, even if the candles were knowingly extinguished without the intention of relighting them, they may not be used in any way for the honor of God or to fulfill a commandment, such as to illuminate a house of worship or to have light to study the Seven Laws of Noah.[62]

Things remaining permissible despite an involvement with idolatry; idolatrous trees; nullification of idols

Anything that cannot be handled by man or made by man, even though it is worshiped, is permissible for use. Therefore, even if idolaters worship mountains or hills, trees that grow naturally or were planted for fruit (excluding those planted originally for idolatrous reasons), public streams (a private stream may have been dug for idolatrous reasons and may therefore be forbidden), or animals, all are permissible for use. And it is permissible to eat fruit that was worshiped so long as it remains in a state of natural growth, attached to the tree or bush, and it is permissible to eat worshiped animals. An animal that is designated for use in idolatry as an offering, prior to its being offered, may be used or eaten. But once the animal is used for the idol, even in the slightest way, it becomes forbidden. For example, if the animal has been slaughtered for idolatry or has been exchanged for an idol or has been exchanged for something that has been exchanged for an idol, it is forbidden, as it is now monetarily equivalent to an idol.[63]

In the above situation, it is assumed that a person’s own animal is used for idolatry; but when a person takes another’s animal without permission and slaughters it for idolatry or exchanges it, it remains permissible for use. A person cannot cause anything to become forbidden which is not his own.

If one bows down to the earth in its natural state, the ground to which he bows does not become forbidden, but if he digs pits, ditches, or caves in the name of idolatry, this ground becomes forbidden.

If a person bows down to water which has been displaced from its natural state by a wave washing it into a ditch or the like, it is not forbidden water. But if he takes the water in his hand and bows down to it, it becomes forbidden.[64]

Rocks of a mountain that a person worships are permissible so long as they remain in their natural place, but if they are handled and moved, then worshiped, they become forbidden.

If a person erected a pillar or even set up a brick with the intention of worshiping it, but he did not worship it, then other idolaters came along and worshiped it, it is forbidden, as this is considered an idolatrous pillar.[65]

A tree planted in order that it may be worshiped as an idol is forbidden. Equally forbidden are its branches, fruit, shade and anything that might give one some kind of benefit. This tree is called an asherah, and is specifically mentioned in the Torah (Deut. 16:21).

If a tree is bowed to, although its trunk is permissible, all the shoots and fruit and branches and leaves that come forth during the time that it is worshiped are forbidden.

If idolaters watched the fruit of a tree and said that the fruit is there for them to make a drink for an idolatrous temple, and they made the drink and drank it on the day of their festival, this tree is forbidden. It is considered that they planted it for idolatry in the first place and this is why its fruit was used.

If an idol stands underneath a tree, so long as it is there, the tree is forbidden. It is considered an accessory to idol worship and any pleasure from this tree, even its shade, is forbidden. If the idol is removed, the tree becomes permissible, for the tree itself was never served as an idol.[66]

If a house was not made or served as an idol, but was renovated, plastered, and decorated with images that were inlaid or carved in relief in the name of an idol, one should remove the renovations. They are forbidden because they were made to serve an idol. Then the rest of the house is permissible for use.

If one brings idols into a house, for as long as they are there the house is forbidden for use, as it is considered an accessory to idol worship. Once the idols are removed in a way that indicates a nullification of the house’s use as an accessory to them, the house becomes permissible. If the idols were brought there by an idolatrous Noahide, and an Israelite removes them from the house, this does not represent a nullification, because it may be construed that the Noahide wishes the idols to remain, but the Israelite did not. Therefore, just as a Noahide brought the idols into the house, a Noahide must take the idols out of the house in order for it to be considered a nullification of the house’s status as an accessory to idol worship.[67]

One may not use a forbidden house in any way. One may not enter it or sit in its shade. However, it is permissible to pass through its shadows.[68]

It is also advised that one should distance oneself at least eight feet from the entrance of a house of idol worship.

It is forbidden to listen to the music, smell the fragrance, or gaze at the ornaments of idolatrous worship. All the more so, one is forbidden to gaze at the idol itself.

If one must walk near a place of idol worship, he should cover his eyes, stop up his ears, and hold his nose to avoid having any sensory benefit from the idolatry. Even if the person has no intention of taking pleasure from these sights, sounds, and smells, he is still bound to conduct himself in the manner described, since he will certainly receive some pleasure from them if he does not so act. And one is obligated to be cautious even in a situation where there are no alternative routes.

If an idol rests on a stone, the stone is forbidden for use for as long as the idol is there. When it is removed, the stone is permissible for use.[69]

If one has a house with a common wall to a house of idol worship and his house falls, he should not rebuild it as it was, but build it completely within his own property so that he shares no wall with the idolatrous house. The space that remains between his house and the house of idolatry he should fill with thorns or fertilizer in order that the house of idolatry not be enlarged to encroach on his territory. If he has a common wall to an idolatrous house, he should measure the thickness of the wall and the closer half of the wall is his and the other half of the wall belongs to the idolatrous house. The stone or wood or dirt from that other half is forbidden for any use.

The proper manner of destroying an idol and all the articles that are forbidden because of it is to grind them to powder and scatter them to the wind, or they should be burned and dumped into the Dead Sea or a similar body of water to corrode or be forever lost.[70]

An idolatrous figure is nullified by chopping off the tip of the nose or the tip of the ear or the tip of the finger or by hammering in a portion of its face (even though no material is lost) or by selling the figure to a Jew who smelts metal. All these constitute nullification.[71] Once nullified, the figure is permissible to own and use.[72]

An idol or any accessory to an idol, if it is nullified as an idol, becomes permissible for use. But anything that is offered up to the idol remains forbidden forever, and nullification is of no help.[73] (Nullification must be performed by the one who worshiped the idol. If one who did not worship the idol nullifies it, the act accomplishes nothing.)[74]

An idol worshiped by Jews can never be nullified, even if a Noahide owned it in partnership with a Jew. It is forbidden forever and must be destroyed. Similarly, if the idol of a Noahide comes into the hand of a Jew and afterward the Noahide nullifies it, his nullification is of no help at all. It is forbidden forever.

An Israelite cannot nullify the idol of a Noahide, even if it is in the domain of the Noahide and the latter gave the Jew permission to nullify it. Only a Noahide can nullify his own idol.

A minor or a fool cannot nullify an idol.

The nullification of an idol automatically nullifies its accessories. But if only the accessories were nullified, although they are permissible for use, the idol itself remains forbidden.

Vessels that an idolatrous priest holds in his hand, such as a goblet, an incense tray, or a recorder or other musical instrument, are considered accessories and require nullification.[75]

If the idolatrous figure is given as collateral or sold to a Noahide or to an Israelite who does not smelt it, or if it falls onto a garbage pile and is not cleaned away, or it was stolen by robbers and the articles were not reclaimed, or if one spat in front of it or urinated in front of it or one dragged it on the ground or threw it into excrement, it is still forbidden as these do not constitute nullification.[76]

If the worshipers abandoned an idol and it is a time of peace, it is permissible for use (as a nutcracker, etc.) because it is considered nullified (since they did not take it with them, it shows that they no longer value it). But if it is a time of war, it is forbidden because it is assumed they abandoned it only because of the war.[77]

If an idol broke in half by itself or by accident, the broken pieces are forbidden until they are nullified. Therefore, if one finds broken pieces of an idol, they are forbidden for use because it is possible its worshipers did not nullify it.

If the idol was made in pieces that fit together so that the average person could reassemble it, one has to nullify each separate piece. If the idol cannot be reassembled, only one limb need be nullified.

An idol’s altar that becomes damaged is still forbidden for use or for any gain or benefit until the major portion of it has been smashed by the idolaters.[78]

Ghosts and spirits; witchcraft; divination; astrology; charmers; necromancers

One who consorts with ghosts or raises spirits to know hidden things or to know the future, and who does it of his own free will and intentionally, is liable for idolatry.[79] (A Noahide is permanently warned about these things, so that he can never claim that he did not know the law.)

If a person stands and burns incense and waves a myrtle branch in his hand and speaks whispered words to summon a being, then hears the summoned being speak to him, and if the being answers what it is asked in words that are below the earth in a very deep voice that is not recognized by the ear but felt in the thoughts; and if the practitioner takes the skull of a dead person and offers incense to it and uses arts of divination with whispers and various other rituals to the skull until he hears a low voice proceeding forth from under his armpit - all these acts come under the category of raising ghosts, and the practitioner is killed for doing them.

If a person places the bone of a certain bird or other kind of creature in his mouth and offers incense and performs other rituals until he falls to the ground like one stricken with an epileptic seizure, and if he speaks while in this trance things that will happen in the future, this is a form of idolatry and he is killed for it.[80]

It is a matter of dispute whether a Noahide is forbidden to perform acts of witchcraft.[81] If the final law is according to those who forbid it,[82] the wizard or witch is found guilty and given the penalty of death by stoning.

(Note: Inasmuch as such practices attach the practitioner to evil spiritual forces, they are harmful to his soul. As for those who proclaim that there is no such thing today as real witchcraft - and they are the same ones who say there is no such thing today as real idolatry - these people are ignorant and naive. Witchcraft as well as idol worship exist in the most complete meaning of the terms. Voodoo rites and satanic covens are flourishing today in England, the United States, Japan and throughout the rest of the world just as they did in ancient Egypt. We can even bear witness to a popular force in contemporary music; certain rock-and-roll groups that have declared themselves agents and disciples of Satan. Teenagers and adults by the tens of millions have naively become enamored with these groups and their philosophies, which advocate sexual perversion and often physical cruelty. In effect, the fans of these rock groups are disciples of disciples of the satanic forces. Even though the dark side powers “cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good” (Jer. 10:5), nevertheless one is well advised to avoid them, lest he give them power by acknowledging them. The protection against these negative rites and their results is to remember that evil as well as good come solely from God, the Master of all forces, and He brings evil forth in order to bestow free will to man so he can earn either reward or punishment.)

There is also a dispute concerning the permissibility of divination, the act of interpreting signs. Some authorities hold that it is forbidden and idolatrous, while others contend that it is permissible and even meritorious, approaching the level of prophecy, and that great and holy sages engaged in such practices.[83]

How does one engage in divination? For example, one might say, “Since my bread fell from my mouth or my staff fell from my hand, I will not go to a certain place today, because if I go today, my needs will not be done,” or, “Since a fox passed on my right side, I will not go out of my house today, for if I do, a sneaky individual will meet me and trick me.”[84]

Similarly, those who hear a bird calling and say, “It will be thus and it will not be thus,” or, “It will be good to do thus and it will not be good to do thus,” are engaging in divination.

Also, if a person proposes conditions, saying, “If such-and-such happens to me, I will do such-and-such, but if it does not happen to me, I will not do it,” he is performing an act of divination.

Everything that is similar to the foregoing is divination. But even according to the opinion that considers it forbidden, divination is not punishable by the courts.

Certain interpretations of signs are considered permissible by all, however. It is not wrong to say, “This house that I built has been a good-luck sign from the moment I built it,” or, “My wife has been a blessing, for from the moment I married her, I started becoming wealthy,” or, “This animal that I acquired has brought me luck, for from the moment I got it, I started becoming wealthy.”[85]

And similarly, if someone asks a child, “What verse did you learn?” if the child tells him something that indicates a blessing, and the person becomes happy and says, “This is a good sign,” he does no wrong.

The difference of opinion occurs only when a person determines future actions by the interpretations of signs. A person who merely acknowledges a sign for something that already occurred is not practicing divination. There is another opinion that permits the interpreting of a sign to determine future action if the specific sign has proven successful three times in the past.

What is magic? It is engaging in exercises or disciplines that bring one to a euphoric state or that interrupt normal thought processes in order to proclaim future events. One might say, “Thus-and-so will happen in the future or it will not happen,” or he might say, “It is advisable to be careful of thus-and-so.”[86]

There are those who engage in magic who use a stone or sand, and there are those who bend down toward the earth and move around and emit screams. There are those who look into a brass mirror or a crystal ball, then predict the future to one who is seeking this knowledge. There are those who lift a staff in their hands and lean on it and strike it until they augment their thought processes so as to be able to speak about the future.

(Note: Many cities abound today with practitioners of these rites, which include palmistry, tarot cards, phrenology, and many other similar practices. Many practitioners have established businesses and advertise their services freely. To avail oneself of such practices is an act of faith in powers other than God’s. What little gain might come from going to such practitioners will certainly be more than offset by one’s separation from God because of involvement with these negative influences.)

Moreover, one who uses illusion to captivate the spectators by showing them things that are not in the natural order of things, and who makes it appear to the spectators that the illusionist did a miraculous deed, he is in this category, and such actions are forbidden as they lead to idolatrous practices.[87]

It is forbidden to practice magic or to consult one who practices magic, but the courts do not punish for the practice of magic or for consulting a practitioner of magic.[88] (One must be reminded that in all instances of transgression that are outside the jurisdiction of the courts, the transgressor is punished by the hand of Heaven.)

It is forbidden to be an astrological observer of the times. What is an observer of times? It is one who gives certain times that, according to astrology, indicate that such a day is good and such a day is bad, such a day is proper to do thus-and-so and on such a day one should not do thus-and-so, or such a year or such a month is bad for such a thing.[89]

Astrological forecasts are in a different category from using astrology to understand a person’s characteristics and natural tendencies, the latter being a permissible practice.

Observing of times is forbidden even if the observer of times does not perform any action but merely conveys falsehoods to gullible people and convinces them that these are words of truth and contain wisdom. All who conduct themselves and their activities because of astrological forecasts, working at a certain time or traveling at a certain time determined by the astrologers, transgress the law, but the courts do not punish them for this.[90]

What is a charmer? This is one who speaks words that are not of the language of people and have no essence nor understanding. None of the vulgar sounds or words or spoken names of the charmer contain the power to cause harm, nor do they do any good at all. But gullible people accept such things to the point where they will believe a charmer when he says, “If you will say such-and-such to a poisonous snake, it can do you no harm,” or, “If a person has such-and-such said to him, he is protected from harm.”[91]

The charmer might hold a key or a stone or any object while he says his nonsensical things. Anything similar to this is in the category of dealing in charms, and both the charmer and the one subjecting himself to the charmer transgress the law, but neither are punished by the courts.

If a person was bitten by a poisonous snake or stung by a scorpion, he is permitted to whisper any kind of spell he chooses over the place of the wound if he thinks it will help. This is just so the person, who is in mortal danger, can put his mind at ease and take courage. And even though what he says will certainly not help at all, since he is in danger, he is allowed to do it to avoid panicking.[92]

One who whispers spells over another’s wound or reads verses from the Torah over someone who is sick or dying, or similarly one who reads verses over a child to prevent the child from becoming fearful, is worse than one who is in the category of a diviner or a charmer, because by using the Holy Scriptures like this to cure the body, he denies the truth of the Torah, which comes as a cure for the soul. But if one studies appropriate parts of the Torah or reads Psalms in order that the merit of reading them should protect him and save him from danger and harm, this is permissible.[93] (Of course, it is best to pray to God for protection and healing of every kind.)

What is a necromancer? This is one who starves himself and sleeps overnight in a cemetery in order to bring the dead to him in a dream to inform him of something.[94]

There are also those who wear certain clothing and speak incantations and offer incense and sleep alone in order to bring a specific dead person to come and speak to them in a dream.

In general, all who do various rites in order to summon the dead so as to learn information are in the category of necromancers and they transgress the law, but they are not punished by the courts for it.

It is forbidden to consult one who raises ghosts or spirits, because these practitioners are liable to the death penalty. One who consults with these practitioners but does not do the rituals transgresses, but he is not punished by the courts.[95]

One who does not practice real witchcraft but merely uses sleight of hand or other illusions to fool onlookers transgresses the law but is not punished by the courts for it. It is, however, a serious matter, as such illusions are found in true witchcraft.[96] (But witchcraft is definitely not an illusion. If it were, why would one performing it be subject to the death penalty? Witchcraft is a receptacle for the impure husks that surround holiness and divert it from its true purpose.)

All the foregoing are acts of deception and are false things, and through them the idolater deceives the people of the world in order to gain a following. (Note: Without a single exception, the numerous cults, pseudoreligions, false messiahs, and demigods that are prevalent in the world today employ idolatrous practices to achieve spiritual power. Like the false prophets, they all use spritual threats concomitant with their promises of salvation. Those who take refuge in these deceivers and find goodness in them, be warned: evil seldom announces itself as evil, otherwise all but a very few would avoid it. Evil almost always announces itself as good and beneficial and always mixes truth and goodness with its destructive lies. Herein lies its power.) But all who are wise and possess true knowledge know by clear proofs that all these idolatrous practices are empty and vain and contain no value at all. Those who are drawn to such things lack understanding and depart from the way of truth.[97] Because of this, the Torah instructs everyone concerning these foolish vanities, “Be wholehearted with the Lord your God” (Deut. 18:13), meaning that people should put their trust in God and know that everything that comes to them comes from Him.[98]


  1. Clorfene, Chaim and Yaakov Rogalsky The Path of the Righteous Gentile: An Introduction to the Seven Laws of the Children of Noah. New York: Phillip Feldheim, 1987
  2. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry, chapter 2, law 4
  3. Ibid., chapter 2, law 1
  4. Ibid., chapter 1, law 1
  5. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 56b; Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, chapter 9, law 2
  6. Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim, chapter 156, law 1
  7. Nodah B’Yehudah, volume 2, Yoreh Deah, number 148
  8. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, chapter 10, law 2
  9. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 74b and 75a; Tosefos on 75a
  10. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry, chapter 2, law 2
  11. Ibid., chapter 2, law 6
  12. Ibid., chapter 3, law 2
  13. Ibid., chapter 3, law 3
  14. Chochmat Adam, Laws of Idolatry, chapter 84, law 6
  15. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry, chapter 3, law 4
  16. Ibid. 16 Torah Or, Beshallach, 65b, column 4
  17. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry, chapter 3, law 4
  18. Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 13b, commentary of Rashi, “Rabbi Akiva says that you are cut off.”
  19. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry, chapter 3, law 5
  20. Ibid., chapter 3, law 6
  21. Ibid., chapter 3, law 7
  22. Chochmat Adam, Laws of Idolatry, chapter 87, law 8
  23. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry, chapter 23, law 9
  24. Ibid., chapter 3, law 10
  25. Ibid., chapter 3, law 11
  26. Chochmat Adam, Laws of Idolatry, chapter 85, law 3
  27. Ibid., chapter 85; law 5
  28. Ibid., chapter 85, law 4
  29. Ibid., chapter 85, law 6
  30. Ibid., chapter 85, law 7
  31. Ibid., chapter 85, law 8
  32. Ibid., chapter 85, law 9
  33. Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 42b
  34. Ibid., 41a
  35. Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah, chapter 141, law 1, Shach note 4
  36. Chochmat Adam, Laws of Idolatry, chapter 85, law 2
  37. S’dei Chemed, Peat HaSadeh, The Set Category Gimel, section 6, note 26
  38. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry, chapter 5, law 2
  39. Ibid., chapter 5, law 5
  40. Ibid., chapter 5, law 6
  41. Ibid., chapter 5, law 7
  42. Ibid., chapter 5, law 8
  43. Ibid., chapter 5, law 9
  44. Ibid., chapter 5, law 11
  45. Ibid., chapter 6, law 6
  46. Ibid., chapter 6, law 7
  47. Ibid., chapter 6, law 6
  48. Ibid., chapter 7, law 1
  49. Ibid., chapter 7, law 2
  50. Ibid., chapter 7, law 3
  51. Ibid., chapter 7, law 4
  52. Ibid., chapter 7, law 5
  53. Ibid., chapter 7, law 6
  54. Chochmat Adam, Laws of Idolatry, chapter 85, law 1
  55. Ibid., chapter 85, law 2
  56. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry, chapter 7, law 8
  57. Ibid., chapter 7, law 9
  58. Ibid., chapter 7, law 16
  59. Ibid., chapter 7, law 17
  60. Chochmat Adam, Laws of Idolatry, chapter 86, law 3
  61. Ibid., chapter 84, law 9
  62. Ibid., chapter 84, law 10
  63. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry, chapter 8, law 1
  64. Ibid., chapter 8, law. 2
  65. Ibid., chapter 8, law 3
  66. Ibid., chapter 8, law 4
  67. Chochmat Adam, Laws of Idolatry, chapter 84, law 15
  68. Ibid., chapter 84, law 16
  69. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry, chapter 8, law 5
  70. Ibid., chapter 8, law 6
  71. Ibid., chapter 8, law 10
  72. Ibid., chapter 8, law 8
  73. Chochmat Adam, Laws of Idolatry; chapter 84, law 5
  74. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry, chapter 8, law 9
  75. Chochmat Adam, Laws of Idolatry, chapter 84, law 12
  76. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry, chapter 8, law 10
  77. Ibid., Laws of Idolatry, chapter 8, law 11
  78. Ibid., chapter 8, law 12
  79. Ibid., chapter 6, law 1
  80. Ibid., chapter 6, law 2
  81. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 56b, commentary of the Meiri; Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry, chapter 11, law 4
  82. Ibid., see Raavad’s commentary on this law in the Mishneh Torah
  83. Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, chapter 166, law 2
  84. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry, chapter 11, law 4
  85. Ibid., chapter 11, law 5 (see Raavad’s commentary on this law)
  86. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry, chapter 11, law 6
  87. Ibid., chapter 11, law 9
  88. Ibid., chapter 11, law 7
  89. Ibid., chapter 11, law 8
  90. Ibid., chapter 11, law 9
  91. Ibid., chapter 11, law 10
  92. Ibid., chapter 11, law 11
  93. Ibid., chapter 11, law 12
  94. Ibid., chapter 11, law 13
  95. Ibid.; chapter 11, law 14
  96. Ibid., chapter 11, law 15
  97. Ibid., chapter 11, law 16
  98. Deut. 18:13, commentary of Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir)