Back to Blogs

From Parsha to Halakha Behar: Bowing down on carved stone

Iyar 5784 | May 2024

The incongruous conclusion

The concluding verses of Parshat Behar seem incongruous to the rest of the parsha, which focuses on the laws of Yovel:[1]

“You shall not make idols for yourselves, or establish for yourselves carved images or pillars, and you shall not place evven maskit (carved stones) to bow down upon in your land, for I am the Eternal your God. Observe My Shabbatot and revere My Mikdash (Temple), for I am the Eternal.”[2]

The Shabbatot mentioned may be related if they refer to the Sabbatical years, but why bring up prohibited foreign worship and the command to revere the Mikdash? Aside from this general question of context the meaning of the term “evven maskit” is also unclear, as is the prohibition against putting an “evven maskit to bow down upon in your land.” Both the type of stone (evven) and its purpose are debated.

As opposed to the other forms of foreign worship mentioned in this verse, the prohibition against an evven maskit is unique to this verse. “Maskit” is mentioned in Bamidbar among forms of foreign worship that we must destroy: “you shall destroy ‘maskiyotam (their maskit).’”

A beraita quoted in Tractate Megilla quotes the prohibition in Behar and paraphrases: “You do not bow down upon ‘it’ in your land, but you do bow down on the stones of the Mikdash.” The gemara adds two qualifications by Ulla – this prohibition is against bowing on “evven maskit” outside the Mikdash and refers to the type of bowing done in the Mikdash – fully prostrated with splayed arms and legs.[3]

Accordingly, this gemara teaches that the prohibition against prostration on an evven maskit is specifically outside the Mikdash, “in your land.” This makes it seem like the type of stone is not the issue, it’s the location. Is bowing on an evven maskit in the Mikdash permitted?

That depends on the interpretation of evven maskit.

Evven Maskit

Onkelos translates evven maskit as a “bowing stone” (evven segida), possibly related to the word sakha, to cover – since bowing down in worship covers the stone. Alternatively, Targum Yonatan explains “you shall not put a decorated stone in your land to look upon.” Accordingly, maskit comes from sokha – look – and refers to a stone decorated with figures that people look upon – so one who bows down upon it appears to be bowing to the figures.[4]

Accordingly, Rambam compares the prohibition of “evven maskit” to that of a “matzeiva,” a pillar mentioned earlier in the verse.[5] A matzeiva is not inherently bad, after all, the forefathers built them to thank God, but in time they became associated with pagan worship and God forbade them.[6] A matzeiva is a large pillar, which Rambam explains people would gather around in worship; and “evven maskit” is a smaller stone people would bow down upon, and it too is associated with foreign worship and therefore prohibited. “Because people who worship the stars customarily put a stone to bow down upon before it [their idol], therefore, we do not do this for God.”

Rashi offers another interpretation, that is perhaps better suited to Chazal’s statements. Maskit is related to sakha, a cover like a sukka; evven maskit is a stone floor that covers the earth below.[7] This aligns with both the source in Megilla and a similar midrash in Torat Kohanim: “You shall not bow down on stones in your land, but you do bow down on stones in the Mikdash.”[8]

Indeed, many halakhic authorities cite both as Torah prohibitions. In the laws of prayer, Rambam also states it’s forbidden to bow on a stone floor outside the Mikdash.[9]

The prohibition

Rambam seems to differentiate between an evven maskit and a stone floor, yet he brings both prohibitions – bowing down on a special stone for bowing and prostration on a stone floor outside of the Mikdash.[10] Both are considered Torah prohibitions and can be understood to be part of one prohibition – prostration on stone outside the Mikdash.[11]

Consequently, several rabbinic halakhot and customs developed: when a Synagogue had a stone floor it was generally covered with mats or straw.[12] If it’s uncovered people would find an area where the floor was not stone or would tilt their head when they bowed so they did not face the stone floor. Meiri notes that some sages prohibited building Synagogues with stone floors altogether.[13] Tur notes a custom to tilt the head to the side, so it doesn’t face the floor.[14]

If the essence of this mitzvah is a prohibition against bowing down on stones, then it seems that Rambam’s explanation still makes sense. As Sefer haChinukh explains, bowing on stone presents a particular problem.[15] As opposed to rugs or mats made of material that wears quickly, stones are perceived as permanent “and it has a minister[ing angel] in heaven.”[16] Since the Torah is also concerned with distancing us from suspicious activities that may cause others to sin, and since it’s more likely an onlooker might think a person is worshipping the stone and come to associate the stone with their worship, bowing down on stone is prohibited.[17] This is not a problem in the Mikdash, which was designated for Divine service alone.

It’s also possible that the problem is not limited to the stone, it is also the style of bowing. Rema indicates that one is never permitted to fully prostrate themselves in worship – with their whole body on the ground – even if there is no evven maskit.[18]

If we add this prohibition to the others mentioned – bowing down on stone, building a Synagogue with stone floors, bowing down facing the floor – the prohibition seems less concerned with the stone and more the nature of the prostration. The prohibition could better be read “you shall not place evven maskit to bow down upon in your land… and revere My Mikdash (Temple),” a general prohibition against practicing the type of prostration performed in the Mikdash anywhere outside of the Mikdash – be it fully prostrated on any surface or bowing down on stone in any way.

Indeed, this is how Malbim explains Rashi: “So that we do not make things in the style of the Mikdash, just like we are prohibited from building in the style of the Sanctuary and Hall of the Temple.” Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch elaborates that this mitzvah reinforces the special status of the Mikdash as the spiritual center of the Jewish People, and the world. The Mikdash is the place that is most connected with God, so it is unique in the way it is built – with a stone floor – and in the way we serve God when we are there – by fully prostrating ourselves. When we worship God outside of the Mikdash, “in your land,” we face the Mikdash and see it as the hub – since the one Torah emanates from this place and it is the epicenter of sanctity in this world.

Much like Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi says in the Kuzari, Rav Hirsch explains that this verse reminds us that we do not serve God according to how we see fit or the way other people around us worship; we serve God as God commanded us. Following the one Torah that emanates from this one place to serve one God.

Back to the beginning

So why is this the conclusion of Parshat Behar?

This week’s parsha begins “The Eternal spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai…” The midrash wonders why the Torah states the following mitzvot were said at Mount Sinai. The midrash is based on the idea, reflected in the text, that God spoke to Moshe and gave him the Torah on Mount Sinai, but once Israel built the Mishkan (Tabernacle), God spoke to Moshe from the Ohel Moed (Tent of Assembly, another name for the Mishkan), and more specifically, from the innermost chamber housing the ark.

At the end of the Book of Shemot the Divine Presence descends on the Mishkan and Moshe waits outside the cloud for seven days, mirroring the description of Moshe waiting to ascend Mount Sinai.[19] This means Parshat Behar is somewhat “out of order.” Chronologically, it belongs before the completion of the Mishkan in Shemot. Why is it here?

In Vayikra we meet several types of sanctity. There is the sanctified place of the Mishkan, the laws of which begin the book, and the sanctification of the Land of Israel – conveyed in the laws of shemitta and Yovel we just learned. There is also sanctified time – Shabbat, festivals, and the shemitta year. These are the ways we are commanded to serve God – altogether, at the same time and in the same space.

[1] Behar begins with the laws of shemita, but this seems to be a brief background to establish the counting of seven shemita cycles until Yovel. The laws surrounding financial hardship, slaves, property, commerce etc. are related to the social aspects of the laws of Yovel (the Jubilee Year) – when all Israelite slaves are emancipated, and ancestral portions are returned.

[2] Vayikra 26:1-2

[3] The Yerushalmi (Avoda Zara 4:1) connects evven maskit with the service of Markolis, which involved piles of rocks. In this case, one is not allowed to place one rock on top of another (covering it) to bow down, but you can do so for other needs.

[4] Among others, Rashbam, Rabbeinu Bechayye, and Bechor Shor bring this explanation. Also see Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch who brings this possibility and the possibility that it means draw attention.

Beiur Yashar seems to connect this to carvings or images carved stones with hieroglyphics or decorated stones, or even mosaic tiles designed as images – similar to the concept of “elohei maseikha” and “egel maseikha” – a show piece or carved figure.

[5] Hilkhot Avoda Zara v’Chukot ha’Goyyim 6:6

[6] Rashi Devarim 16:22 based on midrash on the verse.

[7] In Vayikra and TB Megilla. Like “v’sakoti kappi” (I will cover with my hand) in Shemot 33:22.

[8] Behar 6:9

[9] Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Tefilla u’Birkat Kohanim 5:14

[10] Meiri Megilla; Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Avoda Zara v’Chukot ha’Goyyim 6:6-7, Hilkhot Tefilla u’Birkat Kohanim 5:14.

[11] See Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch ad loc.

[12] There’s some debate as to which of these are rabbinic prohibitions and which are customs.

[13] Megilla ibid.

[14] OC 131. Like Rambam, he mentions this specifically with “nefillat apaim” – “falling on the face” for the Takhanun prayer. This also ensures it does not appear as though they are bowing down to the person in front of them. The custom to bow down on the floor for Takhanun has changed, possibly because of these problems, and the custom is now to sit and bow over, resting one’s head on their arm.

[15] Sefer HaChinukh 349

[16] Based on the idea that things in the natural world are connected to higher spiritual realities.

[17] Accordingly, in this case bowing down on bedrock is also forbidden, whereas Rashi may allow it, since it is not a “stone covering.”

[18] OC 131

[19] Shemot 40:35

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.