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Keeping a figurine of a Peruvian goddess given to me as a present

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Sivan 5580/June 2020
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She'ela

I received a framed object from a non Jew who works for me after he went to Peru. It is a figurine that looks like it comes from Inca culture. The link below shows you the figure although the piece that he bought me is more elaborate, it's the same figure. Is this considered avoda zara? Can I have it hanging in my house. I normally would just toss it, but this is someone who is in my house often and he will be insulted if I don't display it. https://en.todocoleccion.net/colletables-keychains/llavero-tumi-o-cuchilo-inca-ritual-souvenir-peru~x35710650

Teshuva

The general prohibition against idol worship is absolute and simple to understand, but the nuances in our day and age can be quite complicated. Most contemporary Jewish communities are far removed from pagan cultures and people find it difficult to understand how anything contemporary – let alone a “souvenir” - can have the same status as the ancient idols described by the Torah. Nevertheless, we will see that this is an important question to ask, both halakhically and hashkafically. 

As Rambam lists over 50 commandments associated with idolatry, it is important to define the specifics of this case. We must identify the figure to determine if and how it is prohibited, and if there is any way around the prohibition.

Is the figure prohibited?

It seems that the figure in question is Inti or Apu-Punchau, who the ancient Incans worshipped as god of the sun. One way of worship was through child sacrifice. Though this practice is now defunct it is unclear if this figure is still worshipped. It is likely this figure was made for decoration although it does seem as though it is still revered by certain indigenous people in the Andes.

What prohibitions are involved?

Out of Rambam’s exhaustive list there are at least two specific halakhot that are relevant to this situation:

·         #1 A prohibition of “turning to” foreign worship.

·         #31 A prohibition against owning or benefitting from idols or accessories to idol worship.

It is prohibited to derive benefit from an idol made by a non-Jew, even if it has never been worshipped. (Mishna Avoda Zara 4:4, Mishneh Torah Hilchot Avoda Zara 7:4, Shulchan Aruch YD 141:1) Even if we were to find that the figurine was no longer worshipped and was purely decorative, there is still a problem owning an image that is exclusively associated as a pagan god. Based on the Sifra’s interpretation of the verse “al tifnu el ha-elilim” “do not turn towards the idols,” Rambam (2, 2) prohibits both studying pagan gods and practices, as well as looking at them. While a lenient interpretation allows for glancing (as opposed to gazing) at pagan imagery, this does not seem applicable to this case (Magen Avraham OC 307:23).[i]

Some halakhic sources distinguish between figures that are created for decorative purposes and figures that are created for worship. Additional differentiations are made between pictures and carvings, intaglio and relief, and three-dimensional images (Shulchan Aruch OC 142:15, Hilchot Avoda Zara 7:6, 18). There are several modern teshuvot that allow for certain images, such as a teshuva by Rav Ovadia Yosef that allows a Jewish person to keep a medal of honor in the shape of a cross, and Rav Moshe Feinstein who allows for images of lions and eagles now that they are no longer worshipped. (Yechave Da’at 3:65, Igrot Moshe YD 2:55) Yet in all these sources I have been unable to find an explicit exception that would permit a Jew to own a figurine – a three-dimensional image of a pagan idol such as the one in your possession.[ii] Rav Moshe Feinstein learns from the Rambam that there is a specific prohibition against owning an idol; no matter how the idol is acquired there is a Torah prohibition against owning it and having it in one’s home (YD II 55).  Indeed, Rema rules that even though certain images are no longer worshipped one may not keep them in one’s home lest others suspect them. (YD 141:3) This suspicion is not necessarily that the person worships such a figure but can also be understood as suspicion of possessing a prohibited item.

What should be done with the figure?

The history of the image and its similarity to an idolatrous item means it is inappropriate and perhaps prohibited to keep this figure in the home, as others may come to suspect you of owning a prohibited item. Nevertheless, as the item does not seem to be made for worship and was never worshipped it does not have the severity of Avoda Zara. Therefore, it does not need to be destroyed, it is sufficient to throw it in the trash.[iii]

Some final thoughts

Since you were unaware of the status of the gift you were given, please rest assured that until this point you were at most shogeg – accidentally transgressing. It is understandable and admirable that you do not want to insult your friend, and while the potential insult is not a factor in the halakhic bottom line it should be a factor in how you explain the situation. If you don’t feel it is appropriate there is no halakhic requirement to explicitly tell your friend what you did with the figure; there are other ways to explain its absence. If you feel comfortable, I do believe you can use it as an opportunity to remind your friend how important your faith in God and the Torah is to you. A central tenet of Judaism is the belief in one unifying God, and a pagan figure does not have a place in your home. On an interpersonal level I suggest stressing that you are touched that your friend thought of you on their trip. Since your friend brought you a physical gift to show their affection, you may want to include some physical act to demonstrate this - such as displaying a picture of you and your friend in place of the figure, or perhaps gift your friend something meaningful in return.

 

 

 

i.                     The Magen Avraham's distinction is related to the debate between Tosafot and Rosh's attempt to reconcile an apparent inconsistency in the Gemara's approach to graven images between Tractate Avoda Zara 50a and Shabbat 149a. But this refers to a relief image and not a free standing statue.

ii.                   Rambam and Shulchan Aruch permit bathing in a bathhouse with pagan statues if they were made for decoration and not for worship. While this is a leniency concerning idols made for decoration, this does not seem material to the discussion at hand, as it does not concern owning such statues or even looking at them, it is merely excluding the possibility that the bathhouse would be prohibited on the basis of accessories to idol worship.

 

Additionally, Rambam (7:6) allows for benefit from figures made by a non-Jew for decorative purposes. Rav Moshe Feinstein (YD II 55) brings an exhaustive survey of the halakhic opinions on decorative figurines and establishes that there is a distinction between images that are for worship, images that are occasionally worshipped -–such as the sun and moon and eagles, and those that are never worshipped. While he cites several leniencies, he does not leave room for a Jew owning a three-dimensional image of a pagan god.

 

iii.                 There is an option that is no longer available to you. Halakha allows that a non-Jew may nullify an idol by cutting off certain limbs or crushing the face (Mishna Avoda Zara 4:5; Shulchan Aruch YD 146:7); a more lenient approach permits the item if a non-Jew makes a voluntary statement that nullifies the idol (Rema ibid). This is no longer an option once the item is acquired by the Jew (YD 146:2). But this leniency may be used in other cases.

 

 



 

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.