Jews are prohibited from worshiping idols. They also have to destroy them. Does this mean that we should be breaking archeological artifacts of great value, or destroy idols we encounter in restaurants or during travel? I don’t think that would go over so well with those who value the idols!
You’re probably aware of the Midrash relating that Abraham’s father traded in idols. One day while his father was out of the store, Abraham took a hammer and destroyed all the idols except for the biggest one, in whose hand he placed the hammer. When his father returned he demanded, “Who smashed all the idols?” Abraham replied that a brawl broke out among the idols until the largest one destroyed all the others. His father jeered, “Idols can’t even move!” to which Abraham retorted, “So why do you worship them?”
Just as the first Jew Abraham did, so too all Jews are required to eradicate all idols in every time and place. But before you take up a hammer, it’s imperative that you consider the following explanation of the rule and its qualifications.
The source for this commandment is from the verse, “You shall utterly destroy all the places where the nations that you shall possess worshipped their gods, upon the lofty mountains and upon the hills, and under every lush tree. And you shall tear down their altars, smash their monuments, burn their [trees of worship] with fire, cut down the graven images of their gods, and destroy the names of those gods from that place” (Deut. 12:1-3).
As it turns out, though, not all idols have to be broken. For example, if an idolater nullifies the idol by either renouncing it, or by damaging or breaking it, the idol need not be broken any further, and a Jew who later finds it or comes to own it, may derive benefit from it by selling it or melting it down to use its metal, etc. Even if an idolater fled in war and left his idols behind when he could have taken them with him, or if he could have returned for them but didn’t, this also constitutes nullification.
However, a Jew cannot nullify an idol even if he made it or worships idols himself. Therefore, if an idolater did not nullify the idol, it remains forbidden forever. If such an idol comes into the possession of a Jew, he or she must completely destroy it or throw it into the sea in a way that it cannot be retrieved. For this reason, even if an idol had been buried under rubble, debris or underground for a long time, it is still forbidden and must either be nullified by a non-Jew or destroyed by a Jew. This is because there is no reason to assume it was nullified before being buried.
This applies not only to idols found in the Land of Israel, but also to idols found in any land conquered and controlled by Jews. The only difference is that whenever Jews throughout history conquer and control the Land of Israel, they are required to search for and destroy any idols in the Land. But in areas controlled by Jews outside of the Land, they need not search for idols, but if found, they must be destroyed. However, herein lies an important qualification on account of which you better lay down your hammer.
As implied above, this commandment applies only in a situation where Jews have complete control, such that the idol bashing will be free of retaliation or punitive measures from the non-Jews. For this reason, even if Israel were interested in purging the Land of idols, it would probably be exempt in light of the probable world-wide objection to the destruction of archeological “treasures” belonging to humanity. For the same reason, an individual is not required to smash such “treasures” he encounters in restaurants or during travel, in Israel or anywhere else.
- Deuteronomy 12
- Rambam, Avodat Kochavim, chapters 7 & 8
- Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 146
- Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 436