> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > What's Bothering Rashi?

Do Not Erect An Altar


Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 )

by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek

This parsha teaches us many laws, both between Man and Man and between Man and God. Much discussion revolves around the laws of Jewish worship of Hashem as differentiated from the pagan way of serving their gods. The following is a typical example.

Deuteronomy 16:22

"Do not erect for yourself a monument that Hashem, your God, hates."



That (Hashem) hates - RASHI: An altar made of stones and an earthen altar is what He commanded, but this (the single-stone monument) He hates. Because it was the law of the Canaanites and even though He had loved it (such an altar) in the time of the Forefathers, He now hates it, since they (the Canaanites) made it a law of their idol worship.



Rashi is explaining that only the single-stone "matzaivah" (altar) was forbidden, while the earthen altar and the multiple-stoned altar were not only permitted, they were explicitly commanded as a way to worship Hashem.

Rashi goes on to explain that although the single-stone monument – altar - was used by the Forefathers and thus could not have been hated by Hashem, nevertheless since in later generations the Canaanites began using this as their mode of worship, it had since become despised by Hashem.



A Question: There is a story in the Talmud that seems to contradict Rashi's reasoning here. The Talmud in Avoda Zara 44b tells the following incident recorded in the Mishnah:

Proklos, the son of Ph'losophos, asked Rabban Gamliel in Acco while he was bathing in the bathhouse of Aphrodite, "It is written in your Torah 'Nothing of the banned property shall adhere to your hand' (i.e. you shall not benefit from idol worship property). Why, then, do you bathe in the bathhouse of Aphrodite?" [Rabban Gamliel answered him]: "We may not answer (Torah) in the bathhouse." When he went out, he said to him: "I have not come into her (Aphrodite's) domain; she has come into my domain!" (Meaning, the bathhouse was built to bathe in, then, later, they attached the idol on its roof.)

Considering Rabban Gamliel's answer, that first the bathhouse existed and only later was it used for idol worship, we can ask on Rashi: Why should the single-stone altar be hated by Hashem? Was it not first used by Jacob for pure purposes – to worship Hashem? Why should it be banned if later the Canaanites used it for their impure worship?

Can you answer the question?

Hint: See the rest of Rabban Gamliel's answer in that Mishnah.

Your Answer:



An Answer: The Mishnah continues with the rest of Rabban Gamliel's retort:

"We do not say 'The bathhouse is beautiful for the god Aphrodite.' We say, instead, 'Aphrodite is an adornment for the bathhouse.' "

This means that the bathhouse is not in the service of idol worship. The statue was put there to enhance the bathhouse. So Rabban Gamliel was not benefiting from an object of pagan worship. Certainly the bathhouse was not a place of idol worship.

The "altar of one stone," on the other hand, was the actual means of idol worship in Canaan. Its whole purpose was for serving the Canaanite idols. Therefore Hashem hated it, once this development took place.


Shabbat Shalom,
Avigdor Bonchek

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