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Mitzvah 214 requires that we not createidols for those who might use them,whether Jewish or non-Jewish. Whilethere are leniencies regardingconstructing a building which will housean idol, one may not construct the idolitself, and one may not act as acontractor, hiring others to perform theactual work. (Mishneh Torah, HilchotAvodah Zarah 3:9; Minchat Chinuch 27:1)
We have already learned (in mitzvot28 and 29) that one may neither bowto an idol nor worship it in any otherway. Mitzvah 213 requires us to domore, refraining from turning towardidolatry even in our speech orthoughts. As part of this mitzvah, amidrash (Sifra Kedoshim 1:11) rulesthat one may not intentionally look atidolatrous activities and symbols. Asthe Sefer haChinuch (213) explains,this is due to a concern that learningabout their worship might createattraction for us, and due to a generalinjunction against wasting our time.
613 Mitzvot: #213, 214
Rabbi Mordechai TorczynerHitoriri: Jewish Spirituality
The king’s stargazer saw that the
grain harvested that year was tainted; anyone who would eat from it would become insane.
“What can we do?” said the king.“It is not possible to destroy the
crop, for we do not have enough grain stored to feed the entire
“Perhaps,” said the stargazer, “we
should set aside enough grain for ourselves. At least that way we
could maintain our sanity.” The king replied, “If we do that,
be considered crazy. If everyone behaves one way and we behave
differently, we’ll be considered the
not normal ones.
“Rather,” said the king, “I suggest
that we too eat from the crop, like everyone else. However, to remind ourselves that we are not normal,we will make a mark on our foreheads. Even if we are insane,whenever we look at each other,we will remember that we are
This story (available at http://breslov.org/rebbe-nachmans-stories-the-tainted-grain/), like all of theamazing, fairytale like, stories told by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, has alwaysstruck me; I believe it is filled withsymbolism and meaning. RebbeNachman stated explicitly on multipleoccasions that the purpose of hisstories was to arouse people from theirspiritual slumber; he believed a story could accomplish this in a way thatnothing else could.One of this story's messages speaks tothe Jew in the modern world, whoneeds to work hard to support a family.Long days and endless emails oftenmake us forget our true purpose -
making us “insane”. Pirkei d’Rabbi
Eliezer (11) explains that in placing
Adam in Gan Eden “to work it and toguard it (Bereishit 2:15)”, G
-d wasasking him to work the garden throughthe study of Torah and the performanceof mitzvot, and to guard it by refrainingfrom sin. Yet our exile from the Garden,
and the curse that “by the sweat of your
brow you shall eat bread (Bereishit
3:19)”, created a new reality where our
ideals are easily forgotten. We may,unfortunately, drift from those idealsdue to our labour, but like the king inthe story, let us keep them as ourcompass.
The Authority of Custom
There are at least three approaches tothe authority of custom. The Rif (Responsum 13) and the Rosh(Responsum 55:10) both argue that theforce of custom stands upon a halachicfoundation. The Rif says that weobserve custom because at one time ourelders made an edict; even when thereason is forgotten, the practicecontinues. Thus, custom reflects anancient enactment that we continue toobserve because we presume that it wasenacted with the formalities of a validrabbinic law. Similarly, the Rosh writesthat we follow custom because weassume that earlier authorities decidedthat the custom was the halachah. The Chatam Sofer (1:145) offers asecond approach to the authority of custom. In his discussion about thesecond day of Yom Tov, observedoutside of Israel, he writes that thiscustom possesses the authority of acommunal vow. This approach and theprevious approach establish customupon halachic foundations.Under the first and second approaches,we should disregard customs whichclash with halachah, because halachahis what gives the custom its validity inthe first place. For example, the Talmud(Sukkah 47a) rules that one who livesoutside of Israel must sit in a sukkahon Shemini Atzeret. However, somepeople have a custom to not sit in thesukkah on this day. Using the approachof Rif and Rosh, or that of ChatamSofer, those people should disregardtheir custom, because it stands againstthe halachic system which authorizescustom. Rabbeinu Tam writes that even
a “fitting custom” does not override
halachah (Responsa of Baalei haTosafot11). Thus, when custom confrontshalachah, we should disregard thecustom and observe the halachah.A third approach may validate somecustoms which run counter tohalachah. Rav Hai Gaon writes (citedin Tmim Deim 119):More than any other proof, go out andsee what the people are doing. This isthe essence and the basis. Only afterwards do we consider all thatwas said in the mishnah or in thegemara concerning the matter. If whatever follows from them can bereconciled with our establishedpractice, fine. And if they containanything that does not match what isin our hearts [i.e. what we practice]and cannot be clarified with proof, itwill not override the essential thing.
[translated by R’ Chaim Navon].
Rav Hai Gaon argues that custom isthe basis for halachah. If so, thenthere is room to argue that an already established custom, such as notsitting in the sukkah on SheminiAtzeret, can override a halachah.Clearly, Rav Hai Gaon's approach isfraught with danger; it is clear that wecannot invent practices which runcounter the halachah and then claimthe authority of custom, but at whatpoint would an existing custom gainthis legal authority? While Rav HaiGaon's words must be taken seriously,this position is difficult to support.Indeed, Rabbi Soloveitchik (NefeshHaRav pg. 220) concluded that thepractice to sit outside of the sukkah on
Shemini Atzeret is a “mistakenpractice,” because it directly
contradicts the conclusion of thegemara. Still, the multiplicity of viewsregarding the nature of customdemonstrates that we have much tolearn regarding this basic componentof Jewish practice.