Jewish Studies

Avram R. Shannon

Making Ritual Strange: The Temple Cult as the Foundation for Tannaitic Discourse on Idolatry

Section: Articles
Jewish Studies Quarterly (JSQ)

Volume 24 () / Issue 4, pp. 339-355 (17)

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This article examines the Tannaitic conception of the worship of avodah zarah. The term is commonly translated as »idolatry,« but the definition of what constitutes worship of avodah zarah, in m. Sanh. 7:6, is based on a more nuanced notion than simply worship of foreign gods. For the Sages of the Mishnah, worship of avodah zarah involved misuse of objects and rituals associated with the Temple cult, which constituted a betrayal of covenantal loyalty. This means that although the rabbinic laws against the worship of avodah zarah were based on the biblical prohibitions against worshiping other gods, the actual rules for how these laws were to be enacted were extrapolations of the laws against the misuse of Temple objects. This explains why some activities that might seem like idolatry – such as decorating a cult statue or dedicating a child to Molech – are not considered avodah zarah.

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