Modern Commentary

Torah & Spirit
Family Life







The Torah strictly forbids the creation or possession of certain images. To some, what the text means by the possession of images, may be unclear. For example, are we prohibited from having pictures in our homes? Are our children prohibited from playing with dolls? What does the Torah mean when it prohibits these images, and how do we know this?

What follows are some of the passages contained in the Torah that prohibit graven images:

Exodus 20:4 (5) " You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness [of anything] that [is] in heaven above, or that [is] in the earth beneath, or that [is] in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.

Leviticus 26:1 "You shall not make idols nor graven images, neither shall you raise up a standing image, neither shall you set up [any] image of stone in your land, to bow down to it: for I [am] the LORD your God."

Deuteronomy 4:15-19 "Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure: the likeness of male or female the likeness of any animal that [is] on the earth or the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground or the likeness of any fish that [is] in the water beneath the earth. And [take heed,] lest you lift your eyes to heaven, and [when] you see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, you feel driven to worship them and serve them, which the LORD your God has given to all the peoples under the whole heaven as a heritage. "

Deuteronomy 5:8 (9) "'You shall not make for yourself a carved image -- any likeness [of anything] that [is] in heaven above, or that [is] in the earth beneath, or that [is] in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, [am] a jealous God."

The text employs the following terms when speaking of carved or graven images: pesel, elil, maseva', and maskit.

  • Elil means an idol, but it also has the connotation of emptiness, "a nothing." This is based on word-play.
  • Pesel referrs to a carved image.
  • Masevah refers to a standing stone, a raised idol.
  • Maskit means a carved image, of a specific type - a standing stone that is a place-holder for an idol (see Sept/Oct 1998 Vol 4 # 5 Biblical Archaeology Review "Sacred Spaces" by Avraham Biran, pg 39).

Having covered what the Torah says on the topic, let us look into how the Neviim, the prophets, understand what the Torah meant. A few examples will suffice:

Isaiah 42:8 I [am] the LORD, that [is] My name; And My glory I will not give to another, Nor My praise to carved images.

Isaiah 42:17 They shall be turned back, They shall be greatly ashamed, Who trust in carved images, Who say to the molded images, 'You [are] our gods.'

Jeremiah 8:19 Listen! The voice, The cry of the daughter of my people From a far country: "[Is] not the LORD in Zion? [Is] not her King in her?" "Why have they provoked Me to anger With their carved images -- With foreign idols?"

Ezekiel 21:21 "For the king of Babylon stands at the parting of the road, at the fork of the two roads, to use divination: he shakes the arrows, he consults the images, he looks at the liver."

Hosea 11:2 [As] they called them, So they went from them; They sacrificed to the Baals, And burned incense to carved images.

From these passages it is clear that what the Torah is referring to when it speaks of forbidden images are idols - images used to represent or stand for a god. God even commanded the creation of certain three dimensional objects: pomegranates (Exodus 28.33 - on the hem of the priest's robe), buds and flowers (Exodus 37.19), cherubim (Exodus 37.7 - angels on the ark). Also see the long passage on images in the beit hamikdash in 1 Kings 7 (listing oxen, palm trees, lilies, lions, cherubim [see v. 36 especially]). If these were not permitted, would the presence of God have filled the temple at its inauguration? Would not the prophets have rallied against them? It is obvious that the Torah is speaking of idols here - anything that is an idol is forbidden. While some Karaim have been strict about this matter and have not permitted anything resembling an image in their homes, others have been more lenient and have allowed their children to play with dolls, or have placed works of art depicting scenes in their homes.