December 2, 2006
An interpreter\’s task is to attempt to explain both the meaning and the context of what might otherwise be incomprehensible. This week\’s haftarah offers just such an opportunity. Hosea\’s second prophecy in the haftarah opens with a challenge to the behavior of the northern kingdom: \” (1) When Ephraim spoke piety, he was exalted in Israel; but he incurred sin through Baal and so he died. (2) And now they go on sinning; they have made them molten images, idols by their skill (ktivunam atzabim), from their silver, wholly the work of craftsmen, yet for these they appoint men to sacrifice; they are wont to kiss calves!\” (Hosea 13:1-2) Hosea\’s original audience probably understood the specific references mentioned in this message. For later readers, however, the identity of both the heroes and villains is unclear. Even the sin being criticized is obscure.
Rashi identifies \”Ephraim\” with Jeroboam, the first king of the northern kingdom, Israel. He asserts that Jeroboam initially feared God when he came out against Solomon. He became a powerful leader and was recognized as king of the northern kingdom. After he rose to greatness, he turned to idolatry causing his own downfall and the downfall of his house. Rashi notes that this same description also fits Ahab, another powerful northern king, feared by all, who turned to idolatry and as a result, he and his line perished. Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provance), following the translation of Targum Jonathan (7th century Eretz Yisrael), accepts Rashi\’s line of reasoning without identifying \”Ephraim\” with a particular king, stating only that all of the kingdoms surrounding Israel feared him, until his idolatrous sin caused his downfall against these very nations.
The following passage from the Talmud sought to focus on the nature of the sin rather than the identity of the perpetrator. It removed the significance of Hosea\’s prophecy from its historical context and sought out its meaning for its own contemporary circumstances. In doing so, we learn something of the rabbinic attitude toward idolatry: \”Said Rabbi Yitzhak: What is meant when it is written: \’And now they go on sinning; they have made molten images of their silver, idols by their skill. What is the meaning of \’idols by their skill (ktivunam atzabim)? It means that every person made an image of a deity according to his or her own understanding (ktivunam) and each person kept his deity in his pocket. Whenever he remembered it, he would take it out and embrace it and kiss it.\” (Sanhedrin 63b)
The next interpretation shows how some used their idolatrous practices to self serving ends: \”\’What is the meaning of \’those who slaughter people shall kiss calves?\’ (Notice how they translate the phrase differently from what is found above.) Rabbi Yitzchak of the house of Rabbi Ami said: \’The priests of the idols would cast their eyes on wealthy people [in order to acquire their property]. They would starve their idolatrous calves and place before the feeding troughs of the calves images of the wealthy people [so that the calves would associate their faces with food.] When the calves would see the wealthy people, they would run toward them with great passion. The priests of the idols would say: \’See how the idolatrous calf yearns for you – perhaps you should offer yourself as a sacrifice\’ (so that they might confiscate their property). Rava disagrees with this interpretation: The verse reads: \’Those who slaughter people kiss calves\’, [for the above interpretation to make sense], it should say: \’the calves kiss to slaughter a person\’. Rather, Rava suggests that the verse should be interpreted this way: \’Whenever someone offered his child as a sacrifice to an idol, he would be told: \’You have offered a great gift to the idol. Now come and kiss the idol.\’\” (Ibid.)
The sages display in these various portraits of idolatrous behavior various obscene excesses and perversions in the name of religion. The first displays a religious faith which is simply a self portrait where a person worships what is closest to his heart, an excess in self interest. The second pictures those who use religion for their own self aggrandizement to the detriment of others. Rava offers a vision where a person practices an obscene religious excess and is then asked to justify it. If there is a thread which winds it way through these various portraits of idolatrous behavior, it is people\’s inability to distinguish between their own self concerns and serving God. Crossing this fine line can have terrible consequences.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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