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Mitzvah 39: No human images

Posted by rabbiart on May 8, 2008

A study of the traditional 613 mitzvot (commandments/obligations) according to their order of appearance in the Torah.

This week we cover Mitzvah 39: Not to make human images, even for decoration
This is a prohibition that may be hard for many people to accept. We have already been told not to make any graven images (Shemot 20:4) in order to keep ourselves from idolatry. That mitzvah was limited to making images for the purpose of worshipping the; this mitzvah is more extensive. It requires that we make no human figures out of anything whatsoever. I suspect that most readers can more easily embrace the prohibition against making manifestations of HaShem than they can against making a sculpture of their neighbor Fred, or Venus, or Apollo. (OK, maybe sculptures of Venus and Apollo are a little too close to the idea of “gods.”)

Study of this prohibition reveals the connection between humanity and the divine. As the Talmud understood it, man, or woman, is made in the image of HaShem. So when an image of a human is made, in this understanding, an image of the divine is also being made, and the border between ornamentation and idolatry begins to be blurred. This mitzvah is considered to be in effect in all times and places, for both men and women. Do you / would you observe it? If you wouldn’t sculpt a human form, would you go look at sculpture? How about sculpture of human forms that you knew were done by non-Jews.

The connection between humanity and divine is in part derived from a re-reading of the text on which it is based. Shemot 20:20 reads “You shall not make ‘itti, with me” but the Talmud reinterprets it as “You shall not make ‘othi, Me. Connecting this verse with Breshit 1:26, where we are told that humanity is made in the image of G-d, results in this tidy little logical chain:

a. Make nothing that is a representation of G-d
b. Humanity is a representation of G-d
c. Making a representation of humanity is tantamount to making a representation of G-d, therefore
d. Make no representation of humanity!

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