Rabbi Moshe Pinchuk
Former Rosh Kollel (Melbourne, 1998-2001)
Currently Head of the Beit Midrash in Netanya College
On two occasions the Torah juxtaposes the prohibition of Idol Worship to the command of observing the holidays. One such occasion occurs in the reading of Shabbat Chol HaMoed: “Do not make molten idol gods for yourself. The festival of Matzos you are to keep, for seven days you will eat Matzos as I have commanded you” (Shemot 34: 17-18). Based on these juxtapositions, the Talmud (Pesachim 118a, Makkot 23a) concludes: “Rav Sheshet in the name of Rav Elazar Ben Azariah says ‘Debasing the Holidays is equivalent to Idol worship because the scripture says ‘Do not make molten idol gods for yourself’ and immediately afterwards it says ‘The festival of Matzos you are to keep'”. The purpose of this short essay is to try to understand the rational behind the equation Rav Sheshet has presented.
I would begin by reformulating the statement in the Talmud, it is not a mathematical equation we are being presented with but rather a law of cause and effect in the realm of human psychology. Restated in the affirmative it reads: “Observing the Holidays helps one overcome the temptation of Idolatry”.
Previously the Chumash has discussed Idol Worship: “Do not bow down to their gods or serve them, and you must not make anything like their works, but you will destroy them and break down their sacred pillars. And you shall serve your God, and he will bless your bread and your water; and I shall turn malady away from your midst” (Shemot 23: 24-25). Nahmanadies here has an insightful observation regarding the nature of Paganism: “Most Idol worshippers recognize that God is the supreme God, however they think that worshipping other deities and forces will bring them success. Worshipping the Sun may be beneficent, for they have observed the positive effect of the Sun on the growth of grain in the fields, and the moon’s effect on Water wells, etc’. Therefore this verse forcefully makes the point that success hinges only on worship dedicated completely to Hashem. Uprooting Idolatry will not harm but bring about further blessings, for Hashem will bless your bread and your water”.
Nahmanadies explains that Paganism of early days was not an expression of deep feelings of religious devotion but rather was an expression of practical concern for the success of their crops. They were fully aware of the forces of nature and their proper harmonization required for success. Paganism was simply an attempt to harness these forces to their needs. Paganism should be viewed not as the early roots of religion but as the first attempts at science and understanding the laws of nature. Anthropologists today have coined this as “Corn Gods” – one worships a God in order to grow corn.
One can now fully appreciate the powerful temptation of old to Paganism, the equivalent today would have been to ask a farmer not to fertilize or water or disinfect his field but rather spend his time in prayer and only thus be ensured of a successful crop.
In this sense, observing the three holidays: Pesach Shavuot and Sukkot which coincide with the phases of the agricultural year serve to impress upon the Jew to what extent Hashem is involved and responsible for the success of the crops. Thus observing these holidays can serve as an antidote to the tremendous temptation of idol worshipping.