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by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek


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Parashas Shoftim (73)

This week's sedra includes many topics among them are the laws for judges, uprooting idols in the Land, appointing a king, cities of refuge, civil laws, the laws of warfare, and the law of eglah arufa, done when a dead body is found but the murderer is unknown.

Deut. 16: 22

Do not set up a monument ( "matzaivah") that Hashem your G-d hates.


[that Hashem your G-d] hates: Rashi: An altar made of stones and an altar made of earth is what He commanded to make, but this one (a monument) He hates, because it was a postulate of the Canaanites. Even though He cherished it at the time of the patriarchs, He now detests it, since they (i.e. idol worshipers) made it a postulate of idol worship.


Rashi points out a very interesting thing. The 'matzaivah' was used by the patriarchs in the past, before Mt. Sinai but now Moses tells us that G-d hates a 'matzaivah' since the idolaters used it in their worship. This is quite unusual, for a law of G-d to change over time!


A Question: Where does it say the patriarchs used a monument (matzaivah)?

Check it out.

Your Answer:


An Answer: Jacob most certainly used a matzaivah (see Genesis 28:18 & 35:14, 20). But I don't see that Abraham or Isaac ever used a matzaivah.


Look at the verses in Exodus 34:13; Deut. 7:5 & 12: 3 and many others in the Torah with the same commandments.

After seeing these verses, what would you ask? Perhaps you can anticipate the Ramban's question.

Your Question:


Ramban's Question: We are commanded to destroy the altars (mizbachos) as well as the monuments of the gentiles; the reason is certainly because they used them for idolatrous purposes.

Why then are we allowed to use an altar (mizbaiach) in the temple for sacrifices? If we cannot use a monument because G-d hates them because the pagans used them for idol worship, why is the mizbaiach OK?

This is the Ramban's question:

Can you suggest an answer?

Your Answer:


His answer: He suggests that perhaps the mizbaiach was not an essential part of idolatry, whereas the monument (matzaivah) was. Since the matzaivah was a sine quo non of idolatry it was hateful to G-d, but not so the mizbaiach. Therefore we are allowed to use the mizbaiach but not the matzaivah.


The above answer just begs the question: Why was only the matzaivah the essential part of idol worship, while the mizbaiach was not?

Hint: A mizbaiach is constructed of many stones. A matzaivah is constructed of one stone alone.

Can you suggest an answer?

Your Answer:


A Suggested Answer: Perhaps we can say that since the mizbaiach is constructed of several stones, each stone in and of itself is not essentially an idolatrous object, for it could have been used for building something else. So, too, the sum total of the mizbaiach is not constructed from essentially idolatrous material. Whereas the monument, the matzaivah, is a one stone structure and that stone was hewn for one purpose and one purpose only - idol worship. Perhaps it is for this reason that it was so hateful to G-d and He banned its use for His service.


We had said that only Jacob made use of the matzaivah, yet Rashi says the patriarchs - in plural.

The answer to this question may be that Moses also used monuments. See Exodus 24:4, where he set up 12 monuments - matzaivos - for each tribe. The Torah tells us that this took place at the time he went up Mt. Sinai to receive the Tablets. So perhaps Rashi had both Jacob and Moses in mind when he wrote "the patriarchs". Granted Moses was not one of three Forefathers, but he certainly was one the founders of our religion.

But this just raises another more difficult question. Considering what Moses did, what would you ask?

Your Question:


A Question: If Moses also used a monument, and we can assume it was permissible, when did the use of the matzaivah become forbidden? If it was only Jacob who used the matzaivah, way back before the giving of the Torah, we can understand that during the ensuing generations idol worship entrenched itself and thus what G-d had previously loved, He now hated. But if also in Moses' time the matzaivah was acceptable to G-d when did it suddenly become hateful?

A difficult question, which I have not seen asked!

Can you suggest an answer?

Hint: Read chapter 24 and Rashi on these verses

Your Answer:


A Suggested Answer: Rashi in Exodus 24:1 says that this event took place before the giving of the Torah, not afterwards, as Ramban says. And the first mention in the Torah that monuments are forbidden comes in Exodus 34:13 which is after the sin of the Golden Calf.

Maybe we can say that only after G-d saw the terribly destructive influence that pagan worship had on Israel, as evidenced by their worshipping the Golden Calf, - only then did the monument really become hateful to G-d. The Calf was similar to the monument as that it too was wholly constructed for idol worship.

Shabbat Shalom
Avigdor Bonchek "What's Bothering Rashi?" is a product of the Institute for the Study of Rashi and Early Commentaries. A Hebrew translation of the Bereishis "What's Bothering Rashi?" is published. It is greatly expanded and is call "L'omko shel Rashi" look for it in bookstores.

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