Take statues, which today we tend to think of as merely art objects—the kind of thing you find in the Greek and Roman galleries of a museum. To the rabbis, however, these statues were not meant for aesthetic admiration; they were images of gods like Apollo or Jupiter, and so they were abominations. “All statues are forbidden,” says the Mishna in Avodah Zarah 40b, “because they are worshipped once a year”—presumably on the holy day of the god they represent. Still, the rabbis realized that many statues were meant for ornamental purposes, not religious ones, and so they try to find a rule of thumb to tell these categories apart. The Mishna goes on to say that, in fact, a statue is prohibited only if it “has in its hand a staff, a bird, or an orb.” The Gemara explains that these were typical attributes of gods, meant to express their power: “A bird represents dominion as the idol grasps … the entire world the way one grasps a bird.”Actually, statues are controversial again these days, but for other reasons.
Earlier Daf Yomi columns are noted here and links.
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