Avodah Zarah, Chapter Four, Mishnah Five
Mishnah five discusses how a non-Jew can annul an idol.
1) How does he annul it?
a) If he cut off the tip of its ear, the tip of its nose, or the tip of its finger; or if he defaced it, although there was no reduction in the mass of the material, he has annulled it.
2) If he spat before it, urinated before it, dragged it [in the dust] or hurled excrement at it, behold it is not annulled.
3) If he sold or gave it as a pledge, Rabbi says that he has annulled it,
a) but the sages say that he has not annulled it.
Section one: In order to annul an idol, the non-Jew must treat the idol with enough disrespect that we can be confident that the idol is no longer considered to be holy by the non-Jew. Note, that the issue is not a physical issue. The mishnah is not asking the question, does this still look like an idol. Rather the issue is psychological. At one point can an outside observer assume that the owner of the idol no longer is relating to it as a god, but rather as merely a physical item devoid of religious meaning.
The first way for the owner to annul the idol is to somehow physically damage it. If he cuts off one of its appendages, this is sufficient physical damage for it to be annulled. Furthermore, if he defaces, meaning he distorts the facial features of the idol, it is annulled, even if he has not diminished the material used to make the idol.
Section two: Acting in a disgraceful way in front of the idol does not annul it. According to the Talmud, the non-Jew may being do this out of anger at the idol, without annulling its divinity. In other words, merely getting angry at the idol does not mean that the pagan assumes that it is no longer a god. When his anger cools down he will again worship the idol, and therefore the idol was never annulled. Another possible explanation is that sometimes performing a disgraceful act in front of an idol is a means of worship. In mishnah Sanhedrin 7:6 we learned that pagans worshipped baal peor by throwing feces at it. Therefore we cannot assume that other disgraceful acts to other idols are also not worship.
Section three: If a non-Jew sells or uses the idol as a pledge, according to Rabbi [Judah the Prince] he has annulled the idol. Since he treated it in a profane matter, and did something that one would not do to a divine idol, he must no longer be considering it to be an idol. The other Sages disagree with Rabbi.
Questions for Further Thought:
· Do you think the list in section one is exhaustive or merely a sample of ways of annulling the idol? What would be the ruling if he removed a leg, or a toe?