Avodah Zarah, Chapter Three, Mishnah Five
This mishnah discusses hills, mountains and trees which were used in idolatrous worship. The question is asked, are these to be forbidden as were other material items used in idol worship.
1) If idolaters worship mountains and hills these are permitted; but what is upon them is prohibited, as it is says, you shall not covet the silver or the gold that is on them and take them (Deut. 7:25).
2) Rabbi Yose the Galilean says: [it says] their gods on the mountains (Deut. 12:2), not their mountains which are their gods; their gods on the hills (ibid.), not their hills which are their gods.
3) And why is an asherah prohibited? Because there was manual labour connected with it, and whatever has manual labour connected with it is prohibited.
4) Rabbi Akiba said: let me expound and decide [the interpretation] before you: wherever you find a high mountain or elevated hill or green tree, know that an idolatrous object is there.
Section one: Although an idolater may worship a hill or mountain, that mountain is not prohibited to subsequent Jewish use as is a statue worshipped by a non-Jew. Any thing that is either ground or attached to the ground is not considered an idolatrous object that would be forbidden to Jews. However, that which is upon these worshipped mountains and hills is forbidden. This principle is learned from Deut. 7:25 which uses the word that is on them. Although according to the simple sense of the verse, this refers to the gold and silver that are on idols, the midrash in our mishnah understands this to be referring to the idolatrous objects that are on a mountain or hill. They are forbidden but the land itself is not.
Section two: Rabbi Yose Hagalili offers an alternative midrash to the one in the previous section. This verse instructs the Israelites to destroy all of the sites where the other nations worship. It says that these sites are on the mountains and hills. From here Rabbi Yose concludes that that which is on the mountains and hills is forbidden, but not the land itself.
Section three: So far we have learned in the previous two sections that in general land and anything attached to land is not treated as an idolatrous object. The mishnah raises a glaring exception to this rule, the asherah, a tree which was worshipped, which according to Deut. 7:5 and 12:3, must be cut down and burned. The answer is that any natural object that was planted by a human being and was gardened by a person is, if worshipped, to be treated as an idol.
Section four: Deut. 12:2 instructs Israelites to destroy all the idolatrous sites, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree. Rabbi Akiva seems to be answering the question, why does the Torah mention the mountains, hills and tree. It would have been sufficient to merely state that all idolatrous sites must be destroyed and we would know that this includes those found on mountains, hills and under luxuriant trees. Rabbi Akiva answers that the verse was giving a hint to the Jews where they could find idolatry.
Questions for Further Thought:
· What is the reasoning behind the answer given in section three that any tree that was planted by man is forbidden if used as an idol?