Avodah Zarah, Chapter Three, Mishnah One
According to Deuteronomy 7:25-26 it is forbidden for a Jew to derive any benefit from idolatrous images. Our mishnah defines which images made by non-Jews are idolatrous and therefore forbidden and which are made merely as adornments, and are therefore permitted.
1) All images are prohibited because they are worshipped once a year, according to the opinion of Rabbi Meir;
a) But the Sages say: [an image] is not prohibited except one that has a staff or bird or orb in its hand.
i) Rabban Shimon b. Gamaliel says: any [image] which has anything in its hand [is prohibited].
The Rabbis in this mishnah dispute which images (sculptures) that are made by non-Jews are prohibited, because they may be used for idolatrous purposes. According to Rabbi Meir, all images are prohibited for at least some of them are worshipped once a year. Even though most of the images may have only been made as decorations, and not truly as idols, since there are some that are indeed idols, all are forbidden. Furthermore, even though an idol seems to be made only as a decoration, since it may be worshipped once a year, it is forbidden.
The Sages dispute with Rabbi Meir. They hold that only the images that have in their hands a staff, bird or orb are forbidden. An image that holds one of these items, which probably was a symbol of power, was certainly made for idolatry. However, although some other images may have been made for idolatrous purposes, we are not sure if they were. Therefore we are not strict with regards to them, and they are permitted.
Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel basically agrees with the Sages that an image about which there is a doubt if it is idolatrous, is permitted. However, Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel adds that any image that has something in its hand is idolatrous, and is therefore forbidden.
Questions for Further Thought:
· What is the nature of the dispute between Rabbi Meir and the Sages? In other words what is the concept or concepts underlying their dispute?