idolatry, avodah zarah, covenantal loyalty, Mishnah


This article examines the Tannaitic conception of the worship of avodah zarah. The term is commonly translated as “idolatry,”but the definition of what constitutes worship of avodah zarah, in m. Sanh. 7:6, is based on a more nuanced notion than simply worship of foreign gods. For the Sages of the Mishnah, worship of avodah zarah involved misuse of objects and rituals associated with the Temple cult, which constituted a betrayal of covenantal loyalty. This means that although the rabbinic laws against the worship of avodah zarah were based on the biblical prohibitions against worshiping other gods, the actual rules for how these laws were to be enacted were extrapolations of the laws against the misuse of Temple objects. This explains why some activities that might seem like idolatry – such as decorating a cult statue or dedicating a child to Molech – are not considered avodah zarah.

Original Publication Citation

“Making Ritual Strange: The Temple Cult as the Foundation for Tannaitic Discourse on Idolatry,” Jewish Studies Quarterly 24/4 (2017): 339–355

Document Type

Peer-Reviewed Article

Publication Date


Permanent URL


Jewish Studies Quarterly




Religious Education


Ancient Scripture

University Standing at Time of Publication

Assistant Professor