Letters June 2006



Picture Perfect


Reader: My daughter came home form school very upset. After she drew a picture of Rabbi Akiva, the girls in her class told her one was not permitted to draw a picture of one of the Avot. We have asked our shul Rabbi, who had heard of this, but did not know its source. Another Rabbi in shul also didn't know its source. By the way, all the girls who were present for the shul discussion had also heard this. Any thoughts?


Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Tonight is Shavuos, the holiday celebrating God’s gift of His Torah to the Jews on Mount Sinai. In Exodus 20:4, in the second of the Ten Commandments prohibiting idolatry, God says as follows: “Do not create a statue or any likeness of that which is in heaven above, and that is on Earth below, and that is in water below the Earth.” We learn two prohibitions: not to create a “statue” – a 3-dimensional image – and not to create a “likeness”, referring to an image drawn or painted on a flat surface.

Halacha (Jewish law; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 141) states that one is prohibited to create a 3-dimensional replica of an entire human being. However, animals, fish, trees, and plants may be created, even in three dimensions. We learn that King Solomon built a large, copper bathing laver for the priests, which incorporated twelve oxen in its design. (Kings I; 7:23-26)

If one sculpts a man partially, i.e., with no legs no nose, he has not violated the Halacha. (Some hold even a human head alone is prohibited when created in 3-dimensions) This is only regarding a 3-dimensional image, since God says we may not create idols of man for fear of worshipping something other than God. But with regards to creating a 2-dimensional image (drawings, paintings, weavings, etc.), there is no prohibition except for the heavenly spheres (stars, sun, moon and planets), which are prohibited even in two dimensions unless for purposes of study and teaching (ibid, 141:6), in which case even 3-diemnsional replicas are permitted.

The reasoning for the difference in these laws is based on human perception: since we perceive man in three dimensions (front and back) that is precisely how we cannot duplicate him. Therefore, a drawing is permitted: since that is not how man is experienced, our replica is inaccurate and does not violate the law. But since we do not perceive the heavenly objects, except as flat disks in the sky (we cannot move behind them to experience their 3-dimensional depths) even drawing them is prohibited, for that is an exact replication as visually perceived. Certainly a 3-dimensional replica is prohibited, since that is certainly its true form.

However, there is no distinction between people (patriarchs or others) with regards to creating their likeness in either dimension. Just as we cannot create a sculpture of a complete man, for example our neighbor, we also cannot create a sculpture of the patriarchs. And conversely, since we can draw our neighbor, we can also draw the patriarchs. In fact, I praise your daughter for her drawing, as this displays her interest in our Torah leaders, in contrast to the typical, notebook doodles of other students! Tell her to please draw me a picture of the patriarchs, perhaps we’ll use it in the JewishTimes!

I wonder why the Rabbi of whom you spoke with did not immediately recall how many books exist today containing Rabbis’ photos, or Jewish newspapers that report events displaying Rabbis’ photos throughout. Such photos are permissible replicas, and no different than drawings of the patriarchs. Suggesting the Patriarchs possess a higher level of prohibition elevates them to more than what they were: human beings. This suggestion that the patriarchs possessed such prohibitions, inapplicable to other men, smacks of human deification, which violates Torah. The patriarchs were greatly perfected, but that plays no role in creating replicas of their bodies, in which they are no different than any other man. Furthermore, it is impossible to draw someone we never met, so your daughter is not even drawing “Rabbi Akiva”, as she was accused! I would say it is a good thing as we develop into adults, that students create pictures of the patriarchs and great individuals, as it inspires their lives.

Thinking about this rationally, we learn that prohibitions exist only when creating 3-dimensional replicas of entire human figures. Drawings are not prohibited. We then wonder from where came this popular notion that drawing everyday people is permissible, but drawing patriarchs is prohibited. What is the concern: that we are “looking” at the patriarchs? But if that were a true concern, the patriarchs would have never let others see them 1000s of years ago! If today, people feel there is something “holy” about the patriarchs, and therefore we cannot draw them, the response is again: no one today knows what they looked like. And even if we did know what Rabbi Akiva looked like, what could possibly be problematic about drawing him: does our drawing invest the image with “holiness”? And even if it did, there is no problem with possessing holy items, since we will in the future dedicate animals for Temple worship, those animals being holy. Alternatively, if people feel we must not look at a likeness of the patriarchs, why then did this prohibition not exist in the times of the real, living patriarchs? A picture is far less related to the patriarch, than his living body.

We conclude: 1) we cannot invest holiness in drawings; 2) and even if we can, there is no prohibition; 3) no problem exists in looking at the patriarch, alive or in picture form; 4) pictures of anything except heavenly bodies are permissible to illustrate. Your daughter is perfectly in line with the Torah when she draws the Avot.

As you can see, such notions are not founded on rational thought, but are based in inexplicable fears and emotions…not part of Torah. Moses was the only person who used a veil due to the miraculous light shining from his face. But all other prophets, matriarchs and patriarchs confronted people in normal conversation, and others with them, as the patriarchs did not elevate themselves above others in any way…they were truly humble, and Moses was “more humble than any man o the face of the Earth”. (Num. 12:3) Had drwaings of patriarchs been prohibited, the Shulchan Aruch would have said so in that section.

At the same time, if pictures of great people were essential to our perfection, it would have been a Torah law to draw them. But as it is not, we learn that the path to perfection is one where God retains our focus, and not people. But this is at an older age. For now, a child should not be dissuaded from such a genuine preoccupation with great people. Many years from now she can be taught the difference between youthful identification with leaders, and a mature outlook where we should direct our attention towards the Creator alone. But even though there is no law to create pictures and it is unnecessary for perfection, the bottom line is that drawings are not prohibited, so your daughter’s art is picture perfect.

An important lesson is learned from your question, besides the Halacha: one must not repeat what they feel or hear, in the name of Torah, if they are not certain of its authentic source in either the Written Torah, Prophets or Writings, or in the Oral Law of the Mishna or Talmud.


Reader: You made her day! My daughter said she will draw you a picture and especially loved where you said since she never met Rabbi Akiva she wasn't really drawing him.





Drawing the Line


Reader: Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim, You wrote, “the punishment is so severe, if a gentile learns Torah other than what applies to his seven Noachide Laws.” My questions are: Does it mean that I cannot read the whole Torah? If so, how can I be sure of which part I can read, and which not? What about hearing a Jew talking about any part of Torah: may I do so? May I participate? Does it mean that there is something in the website Mesora that I cannot learn or read? How can I recognize it? If someone paraphrases something from Torah that I don’t know belongs, or not to the seven Noachide Laws, can I get interested? What should I do?  

Please help me understand this because it makes me feel very insecure and sometimes sad, especially because I am not sure of what I can and what I cannot read/learn. Is there a difference between reading and learning Torah? 

Your answers to all this questions are very important to me because I am very confused at this point but I want to go. 

Thanks in advance, Dawn


Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Dawn, I conferred with Rabbi Reuven Mann and he confirmed that aside from the 7 Noachide laws, you can learn the following:

1. All laws addressing human perfection, such as charity, prayer, kindness and so on, including Biblical stories of the patriarchs and prophets that exemplify such perfection;

2. You can study any law you wish to keep in addition to the 7 Noachide laws, but if you do not plan to observe another law, then mere theoretic study is prohibited. I mentioned in the past the reasoning is that the Jew must remain the Torah authority. And this is to insure that others with no obligation in observance are not viewed as authorities, since one with no obligation has less incentive to fully grasp, and thus teach, Jewish law;

3. I also feel you must learn those areas imparting greater knowledge of what God is, such as Revelation at Sinai, His 13 attributes, and so on.  I cannot imagine that you would not be able to study what appeals to your mind as a genuine interest in this area;

4. Reading and study of Torah is the same thing;

5. If a Rabbi or Jew is giving a class on Jewish laws that do not apply to you, you cannot attend. But if the class is concerning areas of human perfection that apply equally to Noachides, then you can attend.


To answer your other previous questions, I feel you can join any topic in our Discussion Forum (which is primarily philosophy), as well as read any article that appears to address Torah philosophy, fundamentals, and Chumash Parsha accounts, since they apply to perfection. But articles that address specific commands (mitzvahs) that do not apply to Noachides, concerning which you have not selected to follow, you must avoid. If however you are not sure if you wish to follow a new command in addition to the 7 Noachides, it appears to me you can investigate that command sufficiently, so as to determine of you wish to follow it. This of course precludes laws of Sabbath, Holidays, (and Tefillin and circumcision to my mind), all addressing the distinction of the Jew as a Torah authority, or possessing a covenant with God.