The Torah tells the people of Israel to destroy the idols they find when they enter the Land of Canaan. Presumably, the Torah’s laws have no expiration date. Would this require me to shatter figurines and other idols today? How about museum pieces that have historical significance?


Before you get your hammer and start smashing things, let’s take a step back and look at the big picture. Generally speaking, there are two kinds of figurines, those that are worshipped and those that are not, and each type has its own set of laws.

Non-Idolatrous Images

One is biblically forbidden to make the form of a man out of any material (e.g., metals, wood, stone), even if just for decoration, as the verse states, “You shall not make with Me [iti]; gods of silver, or gods of gold, you shall not make for yourselves.”1 This can be read as: “You shall not make Me [oti]”; in other words, “Do not make a replica of that form—the human body—about which I wrote in My Torah, ‘Let us make man in Our image.’23

According to most, this prohibition only applies to making a three-dimensional4 full form of a person5 (e.g., a figurine or statue).

(Additionally, we learn from the literal reading of the verse, “You shall not make with Me,” that one is also forbidden to make images of celestial creations such as the sun, moon, stars, constellations or the angels, since the verse implies that one should not make images of those who are “with” G‑d on high.6 According to many, unlike images of man, one should not make even non-protruding, two-dimensional images of these celestial creations.7 This prohibition, however, does not extend to images made for learning purposes.8 The details of this prohibition are beyond the scope of this article.)

In addition to the biblical prohibition of making these images, there is a rabbinic prohibition to not keep the images in our possession, since it can appear as if you made them and/or that they are being kept in order to worship.9

Some are of the opinion that nowadays, when the vast majority of people don’t worship these images, one may keep them once they have already been obtained.10 Others disagree and are of the opinion that one can only keep them if the images are somewhat disfigured.11

Although, as explained, a Jew may not generally make or keep these types of images, one may nevertheless benefit from them.12 So as long as the images aren’t statues or icons made for idolatry, one would be permitted to visit a monument or museum to look at them, and one certainly doesn’t have to break them.

Destroying Idols

There are, however, many statues that were originally made as idols or icons that represent some sort of deity. In this case, one is prohibited from deriving any benefit or enjoyment from them.

But do we need to destroy them, as the Torah commands us in many places?13

There are a few factors to take into consideration. Firstly, the idol of a non-Jew can be “annulled.”14 In other words, if an idol worshipper demonstrates that he no longer considers the idol to be sacred by physically disfiguring it slightly (or, according to some, by at least stating his intent to do so), that idol loses the status of a deity. A Jew may then derive benefit from it. This, however, only works only if the idol was not owned by a Jew and if the person disfiguring the idol is himself an idol worshipper.

Alternatively, the idol is annulled if the idol was abandoned in a time of peace (or even in war, if the owner was able to return to it, but chose not to).15

Secondly, outside of Israel, one is only obligated to destroy idols that were not annulled (i.e., still have the status of a bona fide idol) and, additionally, are in a Jew’s possession or control.16

Since most of the idols in museums are not in the possession of Jews or under sole Jewish control, and many of these statues belong to religions and nations that have abandoned their deities and faded into oblivion, the commandment to destroy idols would not apply to them. Nevertheless, at a minimum, it is still virtuous to avoid gazing and deriving pleasure from them.17

We pray for the day when all will realize the true oneness of G‑d, the day when “the world will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as the waters cover the ocean bed.”18 May it be speedily in our days!