In biblical times there were numerous false gods that were popular in the ancient pagan societies, and, at times, among the Jewish people as well. Throughout the Tanach, there are many references to a rite named Molech, which involved passing children through fire, with many warnings from G‑d to not observe it.

The Prohibition

The first we hear of it is in the portion of Acharei Mot: “And you shall not give any of your offspring to pass through for Molech. And you shall not profane the Name of your G‑d. I am the L‑rd.”1

In the portion of Kedoshim we read about the consequences of such an action:

And to the children of Israel, you shall say: Any man of the children of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn among Israel, who gives any of his offspring to Molech, shall surely be put to death; the people of the land shall pelt him with stones.

And I will set My attention upon that man, and I will cut him off from amidst his people, because he gave of his offspring to Molech in order to defile My holy ones and to profane My holy Name.

But if the people of the land ignore that man when he gives of his offspring to Molech, not putting him to death.

I will set My attention upon that man, and upon his family, and I will cut him off, and all who stray after him to stray after Molech, from amidst their people.

And yet once again in Deuteronomy, in the portion of Shoftim: “There shall not be found among you anyone who passes his son or daughter through fire [Rashi: this was the unique service of the Molech], a soothsayer, a diviner of [auspicious] times, one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer . . .”2

Maimonides counts the prohibition of passing one’s child through Molech as negative commandment #7 out of 365.

What Was Molech?

Clearly, the Molech attraction was quite intense to have the demerit of so many mentions in the Torah. So, what do we know about this idolatry?

Let us begin with the Talmud.3 We read in the Mishnah: “One who gives of his offspring to Molech is not liable [to be stoned] unless he hands over [the child] to the priests of Molech and passes the child through the fire.”

The Gemara provides two traditions regarding the actual ritual: According to Abaye, the child would walk on a raised brick walkway between two fires.

According to Rava, the child would be made to leap over a fire burning in a pit (similar to how children would amuse themselves on Purim).

Rashi, in his commentary on the Torah, adopts the opinion of Abaye: “This was a form of idolatry, named Molech, and this was the manner of its worship, that one would hand over one’s child to the pagan priests, who would make two huge fires. The child was then passed through on foot between these two fires.”4

Nachmanides, quoting the Jerusalem Talmud,5 argues that the service included the father himself passing his child through the fire!6 Maimonides concurs with this opinion.7

The Midrash8 elaborates on this disturbing service:

How did the Molech work in the valley of Ben-Hinnom? It was built outside of Jerusalem. It was an idol with the face of a calf and open hands like someone who wants to take something from another. They would light this idol on fire until his hands were scorching. There were seven chambers before him and according to the quality of the sacrifice that is how close one could come to him. If one came with a bird, then chamber one; goat, chamber two; sheep, chamber three; calf, chamber four; cow, chamber five; and ox, chamber six.

He who brought his child, the priests would say that he is offering the greatest sacrifice. He would enter the innermost chamber and go kiss the Molech . . .

The priests would then take the child and place it near the Molech. They would then bang with drums to drown out the cries.

. . Come see how obsessed the nation was with idol worship that they were willing to do something so reprehensible! But in the future, says G‑d, “I will remove your heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh.”9

Did the Child Die?

While the Midrashic tradition cited above states that the child died during the service, not all agree that this happened.

Maimonides argues this was a service which the child survived (albeit emotionally scarred for life).10 Other opinions, however, say that the child was actually scarred physically or even burned to death!11 The priests would bang and clap to drown the noise from the child’s screams so that the father would not regret his decision.

Whoa! Why would anyone in his right mind find such a service attractive for his own children?

Maimonides tells us that the conniving priests of Molech convinced people that whoever did not have their children participate in this ritual would witness the death of their children.12 Thus, people felt that by appeasing the Molech god they would secure their child’s future.13

Was It Really Practiced?

The Book of Kings tells us of Solomon’s many foreign wives and their impact on him.

Then did Solomon build a high place for Chemosh, the abomination of Moab, on the mountain that is before Jerusalem, and for Molech, the abomination of the children of Ammon.14

King Solomon actually built a site for Molech?

Says Rashi:15 “Our Rabbis said, since he did not protest against his wives, it is referred to on his name.” Solomon didn’t build the temples but he remained quiet in the face of his wives’ deviant behavior.

We also read of an evil king named Ahaz:

Ahaz was 20 years old when he became king, and he reigned 16 years in Jerusalem, and he did not do what was proper in the eyes of the L‑rd his G‑d like David his antecedent.

He went in the ways of the kings of Israel, and he also passed his son through fire in the abominable manner of the nations whom the L‑rd had driven out from before the children of Israel.16

And then there was King Menashe: “And he passed his sons through fire in the valley of Ben Hinnom; he practiced soothsaying, divination, and sorcery, and he consulted necromancers and those who divine by the jidoa bone; he did much that was evil in the eyes of the L‑rd, to provoke Him.”17

In the book of Jeremiah we read that G‑d said: “And they have built the high places of Topheth which are in the valley of Ben- Hinnom, to burn their sons and daughters with fire, which I did not ordain, neither did it enter My mind.”18

The Relevance

The rabbis ask why the prohibition of Molech in the Torah follows the prohibitions of unkosher sexual relationships. They offer several insightful answers:

Menachem ben Benjamin Recanati19 proposes that both sins reflect a reneging on relationship vows. Idolatry is unfaithfulness to the pact we made with G‑d at Sinai.20

The Abarbanel21 offers two answers:

  1. The people of Canaan were morally derelict, specifically in these two sins.
  2. Just as sexual promiscuity is the abuse of the procreative power, so too the passing (and killing) of one’s child through fire is the abuse of the divine gift for procreating children.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch22 opines that the link between the two is that “one’s children are not born from blind bodily lust but were rather born inherently free. So too in their lives, they should not be subservient to blind luck and destiny which befalls them. After all, their conception and birth were by Divine Guidance and Providence, and therefore they should lead a purposeful life… “Give Me your children – says G‑d – let Me educate them, allow Me to bring each one of them to their ultimate potential in their unique way. Don’t give them over to Molech and thereby desecrate My name!”

The take-home message from this disturbing history lesson is that we must cherish our children and our responsibility towards them. Young children are dependent upon adults, and it is the adults’ obligation to take that task seriously and never abuse the naivete and trust of young children. We are called upon to watch over and protect G‑d’s magnificent children.