“The Unfathomable Practice of Molech Worship”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In Leviticus 18, the last chapter of this week’s parasha, parashat Acharei Mot, we encounter a long list of prohibitions that include unlawful marriages, and unchaste and immoral behavior.

In Leviticus 18:3, G-d speaks to Moses, exhorting him to address the children of Israel and to say to them in G-d’s name: “K’mah’ah’seh eretz Mitzrayim, ah’sher y’shav’tem bah, loh tah’ah’soo.” Do not follow the practices of the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, and after the practices of the land of Canaan, to which I bring you, do not follow their traditions. Moses instructs the people of Israel to diligently carry out G-d’s laws, to safeguard the divine decrees and follow them, for it is through performing these laws that a person shall live.

After presenting the extensive list of prohibited marital and family relationships, the Torah concludes with specific prohibitions against Molech worship, sodomy and bestiality.

Despite prohibiting the practice, the Bible does not clearly identify the nature of Molech worship. Only by piecing together various biblical references is the worship of Molech partially identified as some form of child sacrifice. For instance, in Kings II 3:27, it is stated that the Moabite king, Mesha, sacrificed his eldest son at a time of a national crisis, thinking that the offering would stave off defeat at the hands of Israel. However, the text there does not specify that the sacrifice was made to an idol named “Molech.”

Another source, in Kings I 11:7, identifies Molech as the national god of the Amonites. In Deuteronomy 12:31, the Bible states that the Canaanite burned their children as an offering to the gods, but again, the name “Molech” is nowhere mentioned. Nor does the Torah mention Molech in Deuteronomy 18:10, where it forbids the Hebrews from making their sons and daughters “pass through the fire.” Both Leviticus 18:21 and Jeremiah 32:35 speak of offering children to Molech, but the use of fire is not mentioned. Only in Kings II 23:10, are Molech and fire mentioned together.

As a result of the non-definitive nature of the biblical references, the Talmud (Sandhedrin 64b) suggests two alternative methods of worship of Molech. One opinion maintains that children were made to walk between two fires as a symbol of their dedication to god, but were not physically harmed. The other is that the children were tossed back and forth over the fire until they were burned alive.

The Bible in Kings II 21:6, says that the wicked king, Menashe, passed his son through the fire and participated in all sorts of witchcraft. From here, some sages conclude that the original practice was to “merely” pass the child through the fire, but not to harm the child. Eventually, the practice “advanced” to full child sacrifice. Once Menashe introduced the practice into the kingdom of Judea, it quickly spread among the masses during his reign.

The difference of opinions that are found in the Talmud, are found among the later biblical commentators as well. Nachmanides (Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) points out that worshiping Molech involves two separate prohibitions. From the verse (Leviticus 18:21) “Loh tee’tehn, thou shalt not give, Nachmanides rules that handing the child to the heathen priests is one prohibition. The second prohibition, deduced from the word, “L’ha’ah’veer, is the act of actually passing the child over the pyres of wood, into the actual flames. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible), however, does not include sacrificing the child as a feature of Molech worship.

The prophet Jeremiah bitterly chastises the Jewish people for their frequent immoral behavior throughout the generations. In Jeremiah 7:30-31, the prophet rails against the peoples’ practice of placing their abominations in the House [the Temple], upon which G-d’s name was proclaimed, to contaminate it. He also fiercely condemns the people who erected the high altars of “Tophet” that were located in the valley of Ben-Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire. Rashi explains that on the high places of Tophet, a brass idol with outstretched hands, was erected into which the child offering was placed, while beneath, the fire burned. During the sacrificial rite, the priests used to beat on their drums (tuppim) to drown out the cries of the infant victims, which might have stirred the mercy of the parents.

It is almost inconceivable to imagine that our ancestors actually performed any of these abominable practices. Unfortunately, Biblical evidence asserts that they did, and that the practice was, at times, quite popular. Ironically, while we bemoan the mass assimilation wreaking havoc in Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora today, the abominable practices of the Jews of old were far more reprehensible, and represented a far greater and graver assimilation than we are experiencing in contemporary times.

The fact that the Bible warns against the practice of Molech is an indication that these terrible rites were undoubtedly practiced. The same is true of bestiality and of the many other immoral practices mentioned in the Bible.

How far did our people stray in their reprehensible practices? Probably much further than we can ever imagine. And yet, somehow, our people always found their way back, or at least a minority of Jews found their way back. Only about 60 years after the death of the wicked king Menashe, his grandson, the righteous king Josiah, inspired the people to return and repent, cleansing the land of Judea of idol worship, and renovating the holy Temple. Despite the popular appeal of the Molech cult, the Jewish people abandoned that shameful form of worship, and returned to G-d.

Let us pray, that our contemporary brothers and sisters, who seem to have drifted so far away from their Jewish roots, but not nearly as far as the ancients who practiced the evil Molech rituals, will return to their Jewish practices. May we see the Temple renewed and rebuilt in the near future, and may we all merit soon to worship G-d in peace, tranquility and joy.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat, the Shabbat that immediately precedes Passover, is known as Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Shabbat. On this Shabbat, we read a special Haftarah from the prophet Malachi 3:4-24, in which we find the verse: “Behold I send to you Elijah the Prophet, before the great and awesome day of G-d.” For more information on Shabbat Hagadol, see Tzav 5762-2002 .

The first two days of the joyous festival of Passover will be observed this year on Monday night, April 18th and all day Tuesday and Wednesday, April 19th and 20th. The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Sunday night, April 24th, and continue through Monday and Tuesday, April 25th and 26th.

Chag Kasher v’Samayach.

Wishing all our friends a wonderful, joyous and meaningful Passover.