“Idolatrous Trees and Unqualified Judges”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shoftim, we learn of the prohibition of planting forbidden trees and erecting forbidden pillars near a Jewish house of worship.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 16:21-22 states, לֹא תִטַּע לְךָ אֲשֵׁרָה כָּל עֵץ אֵצֶל מִזְבַּח השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה לָּךְ. וְלֹא תָקִים לְךָ מַצֵּבָה אֲשֶׁר שָׂנֵא השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ, You shall not plant for yourself an idolatrous tree–-any tree–-near the altar of the L-rd your G-d, that you shall make for yourself. And you shall not erect for yourself a pillar, which the L-rd your G-d hates.

Nachmanides states that an אֲשֵׁרָה “Ah’shay’rah,” a forbidden tree, has two meanings. 1. Because idolaters would landscape their temples in order to attract worshipers, an “Ah’shay’rah” may be a tree that is intended for worship whether it is meant to be worshiped immediately, or at some future time, or by someone else; 2. “Ah’shay’rah” could also mean any kind of tree planted near the Temple altar.

Just as the prohibition of “Ah’shay’rah” forbids the planting of any type of tree near a house of worship, similarly, it is forbidden to construct a pillar of stone in order to mark a place of worship. This is true even if the intention is to use the stone for the worship of the G-d of Israel.

The The Alshich raises a question regarding those who plant a tree or establish a pillar. If their intention in planting a tree or placing a pillar is not to serve as a signpost for the people to their pagan temples, as was the motive of the idol worshipers, but rather to beautify the grounds of the Temple, are those who plant a tree or erect a pillar in violation of the prohibitions? The Alschich states that this too is clearly prohibited, because although these actions may seem innocuous at this point, these objects may eventually lead to pagan worship. Small gestures that start out as acts of beautification, or to mark the location, often begin the process of drifting away from Judaism and result in pagan worship. Thus, a pretty tree or a small stone marker may eventually lead to much more serious deviations resulting in total apostasy.

Nachmanides prohibits the placing of a tree or pillar near any house of worship, not only the holy Temple in Jerusalem. No matter how harmless these symbols may seem to be, all places of Jewish worship must be free from any such symbols and foreign religious influences.

The rabbis wonder why the prohibitions of planting forbidden trees and establishing idolatrous pillars follow in the scriptural text immediately after the opening verses of parashat Shoftim regarding appointing judges and officers. In Deuteronomy 16:18, the Torah states, שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים תִּתֶּן לְךָ בְּכָל שְׁעָרֶיךָ, Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your cities. The juxtaposition of those two themes lead the sages in Talmud Avoda Zarah 52a to conclude that appointing an unqualified judge is tantamount to planting an idolatrous tree.

The commentators suggest that in much the same way as an unqualified judge compromises the notion of justice, so too do planting an idolatrous tree or raising a pillar near a house of worship distort the whole idea of spiritualism and religion.

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Ferber cited by Peninim on the Torah, suggests that just as a beautiful “Ah’shay’rah” tree conceals its impurity, making it difficult to recognize its foreign idolatrous purpose, so does an incompetent and unsuitable judge obscure his inability to render proper legal decisions. This is particularly true in the case of judges who are brilliant intellectuals and scholars but lack a refined character and are bereft of sincere internal piety.

Peninim on the Torah also cites Harav Moishe Sternbuch who suggests that the pagan custom of using trees to add external beauty to their temples is not necessary in Jewish houses of worship. In fact, the inner beauty of these structures, characterized by Torah study and prayer, far exceeds any potential external beauty. Similarly, it is the internal piety and righteousness of the scholar that represent the ultimate qualifications of a judge. No fancy titles or degrees are necessary to enhance such a judge’s qualifications.

It is clear that the Torah is far less concerned with external esthetics and is far more concerned with the inner substance and what takes place inside the synagogues and the courts of laws.

May you be blessed.