Rabbi Shmuel Wise, Maggid Shiur at RealClearDaf.com
Which commandments applied to Adam?
The gemara on 56b discussed this in the context of the overarching discussion of the “Seven Commandments for All Descendants of Noah.” The gemara there brings the list of the tanna’im of Menasheh’s Academy and then presents an opinion that Adam was given three commandments: 1) Don’t do idolatry, 2) Don’t blaspheme G-d, and 3) Establish a civil court system. These are derived from the verse that relates G-d’s command to Adam not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge (Bereishis 2:16-17):
“And Hashem, G-d, commanded Adam saying: from all the trees of the Garden you may eat, but not from the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil…”
You may have wondered why the Tree of Knowledge commandment itself isn’t part of this list. Tosafos there explains that the gemara is only listing those commandments that were given for all generations. Hence the Tree of Knowledge mitzvah, which was only for Adam, isn’t counted. But wait – what if Adam never ate from the Tree of Knowledge? Presumably mankind would have remained in the Garden of Eden. And presumably the Tree of Knowledge prohibition would have continued for all generations. So what does Tosafos mean when he says that this mitzvah only applied to Adam? This would appear to suggest that really the mitzvah was never given to post-Adam generations because G-d of course knew from the beginning that Adam would sin and thereby bring the Tree of Knowledge commandment to an end. This would bring us to the age-old difficulty of reconciling the concept of Free Will with the fact that G-d knows everything that will be – a complex issue that is beyond the scope of this column.
The gemara explains how we derive these three commandments from the aforementioned verse. For the first two commandments it’s pretty straightforward: the opening words of the verse can be understood to mean, “And Hashem commanded Adam about His G-dliness.” It’s readily understandable how this reading teaches the first two commandments. For the obligation to recognize G-d surely dictates against serving idols or blaspheming G-d. But the beraisa says that we can even derive the obligation to establish a proper court system from this verse. Somehow the obligation to fear G-d dictates that humankind establish courts. To explain this connection, the beraisa mentions that judging fairly requires fear of G-d, but the question remains: how does fear of G-d actually imply a mitzvah to set up a court system to begin with?
Perhaps the answer is that having true fear of G-d results in a desire to emulate G-d – the ultimate way of coming close to Him. And G-d of course is the Judge of all judges, who reviews the deeds of man at all times and especially on Rosh Hashanah. So the derivation from the verse is clear: if you have fear of G-d, you will want to emulate Him and help others by arbitrating their disputes in a fair, merciful, and objective manner. So a command to fear G-d amounts to a command to administer justice in the world.
What is considered idol worship?
The mishnah on 60b taught us that if someone worships an idol with an act that is normally done to worship the idol in question, then that would definitely constitute idol worship that is punishable with the death penalty. There are also certain acts of worship that are always considered idol worship – even if they are not how this particular idol is normally worshiped. The mishnah lists the acts of worship that we are supposed to do when bringing a sacrifice in the Beis Hamikdash as examples of activities that will always be liable if done for an idol (e.g. slaughtering an offering, burning an offering, or bringing libations for the idol). The mishnah also adds “bowing” to this list. However, the mishnah excludes other acts like kissing or dressing the idol; these would only make a person liable if that was how the idol is commonly worshipped.
The gemara identifies the source for these rules. The Torah singles out the example of slaughtering for an idol and teaches that slaughtering for an idol would always earn the transgressor the death penalty – even if it wasn’t the proscribed way to serve this idol. But what about other acts of worship? For this the gemara applies the rule which says: When the Torah singles out an example from a category and teaches some law about it, assume that the law was intended for the entire category. Thus, this isn’t a teaching about slaughtering per se, rather, it is teaching that anything like slaughtering (i.e. any other act of worship that we do during a sacrifice) will make the person liable even where it is not the normal mode of serving this idol.
This however does not cover the act of bowing which isn’t part of the sacrificial service. For this, the gemara cites a different verse that singles out bowing and teaches that it too will always be considered idol worship. But wait – what happened to the above rule which says that whenever the Torah singles out an example we say that it wants to teach through the example a law for the entire category – which here would teach us that any (respectful) act for an idol is always liable – even if that’s not the way this idol is served? The gemara replies: though it’s not ideal, we must say that in this instance the teaching about bowing to an idol stands by itself – since we already learned from the slaughtering example that only acts similar to slaughtering (i.e. that are part of sacrificial worship) are on this list.
The gemara is still not satisfied with this because – why not say that the bowing example is the true model case? How was it decided to make slaughtering the model case instead? And if you’ll retort, “We can’t say that because then the slaughtering teaching would be redundant (because if the Torah says you’re liable for even non-sacrificial acts like bowing, it goes without saying that slaughtering would be liable)!” that’s no problem, for the slaughtering teaching could be teaching us a whole new form of idolatry: where the idolatrous intent at the time of the slaughter was not to slaughter for this idol, but about some planned future act of idol worship, for example, to sprinkle the blood of the animal for the idol later.
To bolster the need for such a teaching the gemara cites the opinion of Reish Lakish who says that in this very scenario (where he slaughters with in mind to sprinkle the blood later for the idol), the animal does not become forbidden as an idol sacrifice. Accordingly, it seems reasonable that we would need our verse to teach that although the animal does not become forbidden, the person’s act is still an act of idol worship that makes him liable.
In the end, the gemara rejects this proposal, arguing that the above animal/person distinction is so obvious that we wouldn’t require any special Scriptural teaching for it. The gemara likens our case to the halachah that if someone worships a mountain – the mountain doesn’t become prohibited (since things attached to the ground are excluded from becoming prohibited as a worshipped entity), nevertheless, the worshipper is surely liable for idolatry. Similarly here: although the animal does not become forbidden being that it wasn’t actually sacrificed for this idol, surely the person with the idolatrous intent is considered to have worshipped this idol, being that the act of slaughtering is a prerequisite for his intended act to then sprinkle for the idol. This argument is so obvious that we don’t need the slaughtering verse to teach it to us. Therefore we are compelled to say that the slaughtering verse is here in order to explain the general law of idolatry (namely, that a sacrificial act for an idol is liable even when that’s not the way people worship this idol), and the bowing verse is teaching an exception to the rule (i.e. even though bowing is not a sacrificial service, it is always makes one liable for idolatry).