By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
The Gemara in Avodah Zarah discusses the fact that Rabban Gamliel owned pictures of the moon. The images facilitated the questioning of witnesses who came to testify about the new moon. If the witnesses were unable to describe the moon they saw, Rabban Gamliel would ask them to pick their moon out of a lineup. It seemed like a great idea. The Gemara notes, however, that there is a biblical prohibition against making pictures of the moon, which leads the Gemara to wonder, “Why was Rabban Gamliel permitted to draw pictures of the moon?”
The pasuk says in Sh’mos (20:20) “You shall not make [images of] what is with me.” A beraisa (Rosh Hashanah 24b) says that included in this verse is a prohibition against fashioning images of the sun, moon, stars, constellations, humans, and angels. The Shulchan Aruch rules, however, that it is only prohibited to fashion a raised image of a human, such as on a coin. Rav Yaakov Emden discussed this exact scenario. A coin was once minted to honor a rav with his likeness on it. Rav Yaakov Emden ruled that not only was it not an honor, it violated a biblical prohibition. It is certainly forbidden to carve or mold a statue of a human. However, one may merely draw or paint the likeness of a person.
Why did the Gemara have an issue with Rabban Gamliel’s pictures? Weren’t they just drawings or flat depictions of the moon? Since it’s not a raised image, it should be permitted. Most rishonim explain that since the sun and moon appear in the sky to the human eye as flat, one cannot even draw unraised pictures of the sun and the moon. This is in contradistinction to angels (if a person merits to see them) or humans, which appear to a person to be full-bodied. This is indeed how the Shulchan Aruch rules. Therefore, the Gemara supposes that Rabban Gamliel should not have been allowed to draw standard flat pictures of the moon even for the purposes of facilitating testimony.
The Gemara implies that to fashion an incomplete forbidden image is permitted. One would be permitted to draw half a sun. The Sfas Emes wonders why the Gemara didn’t simply suggest that all of the pictures that Rabban Gamliel drew were incomplete images of the moon. After all, he was showing the witnesses drawings of the new moon, which are by definition only slivers and not a complete circle. The Sfas Emes answers that one may not draw even a sliver of the moon, because that is how it appears to the naked eye when the moon is in that corresponding phase. Contrast this with a sliver of the sun, which would be permitted. The sun appears full throughout the day, unless it is blocked by clouds. Therefore, one may draw a picture of a partial sun on the corner of a page. Alternatively, one may draw the sun but with clouds obscuring some part of it. (The Mesivta Gemara has pictures of the sun but shades a minor part to render the sun incomplete. Some argue that one cannot draw a sun obscured by clouds because that is how it sometimes naturally appears.)
Since one is forbidden to render even incomplete and flat pictures of the moon, how did Rabban Gamliel draw the pictures? The Gemara, faced with this unanswerable question, was forced to suggest that Rabban Gamliel did not draw the pictures himself but had a goy draw them for him. Though generally one cannot ask a gentile to do something that he can’t do himself, here it was permitted. Since the pictures were necessary for the mitzvah of kiddush ha’chodesh, amirah l’akum was permitted. (Tosfos)
Still, the Gemara suggests that Rabban Gamliel should not have been allowed to keep the pictures of the moon, because people might suspect that he worships the moon using those pictures. The Gemara accepts this premise and suggests explanations why Rabban Gamliel was an exception to this rule. Perhaps while people would suspect an individual of serving avodah zarah, they wouldn’t suspect a group of people. Since Rabban Gamliel was the nasi, there were always people coming and going. To suspect Rabban Gamliel would have meant that some of those people were suspect too. However, since a group is above suspicion, Rabban Gamliel was above suspicion as well. The clear implication is that in one’s private home, one may not own pictures of the moon. This is accepted halachah in the Shulchan Aruch. If you have textbooks or magazines with pictures of the moon, you seem to be transgressing a clear halachah in the Shulchan Aruch. Quick! Throw out those textbooks and magazines! However, the reason the Shulchan Aruch ruled that one may not own these pictures is that it may arouse suspicion that he worships them. This suspicion is no longer applicable.
Sometimes, we cannot determine if the halachah changes because the times have changed. Here it certainly does. Already the Vilna Gaon wrote that some of the suspicions mentioned in this siman (Y.D. 141) no longer apply. The Chochmas Adam, who lived later, suggested even more leniencies. It does not seem a stretch to say that no one would suspect the owner of a science magazine of worshiping the moon. This is what Rav Dovid Feinstein, shlita, said. Further, in regard to the idea to cover up pictures of the moon in children’s textbooks, he said, “It’s not even worth it to be machmir; why would you want to plant foreign ideas in the children’s minds?”
Still, one final question arises: Granted, a group is above suspicion of worshipping avodah zarah, but only one person actually made the pictures. We still hold that actually drawing the pictures of the moon is biblically forbidden. If so, one shouldn’t be allowed to keep the pictures because we might suspect that he drew them. Rebbe Shlomo Eiger, in explaining Tosfos, writes that we are only concerned here about suspicion of the severe sin of avodah zarah. The prohibition against drawing pictures of heavenly bodies is less severe. Therefore, the sages didn’t invent new limitations to prevent suspicion on the less stringent prohibition.
Rav Gavriel Kraus, a dayan in Manchester, asked Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, if children in school are permitted to draw pictures of the sun and the moon. Rav Moshe ruled like the Sefer Yad KaKetanah, that only pictures of the sun that people would look at and say, “That resembles the sun” are prohibited. Therefore, older children should not draw pictures of the sun and the moon. Young children, on the other hand, should be permitted to draw them. People would not say about their pictures that they resemble the sun and moon. But Rav Moshe questions, why would you want to train kids to draw pictures of the sun and moon? When they finally become good at it and their pictures actually resemble the sun and the moon, we will have to prohibit them from further drawing!
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.