• Rav Yitzchak Levy

The Context of the Command


            Three commands connected to the altar are mentioned in the book of Devarim:


You shall not plant you an Ashera of any tree near the altar of the Lord your God, which you shall make you. Neither shall you set you up any pillar, which the Lord your God hates. You shall not sacrifice to the Lord your God any bullock or sheep in which there is a blemish or anything evil, for that is an abomination to the Lord your God. (Devarim 16:21-17:1).


            The Seforno (ad loc.) relates to the common denominator between these three laws:


"You shall not plant you an Asheraof any tree." Three similar laws are brought involving things that are fitting according to the senses, but despised because of their spiritual blemish.

The first is the Ashera, which is an adornment for palaces, but nevertheless is despised for the Holy, since it is an instrument for idol worship. In similar fashion, we must give preference to spiritual justice over the perfection of the judge's body, which is tangible and corporeal.

The second is the pillar (v. 22). Even though it found favor prior to the giving of the Torah, as it says, "And twelve pillars" (Shemot 24:4) - and this is because the idea was that it is as if the person bringing the sacrifice was standing continually before the Holy, in the sense of, "I have set the Lord always before me" (Tehillim 16:8) - they fell from this level because of the golden calf, as it says, "For I will not go up in the midst of you" (Shemot 33:3). The same happens with an elder whose youth was not becoming, as he had a bad reputation when he was younger, when you find an elder whose youth was becoming.

Third, it brings the matter of a blemish (17:1) that is despised. Even though the animal is becoming to the senses, and fattened, and worth a thousand zuz, but nevertheless it is disqualified for the Holy because of a blemish that does not reduce its value. The same is true of an elder with a despicable character trait, when you find one who is more perfect than him in his traits, even though he is not as wealthy or handsome as him.


According to the Seforno, there is an essential connection between these three laws – they emphasize the relationship between something's superficial attractiveness and beauty and its spiritually flawed essence.


What is Included in the Prohibition?


The Netziv (ad loc.) notes that the verse contains two separate prohibitions:


1) The prohibition of planting an Asheraanywhere.

2) The prohibition of planting a tree next to the altar.


This view follows from what is stated in the Sifre:


"You shall not plant an Asherato you of any tree" – this teaches that one who plants an Ashera transgresses a negative prohibition. From where do we know that one who plants a tree on the Temple Mount transgresses a negative prohibition? The verse states: "Of any tree near the altar of the Lord your God." R. Eliezer ben Yaakov says: From where do we know that one may not build a portico in the Temple courtyard? The verse states: "Of any tree near the altar of the Lord your God." (Sifre Devarim, Parashat Shoftim, piska 145 (21))


            The Maharal makes a similar comment in his Gur Aryeh commentary (ad loc.):


"You shall not make an Asherato you of any tree." A warning, etc. As if it were missing a vav, and as if it said: "and any tree near the altar." In order that you should not mistakenly say that what it means is similar to "You shall not plant an Asherato you," which means for idol worship, it therefore says, "Any tree near the altar of the Lord your God," without a vav, as it is not connected to an Ashera, and it is as if each one were written separately as a prohibition: You shall not plant an Ashera, you shall not plant any tree, for now they are not the same. Therefore, Rashi does not explain, "And you shall not plant to you any tree" with a vav, so that you should not mistakenly say that "any tree" is for idol worship like "you shall not plant to you an Ashera." Alternatively, it would have implied that only planting is forbidden, but building is not. Therefore, it says: "Any tree, etc." That is to say, anything wooden, whether a structure or a tree, shall not be next to the altar of the Lord your God. This is more correct, for according to the first explanation, there is a difficulty, for even were it written, "And any tree near the altar of the Lord your God," we would not have mistakenly understood that it is for worship, for were it for worship, it should have written, "Any tree," and not "Ashera." The Rambam explains that that which it says that it is a warning not to build a structure is merely an asmakhta, for the verse itself comes to teach about planting, and not building.


In other words, we are dealing here with two different issues. The planting of an Ashera constitutes idolatry and is forbidden everywhere. There is also another prohibition that on the face of it is not connected to idolatry – the prohibition of planting a tree next to the altar. This includes both the planting of a tree and also the building of a wooden structure in close proximity to the altar. An Ashera is a tree planted for the sake of idolatry, and it is forbidden in all places; other trees are planted for aesthetic purposes, and they are only forbidden near the altar. Regarding the latter prohibition, there is room to discuss what exactly is forbidden, a tree or any wooden structure, and where the prohibition applies (only in the Temple courtyard or throughout the Temple Mount).


We will begin our discussion with the prohibition of an Ashera. We will attempt to understand the essence of an Ashera, the manner in which it is worshipped, in which context it appears, and what exactly is included in the prohibition.


What is an Ashera According to Scripture?


The word "Ashera," as it appears in the Bible, bears two different meanings:


1)     A goddess in the Canaanite pantheon, paralleling the god Ba'al.

2)     A ritual object made of wood, which is perhaps called by that name because of the goddess and which apparently represents the goddess or her fertility. The object may have had the form of a tree trunk, or else a wooden pillar set up against the altar.


Scriptural support can be found for both of these understandings.[1] We will begin with examples of the word “Ashera”being used in the sense of a goddess that was worshipped:


The book of Shoftim describes the actions of the people of Israel:


And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord and forgot the Lord their God, and served the Ba'alim and the Asherot. (Shoftim 3:7)


Scripture describes the actions of King Asa's mother, Ma'akha bat Avishalom, including the fact that she made a monstrous image for an Ashera. Her son Asa destroyed the image and burned it in the Kidron valley (I Melakhim 15:13, and the parallel verse in II Divrei Ha-yamim 15:16).


In the course of Eliyahu's struggle with Izevel and her idolatrous practices, Scripture notes that Eliyahu turned to Achav and declared:


Now therefore send and gather to me all Israel to Mount Carmel, and the prophets of Ba'al four hundred and fifty, and the prophets of the Ashera four hundred, who eat at Izevel's table. (I Melakhim 18:19)


Thus, there are prophets of Ba'al and prophets of the Ashera who encourage the worship of those idols.


Similarly, we find in the days of Yoash:


And they left the house of the Lord God of their fathers and worshipped Asherim and idols; and anger came upon Yehuda and Jerusalem for this, their crime. (II Divrei Ha-yamim 24:18)


            About King Menashe, we read:


And he set the carved idol of the Ashera that he had made in that house about which the Lord said to David, and to Shelomo his son, “In this house, and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all tribes of Israel, will I put My name forever.” (II Melakhim 21:7)


In other words, the carved idol of an Asherawas placed in the Temple as a substitute for the worship of the God of Israel.


Following the period of Menashe and Amon, King Yoshiyahu removed the Asherafrom the Temple:


And he brought out the Asherafrom the house of the Lord, outside Jerusalem, to the Kidron, and burned it at the Kidron Valley, and beat it into dust, and cast the dust of it upon the graves of the common people. (II Melakhim 23:6)


On the other hand, some of the verses prove that an Asherais a ritual object made of wood that represents the goddess, having the form of a tree or the trunk of a tree and set next to the altar. One of the clearest sources that support this idea is the incident involving Gidon:


And it came to pass the same night, that the Lord said to him, “Take your father's young bullock and the second bullock of seven years old, and throw down the altar of Ba'al that you father has, and cut down the Ashera that is by it. And build an altar to the Lord your God upon the top of this strongpoint, on the level place, and take the second bullock, and offer a burnt sacrifice with the wood of the Ashera which you shall cut down. (Shoftim 6:25-26)


It is clear from the plain meaning of the verses that there is a link between the Asheraand the altar and that the Asherais by the altar. Mention is made here of the wood of the Ashera, which implies that the Ashera was made of wood.


These verses connect the wood of the Asheradirectly to the altar, and according to them it is more difficult to separate between the prohibition to plant an Asheraand the prohibition to plant a tree next to the altar. It is possible that even though an Asherais prohibited in all places, the wood of the Asherawas near the altar, and there is therefore a great similarity in these cases between the two prohibitions.


The verse in Yeshayahu testifies to the relationship between the Asheraand the altar:


By this, therefore, shall the iniquity of Yaakov be atoned, and this is all the fruit to take away his sin: when he makes all the stones of the altar as chalkstones that are beaten in sunder, the Asherim and sun images shall not remain standing. (Yeshayahu 27:9)


            And similarly in the words of Yirmeyahu:


As they remember their children, so they remember their altars and their Asherim by the green upon the high hills. (Yirmeyahu 17:2)


            Certain expressions that appear in the verses depicting the destruction of the Asherim reinforce the understanding that we are dealing with wood. Thus, for example, several verses speak explicitly about burning the Ashera:


And you shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their Asherim with fire, and you shall cut down the carvings of their gods, and destroy the name of them out of that place. (Devarim 12:3)


            The Torah is precise in its choice of the verbs describing the destruction: altars are overthrown, pillars are broken, Asherim are burnt, and the carvings of their gods are cut down. This does not mean that the Torah does not use the term "cutting down" with respect to the Ashera and the term "burning" with respect to the carved idols, as is explicit elsewhere:


But thus shall you deal with them: you shall destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their Asherim, and burn their carved idols with fire. (Devarim 7:5)


            Several verses use the verb kerita in connection with the Ashera. An examination of the root k-r-t indicates that the root is often used in connection with cutting down trees. Thus, for example:


As when a man goes into the forest with his neighbor to hew wood, and his hand fetches a stroke with the axe to cut down (li-khrot) the tree, and the head slips from the handle and strikes his neighbor, so that he dies; he shall flee to one of those cities and live. (Devarim 19:5)


Only the trees which you know that they be not trees for food, you shall destroy and cut them down (ve-karata); and you shall build bulwarks against the city that makes war with you, until it be subdued. (Devarim 20:2)[2]


            Only in one place is the verb k-r-t used in connection with an image, and this is in the context of Asa's mother, Ma'akha bat Avishalom:


And also Ma'akha his mother, even her he removed from being queen, because she had made a monstrous image for an Ashera; and Asa destroyed (va-yikhrot) her image and burnt it in the Kidron Valley. (I Melakhim 15:12)


            It is clear from all these sources that an Ashera is a tree representing the divine that is planted near an altar.[3]


            As for the relationship between these two meanings – a Canaanite goddess, on the one hand, and a tree serving as a ritual object that is planted alongside the altar, on the other – it is reasonable to assume that in Canaanite culture, an Ashera represented the presence of this goddess. Planting it next to an altar seems to imply that the sacrifices offered there are being brought in her honor.


            Since the verses connect between the Ashera and altars, there is room to discuss once again the relationship between the two parts of the verse: "You shall not plant for you an Ashera of any tree near the altar of the Lord your God, which you shall make for you." Even though there are two separate commands here - a prohibition to plant an Ashera in all places, and a prohibition to plant a tree next to the altar, even not for the sake of idolatry – we find in the verses that there are Asherim at altars dedicated to idol worship.


The Ashera in the Words of Chazal


            Chazal also relate to an Ashera that was planted for the sake of idol worship. The mishna states:


There are three kinds of Ashera: A tree which was originally planted for idolatry – this is prohibited. If he lopped and trimmed [a tree] for idolatry, and it sprouted afresh, he removes the new growth. If he only set [an idol] under it and took it away, the tree is permitted.

What is an Ashera? Any [tree] beneath which there is an idol. R. Shimon says: Any [tree] which is worshipped. It happened at Tzidon that there was a tree which was worshipped and they found a heap of stones beneath it. R. Shimon said to them: Examine this heap. They examined it and discovered an image in it. He said to them: Since it is the image that they worship, we permit the tree for you. (Avoda Zara 3:8)


            The first two laws in the mishna are accepted by all; the third is subject to dispute. R. Shimon maintains that only a tree that was itself worshipped is forbidden as an Ashera. If the Ashera itself was not worshipped, but rather people worship some idolatrous object under it, it is not forbidden. It is clear that according to all opinions, a tree that was planted for the sake of idolatry is prohibited.


            Thus, according to the mishna, there are several kinds of forbidden Asherim:


1)      A tree that was planted from the outset for the sake of idolatry. Practically speaking, the tree is similar to a house that was built for the sake of idolatry or a stone that was quarried for the sake of idolatry. Since an idol was formed, it is immediately forbidden even if it was never actually worshipped. From a halakhic perspective, the novelty here is that even though the tree is connected to the ground, and in general something that is connected to the ground cannot become forbidden since it was in the person's hand when it was planted, it is treated with respect to the prohibition of idolatry as disconnected from the ground and therefore forbidden.


2)      An idolater who trims and prunes a tree for the sake of idol worship, so that people will worship the new shoots that will grow from it.


3)      If one sets up an idol under a tree, designating that the tree should be used exclusively for this purpose, deriving benefit from the tree is forbidden, as it is something that is used in the service of an idol. If he did not designate the tree for this purpose, deriving benefit from the tree is permitted. If an idol was set up permanently under a tree, the tree is forbidden by Torah law – according to the Sages, if it was planted from the outset for that purpose, and according to R. Yose ben R. Yehuda, even if it was not initially planted for that purpose. R. Shimon maintains that if the tree itself is not worshipped, but rather an idol is worshipped under the tree, the tree is permitted. If the tree itself is worshipped, it is included in the prohibition of an Ashera, but if the tree merely serves an idol, it is not forbidden.


The gemara (Avoda Zara 48a) concludes that if heathen priests sit under a tree but do not eat of its fruit, or if they say that the fruit is designated for an idolatrous house of worship, the tree is forbidden, as it is presumed to be an Ashera. The gemara later discusses what activities are permitted under and alongside an Ashera (planting, sowing, and the like).


In the Rishonim


            Rashi (ad loc.) writes:


Even if one did not worship it, he transgresses the prohibition from the time that he plants it.


In other words, the prohibition relates to the planting itself.


            The Rashbam explains:


"You shall not plant you an Ashera" – any tree, lest you come to worship it in the manner of the heathen nations.


According to the Rashbam, the prohibition to plant an Ashera stems from the concern that a person might come to practice idol worship. The prohibition applies to the planting of any tree; the word "Ashera" is used here to explain the nature of the prohibited worship.


The Ramban writes:


"You shall not plant you an Ashera" – Any tree planted near the doors of a house of worship is called an Ashera… Scripture warns that one must not plant a tree next to the altar of God for ornamental purposes, thinking that it is a show of respect and glory to the altar of God. It is forbidden because it is the practice of heathens to plant trees at the doors of their houses of worship. As it is stated: "And throw down the altar of Ba'al… and cut down the Ashera that is by it" (Shoftim 6:25).


            According to the Ramban, an Ashera is an ornamental ritual object that designates the place as a ritual site. It is forbidden because it was the practice of heathens to plant trees at the doors of their houses of worship.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] The proofs for the two meanings of this expression are brought in Encyclopedia Ha-Mikra'it, vol. 1, pp. 786-7.

[2] Additional examples: In connection with the building of the house of God: "Now therefore command you that they cut down (ve-yikhretu) for Me cedar trees out of the Lebanon" (I Melakhim 5:20); "For I know that your servants know how to cut (li-khrot) timber in Lebanon" (II Divrei Ha-yamim 2:6).

Mention is similarly made of the cutting of a tree in the account of the spies' journey in Eretz Yisrael: "And they came to Nachal Eshkol and cut down (va-yikhretu) from there a branch with one cluser of grapes… because of the cluster of grapes which the children of Israel cut down (kartu) from there" (Bamidbar 13:23-24).

Kerita is also mentioned in connection with a forest: "They shall cut down (kartu) her forest, says the Lord, though it cannot be searched" (Yirmeyahu 46:23), and in connection with sprigs: "He shall both cut off (ve-katar) the sprigs with pruning hooks, and take away and cut down the branches" (Yeshayahu 18:9).

[3] Other verbs that support this understanding include bi'ur, as is mentioned in connection with Yehoshafat: "Nevertheless, there are good things found in you, in that you have taken away (bi'arta) the Asherot out of the land, and have directed your heart to seek God" (II Divrei Ha-yamim 19:3). Similarly,  gedi'a also appears, as is mentioned with respect to Asa: "For he took away the altars of the foreign gods and the high places, and broke down the pillars, and cut down (va-yegada)the Asherim" (II Divrei Ha-yamim 14:2). This usage is also found with respect to Chizkiyahu: "Now when all this was finished, all Israel that were present went out to the cities of Yehuda and broke the images in pieces, and cut down (va-yedade'u) the Asherim, and broke down the high places and the altars, out of all Yehuda and Binyamin" (II Divrei Ha-yamim 31:1).