In the beginning of Parashat Re’ei, we read Moshe’s command to Benei Yisrael to eradicate the pagan temples of the Canaanites after their conquest of the Land of Israel. He concludes, “ve-ibadetem et shemam min ha-makom ha-hu” – “you shall eradicate their name from that place” (12:3).
This phrase bears strong resemblance to a phrase in an earlier verse, in Parashat Eikev (7:24), where Moshe assures Benei Yisrael that God would lead them to victory over their enemies in the Land of Israel. He guarantees them that God would enable them to vanquish the Canaanites to the point of “ve-ha’avadeta et shemam mi-tachat ha-shamayim” – “you will eradicate their name from under the heavens.” The grammatical difference between these two phrases lies in the verb construction. The verse here in Parashat Re’ei employs what is known as the “pi’el’ verb form, producing the word “ibadetem,” whereas the earlier verse employs the “hif’il” form of this verb, yielding “ha’avadetem.”
The difference between the “pi’el” and “hif’il” constructions is that, generally speaking, the former is direct whereas the latter is causative. An action depicted in the “pi’el” form is done directly, whereas an action depicted in the “hif’il” form is one which indirectly causes an effect. Accordingly, Rav Yaakov Mecklenberg, in his Ha-ketav Ve-ha’kabbala, explains the difference between the command of “ibadetem et shemam” and the promise of “ha’avadeta et shemam.” The Gemara (Avoda Zara 46a), as cited by Rashi here in Parashat Re’ei, interprets the command “ibadetem et shemam” to mean that Benei Yisrael were to give derogatory names to the Canaanites’ sites of pagan worship, in place of the names by which the Canaanites referred to them. Rav Mecklenberg writes that Chazal arrived at this interpretation on the basis of the use of the “pi’el” form in this verse, which implies a direct “eradication” of the names of the pagan temples. Moshe here commands Benei Yisrael to do away with these names by coming up with different names for these pagan sites. In the earlier verse, however, where Moshe promises “ha’avadetem et shemam,” he means that Benei Yisrael will cause the names of their enemies to be eradicated through their resounding military triumph.
Interestingly, Rav Mecklenberg adds that this distinction led Chazal to a very significant halakhic conclusion. Immediately following the command of “ibadetem et shemam,” Moshe warns the people, “Lo ta’asun kein le-Hashem Elokeikhem” – “Do not do so to the Lord your God.” The Gemara (Makkot 22a) interprets this command as the Biblical source of the prohibition against destroying sacred property, such as dismantling the altar or other portions of the Beit Ha-mikdash, or burning sacred texts. (Accordingly, the Rambam lists this command as one of the 365 Biblical prohibitions – Sefer Ha-mitzvot, lo ta’aseh 65.) In Masekhet Shabbat (120a), the Gemara quotes these two adjacent verses – the command of “ibadetem et shemam” and the warning of “lo ta’asun kein” – and infers from them that the prohibition of “lo ta’asun” applies only to directly destroying sacred property. Thus, for example, at least according to one view, one who has the Name of God written on his skin is allowed to bathe, even though this would indirectly result in the erasure of the Name. Since this erasure is caused indirectly, the Gemara comments, it does not violate the Torah prohibition of “lo ta’asun kein,” which forbids only direct destruction of sacred property or sacred writ. Rav Mecklenberg explains that the prohibition of “lo ta’asun kein” forbids doing to our sacred articles that which Benei Yisrael were required to do to the pagans’ sacred articles. Therefore, the prohibition is defined as “ibadetem” – direct destruction, such that indirectly destroying sacred property would not fall under this Biblical prohibition.