An Art Collector’s Dilemma!
‘Rabban Gamaliel Had The Form Of Various Moon Shapes…’
(Rosh Hashanah 24a)
The Gemara reports that Rabban Gamliel kept images of the moon on a tablet, which he used when interrogating unlearned witnesses who came to testify regarding the new moon. He would show them various shapes and positions of the moon and ask them to describe how the new moon appeared in the sky, in order to determine the veracity of their testimony.
‘You Shall Not Make With Me’
The Gemara questions the permissibility of making images of the moon since Shemos 20:20 states, “You shall not make with me,” which teaches us that it is forbidden to form or sculpt celestial images – even if not for the purposes of idol worship.
The Gemara answers that Rabban Gamliel did not make the images himself, but rather used images that were formed by a non-Jew.
The Gemara is not satisfied with this answer, though, because there is a rabbinic issur against keeping celestial images in one’s possession, even if made by a non-Jew, because people may suspect the owner of practicing idolatry.
Living In A Fishbowl
The Gemara answers that since Rabban Gamliel was a nasi whose house was always full of visitors, the concern of suspicion did not apply because people would not suspect a person of worshiping idols publicly.
Different Views As To What Is Forbidden
The Rambam (Hilchos Avodas Kochavim u’Mazzalos, end of chapter 3) writes that it is only forbidden to manufacture (and maintain) the images mentioned in the Gemara, which include the sun, moon and stars; the four faces that are on the heavenly chariot as described in Yecheskel 1:10 (i.e., of a man, lion, ox and eagle); and the mazalos and angels. Images of other things, such as animals and trees, are permitted.
The Ramban (as cited by Tur, Yoreh De’ah 141) disagrees and asserts that the concern of suspicion applies to all types of images (Taz, Yoreh De’ah, ad loc., opines that one should be stringent in light of the Ramban’s view). The Ran (R.H. loc. cit.), while agreeing with the Ramban, limits the concern of suspicion to images that gentiles sometimes worship.
Images: Protruding Vs. Recessed
The Gemara distinguishes between an image that protrudes and an image that is recessed. The Rambam (Hilchos Avodas Kochavim, ad loc.) writes that it is prohibited to make or maintain a protruding image of a man, but it is permitted to engrave or paint a recessed picture of a man. This distinction, however, does not apply to images of celestial beings. Tosafot (43b, s.v. “Veha Rabban Gamaliel”) explain that since the sun and moon always appear to us as two-dimensional figures, it is prohibited to paint even a two-dimensional picture of them. However, it is permitted to maintain a two-dimensional picture of a human being since its appearance is different from that of an actual human (which is viewed in real life as three-dimensional).
Maintaining Art In The Home
The Ramban contends that one is permitted to maintain any type of picture in one’s home, even one of the sun and moon, as long as it is not one that protrudes.
The Ramban asserts, though, that the distinction between raised and recessed images pertains only to the rabbinic issur of maintaining images due to suspicion, but the biblical issur to form celestial images applies even to recessed images.
In any event, we see from the above that producing and maintaining non-protruding pictures or paintings of non-celestial images is permitted according to everyone.
Synagogue Art, Public Art
The Mabit (vol. 1:30) rules that due to the concern of suspicion, it is forbidden to have paintings of celestial beings in a synagogue. Even though the Gemara says that we need not be so concerned about such images in public places, a synagogue is different because one must be particularly careful to avoid the appearance of idolatry in our houses of worship (Orach Chayim 90:23).