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I understand that some worshippers use icons to 'lift up their minds from earthly things to the heavenly things'? I am not interested about those using them as stage-props for a play (in comparison), but in those who do it from a religious sense, of helping them in prayer or worship.

Did the Jews ever do this?

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Wouldn't they have considered that idolatry? Also, if it still exists would this be a better fit at the Judaism.se site? –  David Stratton Jun 24 '12 at 5:04

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Early Rabbinic sources have a very ‘hard line’ against all kinds of images, or pictorial representations on coins, or whatever other form. Not only for using them in gross idolatry, through aids in worship, but in various seemingly legitimate activities. This is why even the possession of a coin, for example, with Caesars image on it, could constitute idolatry. In this case the image was idolatrous as the coin has an inscription that identified Caesar as God. This may have partly underpinned the dilemma over paying taxes to Caesar. Not only did the tribute to Rome offend the Zealots, but even the conflict of conscience over the coins themselves may have attributed to the ‘tricky question’ asked of Jesus: “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

Jesus avoided the tricky question by saying:

“You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” 21“Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. (Matthew 22: 18-21)

In trying to control the sin of idolatry, by uses of images, they made distinctions over ‘having such pictorial representations’, buying/selling them fro profit’, ‘making them’ or ‘finding them’. (Alfred Edersheim, ‘Rabbinic Views as To The Lawfulness Of Images, Pictorial Representations On Coins, Etc.’)

Although there was a ‘hard line view’ about all representations of human beings, the Talmud seems to allow representations of human beings for ornament under certain conditions. However the Mishnah forbids any image of a person that carries “in their hand some symbol of power, such as a staff, bird, globe, or as the Talmud adds, a sword, or even a signet-ring”. (The Talmudic Tractate Abhodah Zorah, on Idolatry. 3. 1).

We can really understand the idea of ‘pictorial power’ being hotly opposed by any Jew. ‘Any image’, that ‘in any way’ indicated that’ any man’ could be somehow ‘elevated’ into ‘any kind of worship’ -- was gross idolatry and could result in stoning. For example: “the law as regarded signet-rings, that it was forbidden to have raised work on them, and only such figures were allowed as were sunk beneath the surface, although even then they were not to be used for sealing”. (The Talmudic Tractate Abhodah Zorah, on Idolatry. 43 b).

Given this very scrupulous way that the Jews avoided all kinds of images and icons, it seems obvious that using icons and images to help them worship would never be allowed unless the second commandment were to be removed:

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. (Exodus 20:4)

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Ha...it seems obvious to me that this question and answer is an obvious attempt to volley and spike an anti-Catholic/Orthodox condemnation "tract" against the use of images within the ancient context of liturgical worship. Your answers are usually good...but this one is a false bias dichotomy. –  Charles Alsobrook Dec 22 '13 at 10:28
@CharlesAlsobrook - yes and no. Just because the Jews interpreted something one way does not mean it was the right way. but when I read my answer it does seem to assume that it was the right way. I must have been in a certain mood ha ha. Actually the question is very good but the accepted answer is not that great. If I get some time I should offer a better answer. –  Mike Dec 22 '13 at 23:02

The remains of Jewish Synagogue have been found at a cite known as Dura-Europos. Inside this Jewish Synagogue, all the walls are covered in frescoes of scenes from the Tanakh, which date to about 250AD.


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Welcome to the site. This is interesting information. However, depicting scenes from the Bible and using icons and images to worship are not necessarily the same thing. Is there evidence that they used these frescoes in the same way the catholics use their icons? –  fredsbend Dec 22 '13 at 16:47

As others pointed out Synagogue had painting in them as early as 250 A.D.

But Catholics and Orthodox Justify having statues because God did not forbid Jews the religious usage of statues; He forbade the worship of statues.

  • God commanded Jews to make statues, “You shall make two cherubim of gold, make them of hammered work at the two ends of the mercy seat.” [Exodus 25:18-20]
  • Moses made a statue and used it to get Gods Help, “So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.” [Numbers 21:9]
  • In I Kings 6:23-36; 7:27-39; 8:6-67 - Solomon's temple contains statues of cherubim and images of cherubim, oxen and lions. God did not condemn these images that were used in worship.

From these we know for a fact at-least in the very beginning Jews used images to help them in prayer or worship.

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sorry your answers are usually pretty good but you seem naive about Jewish history and so is not well researched answer. apart from those instruments specifically designed by God for use in temple worship Jews were generally opposed to any use of images more so than any Christian sect that I know of. –  Mike Dec 22 '13 at 8:54
@Mike Can you please tell me when God approved lions, oxen and cherubim to be carved in worship place? If God never told, then how could Jews dare to engrave them (not just paint, but engrave) in their temple walls. (BTW God did not stop them from engraving lions and oxen in their temple walls) My guess is that Jews became adamantly against usage of Icons in worship in later period. –  Jayarathina Madharasan Dec 22 '13 at 13:59
@Mike, your answer seems to imply that they never ever used icons in their worship. Which is not true. The question asked was in past tense. They had at-least in the very beginning used engraven images on the arc of the covenant and temple walls. Whether approved by God or not is out of question. They used and that was my point. At some point they stopped using it. But it is inaccurate to say that they never used it. I hope I am clear. Please correct me if I am wrong. –  Jayarathina Madharasan Dec 22 '13 at 14:03

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