Killing Two Idols With One Stone

Looking For Merkulis? Those who follow the Daf just might be. The ancient deity appears on :נז. The halacha about the proper bracha to make when coming across this idol is cited in Shulchan Aruch, although the Rama cautions that we are not in the habit of reciting the bracha on seeing objects of pagan veneration.

But, just for the sake of argument, where would you find Merkulis if you were really looking for him?

The Rambam claims to know. In a responsum (#448), Rambam writes that the Yishmaelim used to worship three of the pagan Bad Boys: Pe’or, Kemosh, and Merkulis. Vestiges of those practices carried over, he says, to the Islam of his day. He is quick and emphatic to add that there is no question that whatever the roots of these practices, the Muslims he knew (and hated for their brutal fanaticism) were not idolators (that is the chief point of his responsum) and unquestionably pure monotheists; the old idolatrous practices had morphed into something more innocuous.

So what became of Merkulis? The practice of throwing stones at it remained, Rambam writes, and can still be seen at the Haj in Mecca. Today, however, Muslims claim that they are throwing stones at the Devil! But we know where that came from originally…

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12 comments to Killing Two Idols With One Stone

  • Joe Hill

    We have a lot more cause against the Christians for their bloody rampages they have committed against us throughout history than we do against the Mohammadians.

  • Raymond

    In response to what Joe Hill said above, I think it is absurd to continue to harbor greater hatred against Christians than toward Moslems. True, perhaps it can be said that once upon a time, life for Jews under Christian rule was worse than life for Jews under Moslem rule. However, that has not been true for many centuries, and it is time that we Jews wake up to that reality. Christianity of the Puritan variety made the United States possible, while today, virtually all of the murderous attacks on Jews, are committed by followers of Allah. Indeed, there are tens of millions of American Christians out there, who are far more pro-Israel than are most American Jews. Regardless of what their hidden motivations may be, we need to appreciate any support that we get.

  • Nachum

    Did the obvious similarity to the Roman god “Mercury” never occur to anyone? Of course, many of the gods from back then crossed cultural boundaries- Mercury was the equivalent of the Greek Hermes, so maybe he crossed into the Arab world as well. (Kemosh and Pe’or are Moabite, not Ishmaelite, in Tanach.)

  • lacosta

    as rYA probably would agree , it would be safe to cite an opinion that something in xtianity is avoda zara. however , if chas vshalom the descendents of Ismael discover such a slur about their camp…Hashem yishmor…

  • contarian

    Suppose some crawler comes to this post and this site and then broadcasts to the Moslem world that Orthodox Jewish Rabbis and Writers have blasphemed their religion by comparing it to idol worship. Than all hell breaks loose. Can’t happen. Think again

  • Joe Hill

    Once upon a time, Raymond? They have been doing it for nearly two thousand years. Leading up to the greatest slaughter in Jewish history of 6 million of our brethren including one million children over a period of six short years, a mere 67 years ago from today.

  • Tal Benschar

    BTW, since you mentioned it, the Tosafos on :נז is interesting. He says that they were not accustomed to make the beracha on seeing idolatry, because they see it every day, and the berachos on seeing something (incl. AZ) are only made when you have not seen the item for at least 30 days.

    Tosafos was talking about the Jews living in Northern France or the Rhineland area in the Middle Ages. There were no pagans remaining in that part of Europe at that time. Other than Jews, all they saw were Christian churches. Yet notice how Tosafos says that the reason for not saying the beracha is that they see idolatry every day — not that the local churches are not idolatry.

  • Nachum

    Joe Hill, it’s a real stretch to say that the Holocaust was perpetrated by religious Christians motivated by Christian sentiment. It’s ludicrous, in fact, to anyone with the slightest knowledge of who the Nazis (and their ideological forebears of the preceding century who thought up racial anti-Semitism) were and what they believed.

    Of course, you can debate to what extent Christian anti-Semitism provided a suitable environment for the Nazis’ ideas, to what extent the Nazis allies- other Germans, Ukrainians, etc.- were motivated by Christian ideology, whether the Pope and his Church or other churches did all they could- but those are side issues. To bring up the Holocaust makes about as much sense as blaming Soviet anti-Semitism on Christian influence.

  • Hans

    Is Islam Idol Worship?

    The position of the Rambam that Islam is not considered Avodah Zarah
    [idol worship], of course, is quite well known.

    Not so well known is the responsa of the Radbaz Volume IV #92
    which quotes the Ritva in tractate Pesachim page 25B that
    Islam is considered in certain aspects to be Avodah Zarah.

    The Klausenberger Rebbe ZTL seems to go a bit further (Divrei Yatziv YD #40)
    and holds of a position that the true belief in the One G_d will elude
    anyone who does not believe in the truth of the Torah of Moshe.

    Seen in: The Ground Zero Mosque by Rabbi Yair Hoffman, 2010/8/19,

  • Lawrence M. Reisman

    To Joe Hill: Please remember the caveat in every mutual fund offering memorandum, “Past results are no guarantee of future performance.” While I do not forget what is past, I don’t think it necessarily binds us in the future. For now, Islam is the greater menace, or to quote a saying of Jews of the Middle East, “Better Esav than Yishmoel.”

  • Bob Miller

    In Selichos, in more than one place, we pray for relief from both enemies, Esav and Yishmael. Why get pedantic over which has caused us the most harm? For some members of Esav and Yishmael to treat Jews with dignity, they first had to ignore their own “sacred” anti-Jewish writings and traditions.

  • Raymond

    I remember a few months ago reading something that the Rambam wrote on the subject of the relationship of Christians and Moslems to Jews. Since I am merely an amateur, I cannot guarantee that I understood him correctly, but according to my limited understanding, the Rambam said that while it is true that the Moslems have a purer, meaning more monotheistic, conception of G-d than do the Christians, that the Christians are nevertheless more amenable to G-d’s Truths because Christians have far more respect for our Torah. Christians may mistranslate certain key phrases of our Torah, but at least they agree that our Torah is the correct one. Not so the moslems. Aside from the subject of values we might share with our religious neighbors, I think that the larger point being made by the Rambam here, is that Torah study is the most reliable path toward our quest to know G-d.