As an extension to this question which makes it obligatory to demolish idols, is it equally virtuous to demolish places of idolatry sneakily as we see examples from the story of Abraham?

As people are seeking more clarification on "sneakiness" then here sneakiness would mean secretly demolishing the Idols when nobody is seeing us even if the Idol is not our property(I don't see how it can be).

Also there is a command in the Torah, Exodus 34:13 :

But ye shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and ye shall cut down their Asherim.

Can this "sneakiness" be justified as it is obvious that an Idolatrous public wont allow that to happen with their Idols like in the case of Abraham, had Abraham tried to do that in full public view he would'nt be able to demonstrate this polemic as the public would have tried lynching him?

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    How are those sneaky? May 26, 2013 at 13:45
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    not all midrashim are intended literally. this one, i think, is meant as as a polemic against idolatry. even were the actions 'sneaky', this does not (necessarily) then stand as an instruction as to exemplary behavior. May 26, 2013 at 13:56
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    @Josh Waxman, or it could demonstrate the importance of zealous action in the name of G-d against the evil of idolatry.
    – Seth J
    May 26, 2013 at 14:59
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    @SethJ maybe, but read the midrash in full, at the link provided. e.g. 'Abraham then said, “You are fifty years old and would worship a day old statue!” At this point the man left ashamed.' Which sets it up as a polemic. Avraham did not merely smash the idols. In the midrash, this is a setup for the line that the idols smashed each other, which is a prompt for Terach to say 'they are only statues and have no knowledge'. Which provides a straight line for Avraham's punch line, which is the polemic. If it was to demonstrate the importance of zealous action, leave it at zealous action. May 26, 2013 at 15:51
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    @Josh Waxman I don't see why this can't serve a double function. Idolatry is bad. The worst thing. Be sneaky if necessary, and also shame the idolater.
    – Seth J
    May 26, 2013 at 18:29

3 Answers 3


Chabad has this:

A well-known saying in the Mishnah goes like this: "Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer and mighty as a lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven" (Rabbi Judah ben Tema, Ethics of Fathers 5:20). This saying is also the opening quote of the Shulchan Aruch (The Jewish Code of Law).

The leopard often employs all sorts of clever tricks to get his prey, and is not intimidated by animals that outweigh him. A British hunter watched a leopard prepare for its stalk of a buffalo calf by first rolling in buffalo dung in order to disguise its body scent to get closer to the calf without frightening it. Another hunter related how the spotted cat took a camel by arousing its curiosity. The cat rolled on the ground, twisting and turning until it got closer to the camel. When the camel lowered its head down to examine the strange animal the leopard seized it by its throat and killed it. The leopard teaches us to be fearless and daring when it comes to fulfilling the will of our Creator.

So it looks like “sneaky” action is fine to “do the will of your Father in Heaven"

  • The trick is -- assuming what you're doing is truly the will of Our Heavenly Father. Anytime you hear, "just don't get caught", that's probably not it.
    – Shalom
    Feb 9, 2015 at 18:48
  • A good example of clever tricks would be ways to help someone who is too proud to acknowledge that they could use the help.
    – Shalom
    Feb 9, 2015 at 18:49
  • Similarly, Gidon destroyed his father's Baal and Ashera at nighttime. It's true that the town people immediately figured out who it was, but then again, so did Terach in Avraham's case.
    – Harel13
    Jan 29, 2020 at 19:45




Jews have lived among idolators for thousands of years and knew well enough to leave their possessions alone.

Whatever legend we have about what Abraham did in his father's shop teaches us something about the value of monotheism and the character of Abraham, but we have plenty of clearly-codified laws that come first.


The Jews were commanded to conquer and enter the land of Israel several thousand years ago; when they did so (and took possession of it), they were ordered to destroy any idolatrous paraphernalia that was now in their own possession, left over from the Canaanite idolators. So if I was Joe the Jew ~3300 years ago and (by clear and direct command of G-d, by prophecy, [which we no longer have today]) conquered a Canaanite city and now find myself the rightful owner of this piece of land, well if there's a Canaanite-planted olive tree here that was simply used for agricultural purposes (see Deut. 6:10), I'm free to eat the olives (with a spiritual warning about what happens to people who get things for which they haven't worked). If right next to it is a tree that was clearly planted for the purposes of pagan worship, then I'm commanded to treat it as dangerous and destroy it; if I left it alone, the risks were too high that I would find myself (or my friends or kids) worshipping it too at some point (which was proven by the next several centuries of history -- throughout the book of Kings, the Jews keep sliding into idolatry).

By the Mishnaic period (around the year 200) there were clearly non-Jewish idolators living in Israel with their own idols in their own homes (a law rendered a Jew entering a non-Jewish home in the land of Israel ritually impure, just as if he'd exited Israel), and Jews left them alone. (To employ violence would have been begging the Romans for even more trouble.) Similarly today, the modern State of Israel allows people of all faiths to purchase land and worship as they please (in a nonviolent fashion) on it, and we respect private property.

  • Exodus:But ye shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and ye shall cut down their Asherim.??
    – knowit
    May 27, 2013 at 12:50
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    @Ali. Yes exactly. When the Jews are certain they've been commanded by God to conquer Israel. Once they enter the land and it belongs to them, then they need to demolish all the idolatrous stuff that used to belong to the Canaanite idolaters.
    – Shalom
    May 27, 2013 at 13:01
  • but the command was given already.
    – knowit
    May 27, 2013 at 13:03
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    @Ali - the Jews at that time were ordered by God to conquer the land and take possession of it, and Jewish law recognizes a change of ownership due to war. (In any direction -- when the Canaanites went to war with the Jews [Numbers 21:1] and took captives, legally those captives now belong to the Canaanites.) As for "sneakily"? Don't get me started. First and foremost, we are obligated to follow the law of the land. (Which means respect others' property, regardless.) Secondly, you're saying "do it just don't get caught?" That doesn't work.
    – Shalom
    May 27, 2013 at 13:31
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    @ShmuelBrin, first and foremost there's no commandment whatsoever for property that's not ours! I was just further pointing out that regardless of that there's Dina Demalchusa.
    – Shalom
    May 28, 2013 at 11:54

The question is perhaps based on an Islamic spin on a midrash, as we can see from Ali's recently changed link, though I think one can say the same thing about the Islamic story as about the midrash.

This was polemics, not "sneakiness". Consider the midrash:

Terah was an idol manufacturer who once went away and left Abraham in charge of the store. A man walked in and wished to buy an idol. Abraham asked him how old he was and the man responded “fifty years old.” Abraham then said, “You are fifty years old and would worship a day old statue!” At this point the man left ashamed.

Later, a woman walked in to the store and wanted to make an offering to the idols. So Abraham took a stick, smashed the idols and placed the stick in the hand of the largest idol. When Terah returned he asked Abraham what happened to all the idols. Abraham told him that a woman came in to make an offering to the idols. Then the idols argued about which one should eat the offering first. Then the largest idol took the stick and smashed the other idols.

Terah responded by saying that they are only statues and have no knowledge. Whereupon Abraham responded by saying that you deny their knowledge, yet you worship them! At which point Terah took Abraham to Nimrod.

Nimrod proclaims to Abraham that we should worship fire. Abraham responds that water puts out fire. So Nimrod declares they worship water. Abraham responds that clouds hold water.

So Nimrod declares they worship clouds. Abraham responds that wind pushes clouds. So Nimrod declares they worship wind. Abraham responds that people withstand wind. Nimrod becomes angry with Abraham and declares that Abraham shall be cast into the fire, and Abraham is correct that there is a real God, that God will save him. Then Abraham is cast into the fire and is saved by God.

Abraham’s brother Haran sees what happened and says that he believes in the God of Abraham, is thrown into the fire, and is not saved by God. Hence the verse in Genesis 11:28 “And Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his nativity, in Ur of the Chaldees.”

If one is sensitive to nuances in the text, then I think it becomes obvious that the genre is not (necessarily) history but polemics. Avraham, as the first official monotheist, gets to put forth all sorts of arguments against idolatry (which in this case is fetishism, that the idol itself has power, rather than the belief that the idol is a representative of the power on high).

Avraham in this story is not sneaky at all. He knows full well what Terach will respond, that

they are only statues and have no knowledge

Neither Avraham nor Terach are idiots. Avraham was not trying to destroy the idols while offering a fake excuse. Avraham was trying to prompt this very response from Terach, so that he could say the punch line of the polemic:

you deny their knowledge, yet you worship them!

This then matches the earlier polemic in the midrash, that the man is older than the idol, yet he would worship it.

It would have been "sneaky" had Avraham thought that he would get away with the deed with this excuse. But that would be a misreading of the midrash.

  • Thanks for pointing out that Ali had changed the link from Wikipedia to an Islamic site. I have restored the former. May 28, 2013 at 0:39
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    @Monica Cellio - speaking of sneaky.
    – Seth J
    May 28, 2013 at 1:07
  • @SethJ, yeah, I totally missed that in the edit history. (When the link first showed up I looked to see what it was and it was Wikipedia then.) May 28, 2013 at 1:08

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