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A totem pole is a large carving, often made out of a tree, that depicts symbols or figures. They are usually made by various First Nations and Indigenous peoples around Canada and the United States.

I have heard that these poles may be considered Avodah Zarah, presumably as objects of worship, which may or may not be true. Alternatively, perhaps the depictions on them are depicting people or other images which may be forbidden. Are there any sources or Poskim that discuss if these are to be treated as Avodah Zarah, and why?

For example, this answer at Hidabroot declares them to be Avodah Zarah, whereas this blogpost declares them to be not Avodah Zarah.

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    Years ago, I frequently davened Mincha in a kosher cafe that had a huge wall mural depicting a Hawaaian Beach. On the side of the mural was a black square. The owner had blacked out a picture of a totem pole b/c it was considered A'Z and the mural was in the direction people faced while davening the Amidah. – DanF Dec 18 '18 at 3:10
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It's Judaism. The answer is "it's complicated," "it depends," and "potentially there's a dispute involved."

According to Wikipedia:

Totem poles can symbolize the characters and events in mythology, or convey the experiences of recent ancestors and living people. ... Pole carvings may include animals, fish, plants, insects, and humans, or they may represent supernatural beings such as the Thunderbird. Some symbolize beings that can transform themselves into another form, appearing as combinations of animals or part-animal/part-human forms. ...

Some poles celebrate cultural beliefs that may recount familiar legends, clan lineages, or notable events, while others are mostly artistic. Animals and other characters carved on the pole are typically used as symbols to represent characters or events in a story; however, some may reference the moiety of the pole's owner, or simply fill up empty space on the pole. ...

Some of the figures on the poles constitute symbolic reminders of quarrels, murders, debts, and other unpleasant occurrences about which the Native Americans prefer to remain silent. ...

We come to several types of totem poles, then, which each have a unique set of halachos.

Note that all references to Mishnayos or Gemaras below are in Maseches Avodah Zarah, and all references to the Shulchan Aruch are in Yoreh De'ah.


I. Totems containing figures of real-life things

These figures were not made for idolatry, and so there should be nothing wrong with them...depending on what's depicted.

1. Are images forbidden in general?

The Mishnah (3:1) recounts a dispute on whether images are forbidden in general:

כָּל הַצְּלָמִים אֲסוּרִים, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהֵן נֶעֱבָדִין פַּעַם אַחַת בַּשָּׁנָה, דִבְרֵי רַבִּי מֵאִיר. וַחֲכָמִים אוֹמְרִים, אֵינוֹ אָסוּר אֶלָּא כָל שֶׁיֵּשׁ בְּיָדוֹ מַקֵּל אוֹ צִפּוֹר אוֹ כַדּוּר. רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל אוֹמֵר, כֹּל שֶׁיֵּשׁ בְּיָדוֹ כָל דָּבָר:‏

All figures are forbidden, because they are worshipped annually; these are the words of R' Meir. The Chachamim say, it is not forbidden, unless it has in its hand a stick, bird, or ball. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says, if it has anything in its hand.

Now, there's a dispute in the Gemara (40b-41a) as to how to interpret this Mishnah. The main opinions:

  • R' Yochanan: R' Meir is concerned for a minority, so since in some places figures are worshipped annually, figures everywhere is prohibited. The Chachamim are not concerned for a minority.
  • Shmuel: The Mishnah specifically discusses statues of kings.
  • Rabbah: The argument only applies in cities; in villages, everyone agrees it's forbidden, as it's certainly made for idolatry. In cities, the Chachamim hold it's presumed to have been made for decoration, while R' Meir is concerned that it's an idol.

Shulchan Aruch 141:1, follows the Chachamim according to Rabbah:

כל הצלמים של עבודת כוכבים הנמצאים בכפרים אסורים דסתמא לשם אלילים נעשו והנמצאים בכרכים מותרים דודאי לנוי נעשו

All figures of idols found in villages are forbidden, as they are presumed to be made as idols. Those found in cities are permitted, as certainly they're made for decoration.

What we can infer from here is that if it can be determined that it's for decoration, as in these cases, then it would be certainly permitted, regardless of where it's from.

2. Exceptions

While we just established that figures made for decoration are permitted, there are some exceptions. There is a very long Gemara on this (42b-43b), so I'll just quote the conclusions, as quoted by the Shulchan Aruch:

A. Humans

141:4:

אסור לצייר ... וכן צורת אדם לבדו כל אלו אסור לעשותם אפילו הם לנוי ואם עובד כוכבים עשאם לו אסור להשהותם: הגה ומיהו אם מוצא אותם מותרים מלבד בחמה ולבנה שדרך העובד כוכבים לעבדם או שיש הוכחה שעשאן לעבדם שאז אסור ככל הצלמים כמו שנתבאר בריש הסימן: במה דברים אמורים בבולטת אבל בשוקעת כאותם שאורגים בבגד ושמציירים בכותל בסמנין מותר לעשותם

It is forbidden to depict [various images that are irrelevant to the topic at hand], and likewise the face of a human alone: it is forbidden to make any of these, even for decoration. If a non-Jew made them for him, it is forbidden to keep them. (Rema: However, if he found them, they are permitted, except for a sun or moon, as it's normal for an idolater to worship them, or anything for which there is an indication that they were worshipped, as then it's forbidden, like all figures, as was explained earlier.) When are these words said? When they are protruding [from the background], but when they are sunk [into the background], like those woven into clothing or depicted on a wall, with signs, it is permitted to make them.

That said, take a look at 141:7:

יש מי שאומר שלא אסרו בצורת אדם ודרקון אלא דוקא בצורה שלימה בכל איבריה אבל צורת ראש או גוף בלא ראש אין בה שום איסור לא במוצאו ולא בעושה

There are those who say that the figure of a man or dragon are only forbidden when it's a full picture, with all of its limbs. But there is no prohibition at all on a depiction of the head, or the body without the head, not in finding it, nor in making it.

According to this opinion, totem poles with just a human face would be completely fine. My copy of Shulchan Aruch sticks in the note at the end וכן נוהגין, "thus do we practice," but see if your LOR agrees.

B. Animals

141:6:

צורות הבהמות חיות ועופות ודגים וצורות אילנות ודשאים וכיוצא בהם מותר לצור אותם ואפילו היתה הצורה בולטת:

Figures of animals, birds, and fish, and figures of plants, and things like them – it is permitted to depict them, even if the picture protrudes.

Pretty straightforward. As totem poles tend to feature animals, all of those are completely fine, regardless of how they're made.

C. Summary

  1. It's a dispute whether a human face is permitted or prohibited.
    • According to the opinion in §7, a face alone would be permitted.
    • According to the Shulchan Aruch in §4, a human face is forbidden if it's protruding but permitted if it's engraved.
    • According to the Rema in §4, in addition to the leniencies in the previous bullet point, a human face is permitted if one found such a totem pole, rather than it being made for him.
  2. Everyone agrees that animal faces are permitted.

II. Totems depicting idols

Your gut reaction right now might be to say that depictions of "events in mythology" or "supernatural beings such as the Thunderbird" are automatically forbidden, as they're made for idolatry, right? Well...

The problem with that line of logic is that the totems still aren't being served; they depict idols, perhaps, but they're meant to be strictly symbols, ways of passing down stories relating to their gods. So we have an issue to explore here: is a figure of an idol prohibited, if it was never created to be served?

1. Aphrodite in the Bathhouse

The Mishnah in 3:4 records:

שָׁאַל פְּרוֹקְלוֹס בֶּן פִלוֹסְפוֹס אֶת רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל בְּעַכּוֹ, שֶׁהָיָה רוֹחֵץ בַּמֶּרְחָץ שֶׁל אַפְרוֹדִיטִי, אָמַר לוֹ, כָּתוּב בְּתוֹרַתְכֶם, וְלֹא יִדְבַּק בְּיָדְךָ מְאוּמָה מִן הַחֵרֶם. מִפְּנֵי מָה אַתָּה רוֹחֵץ בַּמֶּרְחָץ שֶׁל אַפְרוֹדִיטִי. אָמַר לוֹ, אֵין מְשִׁיבִין בַּמֶּרְחָץ. וּכְשֶׁיָּצָא אָמַר לוֹ, אֲנִי לֹא בָאתִי בִגְבוּלָהּ, הִיא בָאתָה בִגְבוּלִי, אֵין אוֹמְרִים, נַעֲשֶׂה מֶרְחָץ לְאַפְרוֹדִיטִי נוֹי, אֶלָּא אוֹמְרִים, נַעֲשֶׂה אַפְרוֹדִיטִי נוֹי לַמֶּרְחָץ. דָּבָר אַחֵר, אִם נוֹתְנִין לְךָ מָמוֹן הַרְבֵּה, אִי אַתָּה נִכְנָס לַעֲבוֹדָה זָרָה שֶׁלְּךָ עָרוֹם וּבַעַל קֶרִי וּמַשְׁתִּין בְּפָנֶיהָ, וְזוֹ עוֹמֶדֶת עַל פִּי הַבִּיב וְכָל הָעָם מַשְׁתִּינִין לְפָנֶיהָ. לֹא נֶאֱמַר אֶלָּא אֱלֹהֵיהֶם. אֶת שֶׁנּוֹהֵג בּוֹ מִשּׁוּם אֱלוֹהַּ, אָסוּר. וְאֶת שֶׁאֵינוֹ נוֹהֵג בּוֹ מִשּׁוּם אֱלוֹהַּ, מֻתָּר:

Proklos ben Plosfos asked Rabban Gamliel in Akko, when he was bathing in the bathhouse of Aphrodite. He said to him, "It's written in your Torah, 'let none of the condemned cling to your hand.' Why are you bathing in the bathhouse of Aphrodite?" He said to him, "I can't answer you in the bathroom." When he left, he said to him, "I didn't come into her domain; she came into mine. They didn't say, 'let's build a beautiful bathhouse for Aphrodite;' they said, 'let's build a beautiful Aphrodite for the bathhouse.' Furthermore, if you were given lots of money, you would never go before your idol naked and defiled and urinate before it, yet this one stands on the sewer and everyone urinates before her. The [Torah] only said 'their gods' – that which is treated as a god is forbidden, and that which is not treated as a god is permitted."

(For those who don't know, Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love, beauty, and procreation.)

Perhaps your case of a totem pole would be a practical difference between Rabban Gamliel's two answers.

We see from Rabban Gamliel's first answer that had the bathhouse been made for Aphrodite, it would be forbidden; since Aphrodite was made for the totem, it's permitted. Perhaps one can argue that, so, too, a totem pole which is made for the idol would be forbidden, even though the totem itself is not served, but if the totem was made, and they then carved the idol onto it, perhaps it would be permissible.

We see from Rabban Gamliel's second answer that only idols treated like a god are forbidden. He didn't say that Aphrodite had to be served, just that she be treated respectfully to be forbidden. As the god is carved onto the totem pole in order that its legends be passed down, it would seem to be forbidden, as they are treating it reverently by doing so.

How do we pasken? The Shulchan Aruch in 142:14 says very clearly like the second answer, but he changes it slightly from our interpretation above:

מרחץ שיש בה אלילים מותר לרחוץ בה מפני שהיא נעשית לשם נוי ולא לעבדה שנאמר אלהיהם בזמן שנוהגים בה מנהג אלהות ולא בזמן שמבזים אותה כגון זו שהיא עומדת על הביב והכל משתינים בפניה ואם היה דרך עבודתה בכך אסור

A bathhouse in which there are idols – it is permitted to bathe in it, because it is made for decoration, not to be served, as it says, "Their gods" – in a time when they treat it as a god, and not when they disgrace it, like this, where it stands on the sewer and everyone urinates before it. If it's served in this manner, it's forbidden.

The Shulchan Aruch clearly expands the definition of "treating it like a god" to exclude its being used for decoration: certainly, then, our totem pole would be permitted.


III. What about its association with idolatry?

One last question must be raised. Certainly if a totem pole is made to record historical events, then it would be permissible, bearing in mind the restrictions from section I.2. But what about ones created to record myths and stories relevant to their religion? Since they're for their religion, would that be prohibited? Or since they're for stories, not directly involved in their religious worship, perhaps it would be permitted?

1. Things which are used in the service of idolatry

There is a category called תשמישי עבודה זרה, things which are used in the service of idolatry. This is a very wide-ranging category, which is discussed by the Shulchan Aruch in 139. Let's see what he has to say:

§1:

אליל אסורה בהנאה היא ותשמישה ונויה ותקרובתה בין של עובד כוכבים בין של ישראל אלא דשל עובד כוכבים אסורה מיד ושל ישראל אינה אסורה עד שתיעבד ותשמישיה ונויה בין של עובד כוכבים בין של ישראל אינם אסורים עד שישתמשו בהם ותקרובתה משהביאו לפניה ועשה ממנו תקרובת נאסר

An idol is forbidden to benefit immediately, and its serving items, decorations, and offerings, whether of a Jew or idolater, except that an idolater's [idol] is forbidden immediately, while a Jew's [idol] is only forbidden when it's served. Its serving items and decorations, whether an idolater's or a Jew's, are only forbidden once they're used. Its offerings are forbidden from when they are brought before it and made into an offering.

Okay, so a totem pole isn't an idol, but does it count as a "serving item, decoration, or offering"? Let's keep reading.

§3:

איזהו נוי ואיזהו תקרובת נוי כגון שמדליק לפניה נרות או שטח לפניה בגדי' וכלים נאים לנוי ותקרובת כל שכיוצא בו קרב על גבי מזבח כמו כל מיני מאכל כגון בשר שמנים וסלתות מים ומלח אם הניחו לפניה לשם תקרובת נאסר מיד אבל דבר שאין מקריבין ממנו בפנים אינו נאסר אלא א"כ עשה ממנו כעין זביחה או כעין זריקה המשתברת והוא דרך לעובדה באותו דבר אע"פ שאין דרך לעובדה בזה הענין

What is a decoration, and what is an offering? A decoration – for instance, that they light candles before it, or spread beautiful clothing or vessels before it for the sake of decoration. An offering – anything which something similar to it is brought on the Mizbeiach, such as foods like meat, oils, flours, water, and salt: if he placed those before [the idol] as an offering, it is immediately forbidden. However, something which is not brought to Hashem is not forbidden [when offered to an idol] unless he does with it similar to slaughtering or sprinkling, and it's normal to serve the idol with that thing, even if it's not normal to serve the idol with that action.

So totem poles fail those two. What about serving items? Well, the Shulchan Aruch doesn't actually define "serving items," so presumably it's exactly what it sounds like: anything directly used in the service of the idol. As a totem pole is not directly used in the service of the idol, presumably it fails that label as well.

2. Things which are for the service but not the idol

There's another reason to be lenient with a totem pole. The Shulchan Aruch writes in 139:11:

מלבושים שלובשים הכהנים כשנכנסים לבית אלילים נוי שלהם הן ולא נוי של אלילים ואפילו ביטול אינם צריכים ויש מי שמצריך ביטול.

Clothing which the priests wear when they enter their idolatrous temples are decorations for them, not decorations for their idols. They do not even need to be nullified, but some require nullification.

If clothing, which is meant to show respect to the idol during its service, is not considered decoration, certainly a totem pole, which is not used in its service at all, should be permissible. One should probably be stringent for the second opinion, however, and nullify the idol.

(Note that the option of nullifying it only applies if it was made by a non-Jew, as per Shulchan Aruch 139:2. If it was made by a Jew, you're stuck, according to the second opinion.)


Summary

  1. The only case in which everyone agrees that a human on a totem pole is a problem is when it's (A) the entire human, not just his face; (B) it's embossed, not engraved; and (C) it was made for the Jew, rather than found on the street. If (A) is missing, it's a dispute in the Shulchan Aruch whether it's a problem. If (C) is missing, it's a dispute between the Shulchan Aruch and Rema if it's a problem. If (B) is missing, everyone agrees that it is not a problem.
  2. Animals, even those embossed, are not a problem.
  3. It seems from the Shulchan Aruch that non-human deities depicted on the totem are not a problem, as they are not directly worshipped.
  4. A totem pole satisfying all of the above made for historical documentation or decoration is entirely permissible.
  5. Regarding a totem pole made to spread legends of a religion, I think there is no problem; however, by drawing a comparison from priests' clothing, one may one to be concerned for the opinion that is stringent and requires nullification.

Post-script

The Hidabroot article says literally nothing other than "it's considered idolatry," with no explanation provided. I can only assume that the psak was based on one of the following assumptions, which the questioner didn't address:

  • Assume that it had a human figure: Perhaps it satisfies the criteria according to one of the opinions cited that it would be forbidden.
  • Assume that it is comparable to priests' clothing, and the Rabbi was stringent for the opinion that nullification is required. (Even though the questioner asked what should be done if the totem pole is considered an idol, the Rabbi never responded to that part of the question; perhaps it could be nullified, perhaps he assumed the one who made it was Jewish.)
  • Assume that totem poles are directly involved with the idol worship. This is false, but perhaps the Rabbi didn't understand their usage.

The other article you cited doesn't do the topic justice. There's so much more that's forbidden due to idolatry than the idol itself, and that article ignores that fact entirely. I hope that my discussion here, even if it turns out to be incomplete, is at least informative, and prompts further research into the topic.

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