So we were looking at Deuteronomy 5:7 and I said that you have two uses of the imperfect because they represent pagan worship, no ifs ands buts or maybes.
כִּי אִם־כֹּה תַעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם מִזְבְּחֹתֵיהֶם תִּתֹּצוּ וּמַצֵּבֹתָם תְּשַׁבֵּרוּ וַאֲשֵׁירֵהֶם תְּגַדֵּעוּן וּפְסִילֵיהֶם תִּשְׂרְפוּן בָּאֵשׁ
The other two subjects are an asherah and a pesel.
An asherah is a live tree that was the target of pagan worship. But not every live tree was the object of pagan worship. What’s more, there’s a commandment NOT to cut down fruit trees that you didn’t plant because you can eat from them and they aren’t people to fight against you.
That’s why there’s an uncertainty epistemic. It might not be an asherah. If you don’t cut it down, and it turns out later that it was an asherah, you might not be in trouble because you might successfully plead ignorance, and ignorance is always an excuse under Jewish law.
A pesel is something man-made used in worship. You might remember the story in Judges 17 where Mikayahu gave some silver back to his mother and she had a pesel made. But the verse here says “their pesels.”
That’s why there’s an uncertainty epistemic. It might not be a pagan pesel. It might be a Jew’s pesel, and then you’re into a whole other can of worms because now you have to investigate whether this Jew is subject to the death penalty for pagan worship. But you can’t prove that without the pesel, so the person who finds the pesel might not be in trouble with the law for not destroying it.
(Does that remind you of a Danny Kaye routine?)
Now let’s go back to Avraham pleading for the cities of the plain. I want you to notice that what Gd says each time is a neder vow, a promise to perform or not to perform an act. Everybody has to keep their neder vows, with certain exceptions. One exception is that if the vow is wreaking havoc in the home or in society, the rabbis can get involved. They question the guy who made the vow. If they can get him to a point where he says “If I had known that, I would never have made the vow,” then they can annul it and he doesn’t have to keep it. Ignorance is an excuse in Jewish law.
Avraham using the uncertainty epistemic not only allows as how he doesn’t know how many righteous men are in the cities, it also lets Gd out of His vow if there aren’t that many people. Avraham trusts Gd to keep the vow, no matter what, but he’s letting Gd off because he, Avraham, is the one who is ignorant and he might have asked Gd to do something that shouldn’t be done.
And one more verse that shows how important the uncertainty epistemic is in Jewish law.
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