The big story in Torah portion Ki Tisa (“when you take”) this week is the golden calf. It’s difficult for many of us to understand how Israel could so quickly return to idolatrous practices after they experienced the ten plagues, saw the parting of the sea, and heard God’s voice on Mount Sinai as he gave the Torah.

The issue of Israel returning to idolatry is a prevalent theme throughout the Scriptures from when Israel enters the land until the time of the Babylonian captivity. HaShem anticipates this, and in turn, we see that as he renews the covenant with Israel and forgives them for the sin of the golden calf, he gives more instructions on the prohibitions of idolatry.

Food Sacrificed to Idols

Take care, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you go, lest it become a snare in your midst. You shall tear down their altars and break their pillars and cut down their Asherim (for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God), lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and when they whore after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and you are invited, you eat of his sacrifice, and you take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters whore after their gods and make your sons whore after their gods. (Exodus 34:12-16)

While at first glance this seems like just a reiteration of the prohibition against idolatry in the Ten Commandments, the sages see an addition commandment being given here: the prohibition against eating meat sacrificed to idols. The sages find this explicitly in the phrase “eat of his sacrifice.” We find this injunction again in Deuteronomy:

And you shall not bring an abominable thing into your house and become devoted to destruction like it. You shall utterly detest and abhor it, for it is devoted to destruction. (Deuteronomy 7:26)

The Hebrew word for “abominable thing” here is the word to’evah (תועבה), which “refers to morally and religiously detestable practices and objects such as cheating, perverse sexual relations, impure foods, defective sacrifices, and especially idolatry and its rites.” [1] Therefore, the sages interpreted “abominable thing” in this verse as referring to that which had been tainted by idolatry. This included things that were offered up to an idol or connected with idolatry. In turn, it was forbidden to benefit in any way from things connected to idolatry, which would include consuming idol food. To come into contact with idolatrous things was to make oneself “devoted to destruction.”

This becomes especially applicable regarding food, which in the pagan world was often sacrificed to idols, and it becomes a major issue during the time of the apostles. Naturally then, it makes sense that the apostles would include the prohibition of idol food amongst the few injunctions they placed on new Gentile believers at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:

Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. (Act 15:19-20)

Eating food contaminated by idols is such an important prohibition that it is brought up again in the book of Revelation (2:14, 20). This prohibition also appears in early church literature such as the Didache and Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, and by no less influential teachers in the early church than Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and the fourth- through fifth-century church father Augustine. [2]

Implications for Today

What are the implications of this prohibition for Messianic Jews and Gentiles today? While there are still a few cultures that do offer up some food to idols, the majority don’t. Most food in Western countries has not been tainted by idolatry, and we can feel free to make purchases in grocery stores and farmers markets without fear of contamination by idols. In rabbinic halachah the biggest issue that remains today concerns wine.

In addition to this being included in the general prohibition of food sacrificed to idols, we read specifically in Deuteronomy: “Where are their gods, the rock in which they took refuge, who ate the fat of their sacrifices and drank the wine of their drink offering?” (32:37-38). From this passage the rabbis derived the prohibition against drinking wine offered to idols, and in rabbinic literature the concern over idol food deals almost exclusively with idolatrous wine (yayin nesech, יין נסך). Chabad states:

Wine, more than any other food or drink, represents the holiness and separateness of the Jewish people. It is used for the sanctification of Shabbat and Yom Tov and at Jewish simchot. In the Beit Hamikdash wine was poured upon the altar together with the sacrifice.

However, since wine was and still is used in many forms of idolatrous worship, it has a unique status in Jewish law, which places extra restrictions on the making and handling of wine. This includes wine used for non-ceremonial purposes.

The production and handling of kosher wine must be done exclusively by Jews. Wine, grape juice, and all products containing wine or grape juice must remain solely in Jewish hands during the manufacturing process and also after the seal of the bottle has been opened. [3]

This means that according to Orthodox Jewish standards only wine or grape juice that is certified kosher is permissible to be consumed. Should Messianic Jews and furthermore Messianic Gentiles adhere to this prohibition? Where does this leave Messianic Gentiles, who have renounced idolatry, in the process of making and handling wine? These are important questions that will need to be discussed as the Messianic movement matures. It is of note that a ger toshav (“resident alien”), a Gentile who had renounced idolatry and lived within Israel in the days when the Jubilee Year was observed, could handle wine and it would be considered kosher. How this fits in with modern circumstances will also need to be parsed out.


At any rate, the seriousness with which the Torah and the apostles took the prohibitions against idolatry should be a sobering reminder of the dangers of idolatry both in their day and in ours. The Didache uses the strongest language when it comes to idolatry when listing the five of the deadliest sins and the minor sins leading up to them:

My child, do not be a diviner, because this leads to idolatry; nor be one who casts spells, nor one who studies astrology, nor one who performs purification rites. Do not even desire to see these things, for from all these things idolatry results. (Didache 3.4)

Let us then be diligent to remove idolatry from our lives both physical and spiritual. Instead, let us make an abode within ourselves and our communities for the One True God and his Son Yeshua who will one day purge the earth of idolatry and flood all peoples with the knowledge of HaShem.

  1. Jeffery Tigay, JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy (Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 1996), 91.
  2. Peter Tomson, Paul and Jewish Law (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1990), 180-181.
  3. See