The current vacation season, coupled with Pasuk in Parashas Va’eschanan which mentions that the Jewish People “saw no image” (of Hashem), provides us with an opportunity to discuss a topic many are unaware of: the halachic issues of photography.
In today’s word of phones and gadgets, photographs are simply everywhere. They accompany us to sunsets, they capture the good times we have with family and friends, and even document the sad events we experience and may prefer to forget. It often seems that no event, no human interaction, is entirely private. There is always a chance that we will see it, someday, on a screen.
But are privacy issues the only concerns of taking photographs? As we will see below, there are in fact halachic questions that many authorities have raised concerning the permissibility of photographing certain images—human images and those of specific celestial bodies.
In the current article we will discuss these halachic considerations of photography. What halachic problems might arise in taking photos of celestial bodies, or of people? How can these problems be circumvented? And can there be an issue of keeping photos at home? These questions, among others, are discussed below.
Prohibition of Making Images
The Pasuk in Parashas Yisro (Shemos 20:20) mentions a prohibition against making gods alongside Hashem: “Do not make with Me; gods of silver and gods of gold you shall not make for yourselves.” Chazal understand the first part of the verse as referring to making images of celestial bodies, as if to say: “Do not make images of what is with Me” (see Rosh Hashanah 24b; Avodah Zarah 43b).
Thus, it is forbidden to make images of the sun, the moon, the stars, and also of angels—which are included in the category of celestial beings.
The same Gemara adds that it is also forbidden to make images of human beings. Since humans are created in the likeness of Hashem, creating an image of a person is akin to making an image of Hashem, and is prohibited by the words, “Do not make with Me” (which Chazal interpret as “do not make [an image of] Me”).
As we read in Parashas Va’eschanan (Devarim 4:15), the Jewish People are warned against associating Hashem with any image—“for you saw no image”—and this is extended to a prohibition of making an image of man.
Aside from the Torah prohibition of making images, the Sages further prohibited keeping images in one’s possession, out of concern that others will think that he is worshiping the image (see Avoda Zara 43b; Tosafos, Rosh Hashanah 24b).
What kind of images are forbidden?
There are essentially three types of images that can be made of celestial bodies. The first type, which is certainly included in the prohibited category, is a protruding image—a three-dimensional replica. The converse is a depressed image, which refers to an image carved into a material. The third type of image is flat—a simple picture or painting of the sun, moon or stars.
According to some authorities, the prohibition against creating images of celestial bodies applies only to protruding images, and not to depressed or flat images, which may be fashioned without concern. This is because celestial bodies are themselves three-dimensional, so that only a three-dimensional image can represent them in a forbidden way.
However, the great majority of Rishonim rule that even if the image is depressed, it is forbidden to create it. Tosafos (Avoda Zara 43b) explains that although in actuality they are three-dimensional, the celestial bodies appear to us as non-protruding (due to their distance), so that even a non-protruding image is considered a faithful representation, and therefore it is forbidden both to create as well as to own.
According to Maharam, as cited in the Darchei Moshe (141:5), the stringency applies only to depressed images, and not to a simple, flat painting. However, most authorities do not distinguish between depressed and flat images, and state simply that all images of the celestial bodies are forbidden.
This is the ruling given by the Rosh (Avoda Zara 3:5), the Rambam (Avodas Kochavim 3:11), the Tur (Yoreh De’ah 141) and the Shulchan Aruch (141:4). These rulings are likewise cited by later authorities (see Shach 141:25; Chochmas Adam 85:5; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 168:1).
Concerning keeping an image in one’s possession, some authorities are lenient concerning flat images, the reason being that it is not ordinary practice to worship flat images, so that there is no concern of raising suspicion (see Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 168:1; Pischei Teshuva 141:6). However, other authorities, such as the Shach (141:25), are not lenient in this matter.
Photos of the Sun or Moon
The sun, especially at sunset or sunrise, is a popular subject for photographers. However, based on the prohibition of creating an image of celestial bodies, it seems that there will be a prohibition against taking photos of the sun, or other celestial bodies.
This, indeed, is the ruling given by Shut Minchas Yitzchak (10:72). Although Shut Shevet Halevi (7:134) suggests that the prohibition might not apply to taking the picture but he does not address the question of printing a photograph, even if the act of taking the picture does not involve a prohibition (the question of creating an image by means of non-Jews is also discussed by Poskim; see, at length, Shut Vayevarech David 1:100).
However, while a prohibition will certainly apply to pictures of the entire disk of the sun, some authorities write that no such prohibition applies to a picture of only part of the sun: the prohibition of creating an image refers only to a complete image, and not to a part of one (see, for example, Nekudas Hakessef 141:Taz 13). There is similarly no problem of taking (or printing) a photo of the sun partially hidden by clouds. Also, children who draw pictures should only include partial images of the sun and other heavenly bodies.
Another leniency refers to creating an image for educational purposes. If done for teaching, it is permitted to create an image (Shulchan Aruch 141:4; Nekudas Hakessef on Taz 141:13). This, however, is not a common purpose of photographers, and perhaps this is why the leniency is not mentioned by later authorities (such as the Chochmas Adam).
Concerning keeping photos at home, there is some room for leniency today, since it is not common for anybody to worship such photos, so that keeping the photos will not arouse suspicion of worship (see Shach 141:23, 27; Chochmas Adam 85:6 concerning photos of people). We are not concerned about suspicion that the person keeping the photo in his possession also fashioned the image (see Haamek She’ala to Yisro 57:3).
Photos of People
As noted above, it is also forbidden to create images of the human form. However, unlike the celestial bodies, real human forms are close to us, and always appear as protruding bodies. For this reason, though it is forbidden to make a sculpture of a man, some authorities write that there is no prohibition against painting a human portrait (or engraving a sunken image). This is the position of Tosafos and other Rishonim, and is ruled by the Shulchan Aruch (141:4). The same will apply of course to taking a photo.
However, some authorities are stringent in this matter, as the Taz (141:12) elucidates, relying on the Tur’s citation of Ramban, among others. The Taz concludes that one should be stringent in this matter. However, the Shach (above cited Nekudas Hakesef) disputes the Taz. The Chochmas Adam (85:8) says one should be stringent like the Taz and others (see also Sheilas Yaavetz 2:114).
Clearly, the common custom is to be lenient in this matter, and to photograph (and later print) people without concern of prohibition.
Moreover, several authorities (such as the Rosh, Avoda Zara 3:5) rule that here, too, the prohibition of creating an image applies specifically to an entire human figure, and not to a head alone. This is ruled by the Shulchan Aruch (141:7) and later authorities (see Shach 141:25; Pischei Teshuva 141:10; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 168:2), and even those who wish to refrain from taking photos of people can thus be lenient in this matter (though Rav Yaakov Emden, Sheilas Yaavatz 1:170, disputes the leniency).
Certainly, there seems to be no problem of keeping photos of people at home, since there is surely no concern of worshiping them (Chochmas Adam 85:6).
There is a Torah prohibition against forming images of the celestial bodies and humans.
The Rabbonon extended the prohibition to include owning forbidden images.
The prohibition of forming images of celestial bodies includes sunken as well as protruding images and according to most authorities even flat images. Therefore, photographing an entire celestial body such as the sun or moon is problematic.
The prohibition of forming a human image, according to many, applies only to protruding images. Others forbid even flat images.
The prohibition according to many applies only to a whole creature. Therefore, photographing part of a human or celestial body will be permitted.
Since there is no suspicion that one worships a picture, there is no prohibition against keeping a picture of a human or celestial body in one’s possession even if it was forbidden to take it in the first place.