So we take this אבן משכית prohibition very seriously. We don’t prostrate ourselves in shul, we rarely even kneel, we don’t have tile or stone floors in shul, and when we do kneel on our carpeted floors, we put paper towels down so it doesn’t even look like we’re kneeling on the floor.
But how does this connect to the rest of the parasha, about the financial-religious laws of שמיטה, אונאה and עבדות?
Rashi connects it to the paragraph immediately above:
But Rabbi Norman Lamm, former president of Yeshiva University, has a different perspective on the connection to our parasha that relates to a very different understanding of אבן משכית, the “covering stone”.
This comes from the Sifra:
What is a מרקוליס on the side of the road?
זריקת האבנים here doesn’t mean throwing stones but piling them on top. A מרקוליס is a stack of stones on the side of the road, and passers-by would add stones to the pile. The assumption is that מרקוליס is Mercury, the god of merchants and travelers:
When we went hiking in the Rockies a few years ago, these rock piles were all over the trails:
They look innocent, just helpful trail markers or fun ways of saying “I was here” (the latter makes conservationists very upset; you should leave nature the way you found it). But it’s a very short step from appreciating the help that a trail marker offers a traveler, to appreciating the god of travelers.
And so זורק אבן למרקוליס is forbidden:
When we went hiking, I didn’t know any of this, so I am afraid we may have been עובד עבודה זרה בשגגה:
We’ll have to ask Eliyahu when he comes if we need to bring a קרבן חטאת. But זורק אבן למרקוליס becomes a byword in the Talmud for exactly this problem, an innocent, even helpful act that in effect denies ה׳'s providence:
Back to our parasha. Rabbi Lamm says that the warning about מרקוליס is about not serving the god of merchants when we engage in the financial transactions described earlier:
There’s another side of worshipping Mercury or Hermes that matters to me:
I study תנ״ך. Understanding תנ״ך is “Biblical Hermeneutics”. It’s what I do. And the academic tools of “hermenautics” in general, the way we understand poetry and prose, can be useful. But it is dangerous. It has to be לשם שמים or it is tantamount to עבודה זרה.
But we do use חכמה שהיא במליצה או משל as a סולם לעלות בה אל חכמת התורה. As Rabbi Carmy says:
What we build with these bricks of hermeneutics cannot be a cairn to Hermes, a מרקולים, but a palace of Torah: