Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Astrology and Magic - Ramban and Rambam - two world views.

In the first of this week’s two Parshiot, at the end of Acharei, Ramban lays out in detail a position that he repeats many times in his writings and is the cornerstone of much of his theological thinking. I find it very productive to every year revisit and compare Ramban with Rambam on this issue as it clarifies the Weltanschauung of these two giants and the subsequent impact of both on the thinking process of thoughtful Jews in the generations that followed them. I will try to summarize the two positions in as few words as possible knowing that I will not do them justice. My focus this time is the Parshanut of each of the same verse.

At the end of the listing of the forbidden sexual relations, the Torah states: (Courtesy of Mechon-Mamre)

Vaykra 25:18 - And the land was defiled, therefore I did visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land vomited out her inhabitants.

Ramban wonders why forbidden sexual mores would be the cause for exile from Eretz Yisroel. It having no obvious connection to land, rather a personal behavior, why should it have an impact on our continuity in Eretz Yisroel? He says that the secret can be found in the following verses:

Devarim 32:8 When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when He separated the children of men, He set the borders of the peoples according to the number of the children of Israel 9 For the portion of the LORD is His people, Jacob the lot of His inheritance.

As opposed to other nations Israel is God’s people under his direct control while other nations are governed directly by other forces such as stars, and indirectly by God, as is clearly stated in Devarim 4:19

יט וּפֶן-תִּשָּׂא עֵינֶיךָ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה, וְרָאִיתָ אֶת-הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ וְאֶת-הַיָּרֵחַ וְאֶת-הַכּוֹכָבִים כֹּל צְבָא הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְנִדַּחְתָּ וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ לָהֶם, וַעֲבַדְתָּם--אֲשֶׁר חָלַק יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֹתָם, לְכֹל הָעַמִּים, תַּחַת כָּל-הַשָּׁמָיִם

And lest you lift up your eyes unto heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, even all the host of heaven, you will be drawn away and worship them, and serve them, which the LORD thy God has allotted unto all the peoples under the whole heaven.

Ramban deduces from this last verse that all nations are controlled by the stars, as it is well known in Astrology, “Ka’asher nodah be’itztagninus”. Each nation has its own star that governs its fate; however that star is subservient to the One God. Thus one expects that all nations worship the stars and the intermediaries that govern them. The nations of the world do not lose their country because they worship stars and intermediaries to God. However for the inhabitants of Eretz Yisroel, God’s private domain and under His direct control, whoever worships any other power besides HKBH cannot remain in the land. The land will not tolerate it because it is God’s land given as an inheritance to the Jewish people on condition they follow certain basic rules. It will therefore not tolerate Avodah Zarah nor will it tolerate sexual promiscuity because such is God’s wish for His land that He controls exclusively and directly. ( Note how the punishment is not a direct effect of the misdeed - it is a miraculous connection - more on that some other time)

Ramban thus reads the words “which the LORD thy God has allotted unto all the peoples under the whole heaven” to mean literally that the stars are the fate of all nations except Israel. Astrology and consequently magic are therefore a reality that cannot be denied and accepted by the Torah and needs to be taken into account by all nations. However Jews are forbidden to do so by the Torah because we are God’s people. That is the meaning of Segula - a special and unique relationship between God and the Jewish people. For further expansion on the subject and consequences of this understanding see Ramban Devarim 18:9, Breishis 1:18, Shemos 20:3 and in Toras Hashem Temimah as well as in other writings. Clearly it is one of the cornerstones of his world view.

Now let us turn to Rambam on the same verse. In Hilchos Avodah Zara 2:1-2

א עיקר הציווי בעבודה זרה, שלא לעבוד אחד מכל הברואים--לא מלאך, ולא גלגל, ולא כוכב, ולא אחד מארבע היסודות, ולא אחד מכל הנבראים מהם. ואף על פי שהעובד יודע שה' הוא האלוהים, והוא עובד הנברא הזה על דרך שעבד אנוש ואנשי דורו תחילה--הרי זה עובד עבודה זרה.
ב ועניין זה, הוא שהזהירה עליו תורה ואמרה "ופן תישא עיניך השמיימה, וראית את השמש ואת הירח ואת הכוכבים . . . אשר חלק ה' אלוהיך, אותם, לכול העמים" (דברים ד,יט): כלומר שמא תשוט בעין ליבך ותראה שאלו הם המנהיגים את העולם, והם שחלק ה' אותם לכל העמים להיותם חיים והווים ונפסדים כמנהגו של עולם; ותאמר שראוי להשתחוות להן, ולעובדן. ובעניין זה ציווה ואמר "הישמרו לכם, פן יפתה לבבכם" (דברים יא,טז)--כלומר שלא תטעו בהרהורי הלב לעבוד אלו, להיותם סרסור ביניכם ובין הבורא
1) The core prohibition of idol worship is not to worship any creation, be it an angel, one of the spheres, a star, one of the four elements or something created from one of the elements. Even though a worshipper knows that the Lord is God but nevertheless worships one of the creations in the way that Enosh and those of his generation did before they forgot God, he is still counted as an idolater. This is what the Torah warned us against when it said, "And in case you look to the skies, and when you see the sun, the moon, the stars, and all the host of heaven, and you be misled to worship them, et cetera"; that is to say, "In case you contemplate them and conclude that it is they who control the world, and that the Lord allotted the whole world to them as the cause of their becoming alive, being and destructing[1]" ( in other words - being that they are the natural forces that impact our world such as gravity, heat from the sun etc…) , and consequently one will think that it is fitting to bow down to them and to worship them. We have received commandments concerning this matter when it says, "Be careful that your judgment is not deluded, et cetera"; that is to say that one should not be misled by one's thoughts and think of the idols as a go-between between oneself and God. (Translation with my modifications courtesy of ).

Rambam reads the same words Ramban used as one of his proof texts, “which the LORD thy God has allotted unto all the peoples under the whole heaven” in a totally opposite way. The stars are nature’s instruments that bring about change in the physical world, not through free choice and spiritual / magical influence, but in a scientifically explainable way. They interact with the other natural events on earth and without them our world could not exist. They are part of the fabric of the world. “All people” therefore includes the Jewish people and Eretz Yisroel uniqueness is not because it is under God’s direct control. Everything and the whole world is under God and there are no such things as intermediaries and local powers. Rambam elaborates on this further in Moreh 2:5 and 6 using the same verse as the basis for the discussion. In his letter to the Rabbis of Marseilles here in Hebrew Rambam makes it clear that there is no such thing as Astrology or magic, or any other intermediaries. Note the interesting comment where Rambam blames the destruction of our land on the reliance of our forebears on Astrology and Magic instead of learning how to fight and wage war. Thus Rambam agrees that our downfall was caused by superstition but only because it is ineffective while Ramban feels it is effective everywhere but EY.

I will leave it to the reader to decide which approach makes sense in light of our contemporary knowledge.

For a detailed and interesting discussion of Ramban's position in contrast to Rambam's see my friend Rabbi Buchman's article .

[1] The translator did not understand this Rambam. I fixed it accordingly.


  1. davidg
    why do you think the Vilna goan, who i understand spent alot of time explaining away aggaditahs, yet was convinced there were demons. The mans intellect is beyond question. Was it simply faith?
    Why do you think he attacked the Rambam on these issues.
    why couldnt it be a machlokes, why did he need to undermine the rambam?

  2. The vilna Gaon lived at a time of transition. Although it was the early ear of empirical science, astrology and magic were still considered scientific facts. Newton believed in magic and spirits. There is a book by a member of Vilna Gaon's school called sefer habris, which is a synopsis of science to his days and he seees astrology as fact and science.

  3. I was recently looking up the Sefer Hachinuch and he seems to hold that peoples curses can have an effect on a person aside from an emotional aspect. I know that the Rambam and other Rishonim did not believe that people have the power to curse others and that is what I believe. The difficulty is how could the Sefer Hachinuch believe that people have the power to curse. I think he says its possible to say this but my question is how can he say this with no proof? Didnt he believe he needs empirical evidence or proof that people can cause harm from their curses? He doesnt have one and there is no proof anyway because the idea that someone can cause someone else harm by cursing him is false. Do you have a possible solution to this question on the Sefer Hachinuch?

  4. Anonymous, I am traveling right now and I have no seforim here. It is an interesting question. Off the top of my head I would start with the Rishonim on Bil'am. If I don't forget I will deal with it on my return . I am sure as we get to Bolok I will be thinking about it.

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