Sunday, February 17, 2008

Astrology and Talismans as Percursors of Idolatry - Both are Deceptions

Rambam wrote the Pirush Hamishna, his first major published work, while he was in his twenties. He tells us at the end of Seder Taharot that he started it at 23, finishing it in Egypt at 30. Although some scholars, based on certain rulings in Mishne Torah see a softening of his position on idolatry, as he grew older, it is clear that the basic underlying thinking never changed. I hope to eventually address those seeming changes of heart. As we will see his explanation of idolatry and its nefarious consequences is consistent from the Pirush Hamishna through the letter to the sages of Marseilles I already quoted in another post, which he wrote in his last years (Rambam died at 69).

As the following quote from his Pirush on Avodah Zara 4:7 is lengthy, I will break up the translation into thematic segments with comments as I go along. Depending on the length, this may spread over several posts. (Note: I copied the Hebrew translation available online and compared it with the Rav Kafieh edition. Wherever I thought it was important I used the latter in the translation. That should explain any discrepancy between the translation and the original.)


ממה שראוי שתדעהו, שהפילוסופים השלמים אינם

מאמינים בטליסמאות, אלא צוחקים מהם ומאלה החושבים שיש להן השפעה. וביאור

זה יארך, ואמנם אמרתי זאת ליודעי שרוב בני האדם ואולי כולם מרומים בהם

תרמית גדולה מאד, ובהרבה דברים מסוגם, ויחשבום דברים אמיתיים, ואינם כך.

עד שהטובים החסידים מאנשי תורתנו חושבים שהם דברים אמיתיים אלא שהם אסורים

בגלל התורה בלבד, ולא ידעו שהם דברים בטלים כוזבים שהזהירה מהם התורה כמו

שהזהירה מהשקר.

You need to know that the perfected philosophers [as opposed to the imperfect ones] do not believe in talismans. They laugh at them and at the people who believe that they have an influence [on the physical]. To explain this will be lengthy. I say this because I know that most people, indeed possibly all, are deceived by this great deception, and by many other similar things, considering them to be true. They are not. [The deception is so great] that even the best of the Chassidim [faithful] among our men [scholars] of Torah, think that they are true but forbidden because the Torah forbids them. They do not realize that they are nonsensical false things that the Torah warned against, just as it warned us against [believing in] falsehoods.

Rambam speaks plainly. He admits that what he is about to say goes against the opinion of the best of his learned and religious compatriots. Not only is he referring to his contemporaries but I understand that he is also addressing the Rabbis in the Talmud and even Mishna who seem to have believed in talismans and “other similar things”. He also stakes out his position that talismans and “other similar things” are false and do not work. They are a deception perpetrated by intentional deceivers who are so successful that everybody is susceptible. They are forbidden, not only because the Torah forbade their use, but also because they are a deception, just as lies and falsehoods would be forbidden even had the Torah not said so. I emphasize this because I believe it is one of the most important ideas that underlie Rambam’s understanding of idolatry, as we will see.

The Great Deception and why it is False:

והם דברים שזכו לפרסום רב אצל האומות, ושורש זה, הצאבה,

והם העמים אשר יצא אברהם אבינו מכללם וחלק על דעותיהם הנפסדות במה שאצר ה'

בליבו מן החכמה, והיו מגדלים את הכוכבים ומייחסים להם פעולות שאינן להם,

והם אשר יסדו את גזירת הכוכבים והכישוף והלחשים והורדת הרוחניות ושיחות

הכוכבים והשדים והקסם והניחוש לכל ריבוי מיניהם, ודרישת המתים, והרבה מאלה

הענינים אשר שלפה התורה האמיתית חרבה עליהם וכרתה אותם, והם שורש עבודה

זרה וענפה. וזה, שהכזב הראשון הוא גזירת הכוכבים, אשר מוכח במופת בחכמה

הטבעית ביטול הקדמותיה הראשונות, באומרם כוכב פלוני מזלו רע ופלוני מזלו

טוב, וחלק פלוני מן הגלגל מתאים לכוכב פלוני, ומתנגד לכוכב פלוני, עם היות

הגלגל כולו גוף אחד שחלקיו דומים, אין ניגוד בהם ולא הרכבה. ואלו שתי

ההקדמות הן עמוד גזירת הכוכבים, אשר אם יתאמת ביטולן, כמו שכבר התאמת,

יתבטלו פרטיה עד האחרון שבהם. אחר כך הורכב כזב שני על זה הכזב הראשון,

והן הטליסמאות, ואמרו שאם יהיה כוכב פלוני שמזלו טוב במקום פלוני המתאים

לו, תיעשה צורה בתואר כך והיא תביא תועלת כך, ואם היה כוכב פלוני שמזלו רע

במקום פלוני המתנגד לו, תיעשה צורה בתואר כך והיא תרחיק נזק כך, והתפשט זה

הענין כפי התפשטות גזירת הכוכבים ומה שמיוחס להם מן הפרטים. אחר כך הורכב

כזב שלישי על זה השני, והיא עבודה זרה, ונאמר שזאת הצורה אשר תיעשה במזל

כך ועל מצבה פלונית אם יוקטר לה באופן פלוני ויתפללו אליה במילים כך

וישתחוו לה, וכך וכך, הרי היא תפסיק נזק כוכב פלוני ותביא תועלת פלוני

These ideas gained great traction among the nations and at their root were the Sabeans, the peoples Avraham Avinu distanced himself from and, using the wisdom God gave him, disputed their ideas. They honored the stars attributing to them actions that were not theirs. They are the ones that established the laws [that apply to the use of the powers] of, the stars, magic, incantations, the bringing down of spirits, talking with the stars, the Sheidim, ghosts, prestidigitations of all types, consultation with the dead and many of such similar matters that the True Torah[1] unsheathed its sword and destroyed them. They are at the root of idolatry and its offshoots. The first deception was [the establishment of] astrology, which we can disprove its basic premises empirically and scientifically. For they [the astrologers] say that this specific star augurs good while the other augurs bad. They also say that a certain part of a sphere is compatible with a certain star and incompatible with another although they [the spheres] are one body without parts or compositions. These two propositions are the basis for astrology and if disproved – and they have been – all their details to the last, will fall apart.

A second deception was grafted on the first one – the Talismans. They said that if a certain star which augurs good finds itself in a compatible place [on the sphere] and if one makes a certain form in this and this way, it will be beneficial. If a certain star that augurs bad finds itself in a place that is incompatible with it, a different form will protect against it. These details broadened and spread as did astrology.

And now a third deception was grafted on the first two and that is idolatry. It was said that a form made during a specific sign on this specific altar and then certain kinds of incense are burned accompanied by specific words, genuflecting at such and such, it will stop the harm brought by a star [also] bringing a specific benefit.

Rambam explains why idolatry is a lie and false. Its underlying premise is that the spheres and stars have “spiritual” powers to influence happenings on earth. As he explained in MT that the whole thing started innocently as a natural consequence of the observation that there is a physical connection between the movement of the stars and what occurs on earth. Seasons, weather and tides depend on the sun and the moon. They conceptualized that they must be intermediaries between God and us and doing His bidding and therefore deserved respect. It was not long before powers other than physical were ascribed to them. They were no longer forces of nature that acted according to certain preset laws but now had a mind of their own. Thus, astrology came to be seen as a science. We have to understand that with the Aristotelian universe of the medieval era, it was much easier to accept these ideas than it is with our view of the universe. They, including Rambam, believed that the stars were sentient beings to an extent. Their movement was caused by a striving for the perfect motion, the circular. That limited sentience did not extend to independence of action. It was seen by Rambam and other “perfected philosophers” as a focused and single-minded sentience. However, it was not a great leap to take the extra step and give them independence albeit under the ultimate supervision of God. Almost all Rambam’s contemporaries fell for it even after Rambam’s admonition as witnessed by his letter to the sages of Marseilles and their subsequent writings. However, once that step is taken, a pantheon of greater and lesser gods is not far away.

What I find interesting is that Rambam sees talismans as an intermediate step between the original well-intentioned respects afforded to God’s tools and full-blown idolatry where they become powerful independent forces. It puts a certain light on understanding why the Torah is so strict forbidding anything that is a precursor or has any connection with idolatry more than any other prohibition. But I think the biggest point Rambam is making that idolatry and the premise it rests on is false and untrue. That in itself is reason enough for the focus of religion to be the eradication of idolatry. Deception and lies are so dangerous and bring about such destruction that an open and constant war against it must be waged.

Next post we will see the destruction the falsehood of idolatry brings about.

[1] Or in context: the Torah of truths


  1. I think the astrology fight was complicated because it cut across the rationalist vs. anti-rationalist divide. There were later Maimonideans who were pro-astrology on scientific grounds.

    In this regard I have a question. The Active intelligence was supposed to be identical with the laws of nature. It is not identical with the laws that people thought in the 12th century were the laws of nature. Since the Rambam holds that immortality of the soul depends on knowing the laws of nature which constitute the Active Intelligence, and since no one until recently and maybe not even now knew the true laws of nature, it should follow that no one including the Rambam and all the rabbis that proceeded him ever gained immortality of the soul. They could have known the entire Torah, but they didn’t know the laws of science. Conversely there could be some daf hayomi guy in some future century who lucked out and lived in the time when the true scientific laws were known who would have the good fortune of immortality. Very odd.

  2. Re Maimonideans believing in Astrology that is the case and even the letter written by Rambam to them they could not accept it. Ralbag et al were convinced it was a science.

    Re your AI question now that you discovered it! If I would know the answer I would be much more erudite than I am. I have much harder questions how does Rambam explain Kol Ysrael Yesh Lahem? The question is obvious. All I know that Yediat Hashem itself, any insight that one gets through personal hard work gives one a certain Oneg. Is that Olam Haba? Maybe. Is it the satisfaction itself Olam Haba? maybe. The idea though is that one does all we do because it is Truth and we are looking for it. Read the last few chapters in Hil Teshuva. I am in the office so i don't have the reference handy.

  3. Your response though fine does not get to the heart of the issue, imho.The issue for me is how does one acheive what you call yediat hashem. For the Rambam, Torah itself contains hidden knowledge only about the laws of nature and metaphysics.The surface of Torah including the performance of mitzvot are just a prologomena to the main event. For the rest of the crowd, but especially for the Zohar & Co. the inner knowledge of the secrets of the Torah is a knowledge of the Godhead itself. They don't have a mediation through physics. For the Rambam the idea that God is mutable, has anthromorphic conceptions in terms of the human body as sefirot is unthinkable. I am not ever sure if the Rambam would sign on to the Nefesh Hachaim formula that the Torah is the will of God.

    So leshitas Harambam one can learn Torah, uncover all the parables to the best of one's knowledge base and still be nowhere, whereas the opposition believes God and Torah are one.The madreyga a person acheives is a function of how much and deep is his knowledge of Torah. You must admit the un-Rambam position is much more gratifying.