In my last post, I analyzed Rambam in Sefer Hamitzvot using the verse in Devarim 4:19 to support the prohibition of even contemplating the possibility of astrology being a science and true. I failed to point out that the idea that astrology (and for that matter magic) is false, was one of the most difficult things for a medieval thinker to accept. In fact, almost all ignored this position of Rambam and even his most ardent followers felt forced to disagree. His position was considered revolutionary and it was only much later in the history of human development that the truth of Rambam’s position was finally seen and accepted. Most of Rambam’s followers such as Ralbag, Rabbi Levi Ben Avraham, and Rabbi Yaakov Antuli (author of the seminal Malmad Hatalmidim) to name a few, all believed that astrology is an empirically proven science. As we will see, even direct communication with Rambam in a letter to the sages of
I would like to now analyze how Rambam addresses this verse (Devarim 4:19) in his Mishne Torah Hilchot Avodah Zara 2:1.
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.
The core [literally: the root] of the commandment [forbidding] idol worship is that one may not worship any creation, whether an angel, a sphere, a star, one of the four elements or anything that is made from them [the elements]. Even if the worshipper knows that God is the [supreme] God and he [only] worships the created entity, the way Enosh and his generation did in the beginning – that is Idol Worship.
According to Rambam in the preceding Chapter, Enosh developed the idea of worshiping the forces of nature that run the world as God’s intermediaries. At first, it was just as a show of respect for God’s tools, just as one respects the king’s minister – which is what Rambam is referring to here with the words “in the beginning”. With time, people attributed independent powers to them. To understand what Rambam means when he introduces this chapter with the words “The core of the commandment” we need to differentiate between goal and method. The goal is the eradication of the concept of idolatry and once eradicated preventing recidivism. The method is the development of laws that will lead people to that goal. These laws will not only forbid idol worship itself but anything that might lead towards it. There is a fine line between being in awe and worshipping God as the source of all the beauty and wisdom we observe in the world around us and worshipping the beautiful and awesome world itself. Crossing that line is dangerous and the laws are there to prevent that from happening. Rambam here is laying out the underlying rationale for the many rules in minute details that follow in the coming chapters. He therefore explains that at the core of the rules, the underlying rationale for all the detailed laws that he will enumerate and discuss in the coming chapters is the eradication and prevention of this kind of thinking. That will explain why actions that at first blush do not seem to be real idol worship are prohibited because of the risk that they will take us across that fine line of seeing independent powers in created entities.
השמיימה, וראית את השמש ואת הירח ואת הכוכבים . . . אשר חלק ה' אלוהיך,
אותם, לכול העמים
כלומר שמא תשוט בעין ליבך ותראה שאלו הם המנהיגים את העולם, והם שחלק ה'
אותם לכל העמים (העולם) להיותם חיים והווים ונפסדים כמנהגו של עולם; ותאמר שראוי
להשתחוות להן, ולעובדן. ובעניין זה ציווה ואמר "הישמרו לכם, פן יפתה
כלומר שלא תטעו בהרהורי הלב לעבוד אלו, להיותם סרסור ביניכם ובין הבורא.
It is against this that the Torah warns when saying, “lest you raise your eyes heavenward and see the sun, the moon and the stars… for the LORD your God has allotted them unto all the peoples under the heavens”. Namely, should your mind wander and notice that these [the sun etc…] are responsible for the running of the world and God gave them to all the peoples [Rav Kafih edition: world] causing them to come into being [literally: live], exist and be destroyed, as is the natural way of the world. [A poetic way of saying, the cosmos is responsible for the existence of life on earth]. You will therefore think that it is proper to bow down to them and worship them. That is the meaning of the warning “careful, lest your mind be enticed”. Namely, do not stray in your mind thinking that these are worthy to be worshipped as intermediaries between you and the Creator.
To understand what Rambam means with “notice that these [the sun etc…] are responsible for the running of the world”, we need to know a little about how he saw the cosmos and its relationship to the world. Professor Twersky in his “Introduction to the Mishne Torah” writes that the MN is like a Gemara to the MT which is like the Mishna, when dealing with philosophic matters. It fleshes out and expands on the concepts presented in MT in a summary fashion. Rambam in MN 1:72 presents a very concise and clear exposition of his understanding of the Aristotelian cosmos. Summarizing what is pertinent to our discussion, Rambam proposes that we look at the universe as a single body with different interacting components very similar to the Gaia Hypothesis. Our world is composed of the four elements that are inert. When some external force induces them to move, they have a natural tendency to return to their original position. The interplay between these two forces, the external force and the internal tendency, is responsible for the four elements’ interaction with each other. That interaction is responsible for all the things that exist in our world which all are different composites of these four elements in different combinations and ratios. The external force that is responsible for the movement of the four elements emanates from the spheres, the repository of the sun, moon and the stars. The spheres are a fifth element, an element that has the ability to think which is what induces them to stay in constant motion. The thinking that induces the spheres to stay in motion is the wish to emulate God’s perfection by being perfect. Perfection to them is perfect motion which is circular and constant. Their motion in turn creates the movement in our world that is responsible for the four elements’ interaction. The spheres in this scenario are therefore responsible for our existence in this world of ours. The “thinking” that Rambam talks about is gravity which
Next post will address Rambam’s discussion of this verse in MN 2:5.
 This is the key to the very surprising chapter MN 2:7, very difficult to a contemporary to understand. I hope to discuss in a future post.