Monday, June 02, 2008

The Rationale for the Many Detailed Rules Against Idolatry - Eradication and Prevention.

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 Marseilles who queried him and where he clarified his position admonishing them to change their thinking made little impact. Ramban’s position that astrology is real but forbidden was accepted throughout Europe for centuries thereafter. It is a separate subject for discussion, but it is worthwhile to mention that here we see how philosophical thinking affected Halacha and that the two were never divorced from each other during the earlier periods of Jewish learning including the era of the Rishonim. The apparent disconnect and separation between the two in contemporary Jewish Halacha is a more recent development.

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.

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

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[1]. 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[2]. 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 Newton eventually understood and explained. However, to the mind of a pre-Newtonian thinker it is a small step to seeing this force as an independent power. It is therefore not surprising that many did attribute independent thinking and power to the spheres, including great Jewish thinkers. It is to Rambam’s credit that he was able to insist that, though misunderstood by him, they were still only natural forces that were constant and subject to natures’ rules of cause and effect. It is exactly how he reads our verse. Although the spheres seem to be responsible for existence in our world, “responsible for the running of the world”, it warns us not to fall into the trap that they are independent from nature and the laws of cause and effect. Their force is a constant one unchanged since creation. There is therefore no reason to worship them.

Next post will address Rambam’s discussion of this verse in MN 2:5.

[2] 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.


  1. David,
    All the above is fine & well.
    However,Rambam says somewhere,(perhaps you can give the mareh makom),that the "shen haz'ev,or masmer hatsaluv",is permitted for medicinal purposes.Because many people believe in its efficiency & has been "proven" to be effective.

    I don't see any difference between the above & magic.
    It just shows that even a super rationalist like Rambam had his own superstitions.
    I wonder whether Rambam would take a room no 13 in a hotel.

  2. correction.
    Instead of shen haz'ev read shen hashual,IIRC.

  3. יישר חילך לאורייתא
    להרבות תורה ולהאדירה
    ולהחזיר משנת חכמים למקומה

    ללמד רמב"ם לעם
    אשר לא זכר ימות עולם
    ולא בנו לאחריתם

    כן תוסיף וכן תרבה
    דעות כזב להשמיד
    לבאר תורת משה ומשה
    על ידי איש שמו דוד

  4. הצעיר שלמה בן רפאל לבית שריקי ס"ט
    The samech tet stands for "sephardi tahor".
    Are you sure about that? How far back can you trace your pure blood sephardi ancestry?
    Aren't you being racist?
    Ashkenazi Tahor,ein li chas va-chalila tipat dam
    sephardi nozel b'orkai!
    How do you like that!?

  5. [יא] מי שנשכו עקרב או נחש, מותר ללחוש על מקום הנשיכה, ואפילו בשבת, כדי ליישב דעתו ולחזק ליבו: אף על פי שאין הדבר מועיל כלום, הואיל ומסוכן הוא, התירו לו, כדי שלא תיטרף דעתו עליו

    Hil AZ 11:12

    Hil Shabbat 19:13
    יוצא אדם
    ובשן השועל, ובמסמר הצלוב, ובכל דבר שתולין אותו משום רפואה--והוא שיאמרו הרופאים, שהוא מועיל.

    I cannot access just now the Pirush Hamishna on line but look at Mishna Shabbat 6:10 where he says Medamim Ba'alei Hasegulot that it works and therefore it is permitted and in Yoma 8:4 where he forbids using the liver of a mad dog because it does not work and segulot are assur and look at Shut Radvaz 5:1436 where he discusses all these Rambam's and concludes that permitted only in life threatening situations where it is calming the patient not that it works.

    Re Samech Tet it Means Seifei Tav or Good ending and not sefardi tahor.

  6. Anonymous: As David said, it's very doubtful if the "semekh tet" was intended to mean 'sefaradi tahor'. Either way though, it's something my Rabbinic ancestors wrote after their names, and I write it (mostly) to, in some way, associate myself with them.

    "ein li chas va-chalila tipat dam
    sephardi nozel b'orkai!"- okaaay....'בעצם' though, I feel that it's a shame members of 'עם ישראל' still live in places where such associations are more apropos (viz outside of Israel). If we were in Israel I would be inclined to say "this is where both our ancestors originated, and it is here we find ourselves today. Why brood over past differences between us (not to imply that those differences aren't still around to some extent..

    In fact it is my understanding that the Rambam is to a large extent representative of the modes of thought of our ancestors in Muslim Spain (who's ideas I find favorable...and which are expounded upon on this website), and Rashi and those who followed in his ways were the prototypes of the mode of thinking of the Jews in and around the ancient German Rhine (who's ideas many Orthodox Jews are currently largely influenced by).)

    In regards to the whole "Rambam being a bit hypocritical about superstisous medicine" discussion you seem to have been having, I just wanted to comment on the response: "...and look at Shut Radvaz 5:1436 where he discusses all these Rambam's and concludes that permitted only in life threatening situations where it is calming the patient not that it works."- Yeah, it's a simple idea- it's a 'placebo effect'- so much health is totally dependent on the mind man...

  7. > Re Samech Tet it Means Seifei Tav or Good ending and not sefardi tahor.

    This seems to me rather forced & I wonder whether it's due to P.C.
    I would appreciate,if you, David, or anyone else,could give a source for where & when that interpretation first appears.

  8. One source - there are more if I remember them.

    J.H. Zimmels on page 286 of his book "Ashkenazim and Sefardim" gives
    several possible explanations for the meaning of S"T.

    The first possibility he gives is "Sofo Tov", "dating from the time when
    the persecutions started in spain and people did not know whether they
    would survive. Because of this they used to write the words Sofo Tov,
    i.e. may his end be good, after their name in letters to their friends."

    Another possibility is that they stand for 'Sanct' denoting martyrdom (I
    don't quite understand what he means here).

    A third option is the commonly cited 'Sefardi Tahor', indicating a
    non-Marrano descent.

    He then goes on to write that none of these possibilties could be
    correct. It can't be related to the persection in Spain, because the
    S"T acronym is found in texts even before the persecution in Spain
    started in 1391. Also he disputes the '"sefardi tahor" option because
    "Haham Zevi Ashkenazi and his son R. Yakov Emden add these letters to
    their names."

    The source he cites for these statements is Meir Helprin's "Hasimanim
    ve-Hakinnuyim" p. 188.

    The back of the book where there are some additional notes by the author
    brings a fourth possibility - "Sin Tin" the aramaic transslation of the
    expression "rephesh va-tit" (mire and dirt) from Yeshayahu 57:20.
    However he discounts this option as well because the actual translation
    in Aramaic is "Sin ve-Tin" so the acronym would really be Sv"T if it
    truly stood for Sin ve-Tin.

  9. Thanks,David,for the interesting source & information.

  10. Mordekhai haLewi de Lopes ס"ט10/20/2008 1:26 PM

    s"t meant, for Sefardim in Inquisitional periode to be of no-Christian descent, because of the policies of Pureza de Sangre.

    The idea of no-Marrano is not true, since most of Sefardim descended of Anoussim, mainly in the Western Communities.

    So s"t means exactly this Pure Sefardi without not connotation against other non-Sephardic Jews.