The Nature of Avodah Zara

Avodah Zara (4:7) | Aron Rubin | 10 years ago

The Mishnah in Avodah Zara (4:7) brings a dialogue that the Romans had with the Sages in which the Romans asked why Hashem does not simply destroy all idols if he despises them so much. The Sages replied that the idols that are being worshipped consist of things that the world depends upon, such as the sun, moon, stars and star signs and that Hashem will not simply destroy the world just to negate the opinions of fools who worship them. The Romans then asked why Hashem does not destroy the idols that the world has no need for. To this they replied that if Hashem did so, it would lead people to believe that the remaining idols were gods, since they were not destroyed.

The Rambam in his commentary to this Mishnah writes a lengthy paragraph, where he discusses that many Jewish Sages in his time believed that the idols and star signs that idolaters worshipped actually exist and that worshipping them and praying to them had an effect; only that Torah forbade us to do so. The Rambam insists that this view is incorrect and that the idols and star signs are not real and have no power whatsoever. He also says the same thing regarding Sheidim and black magic. The Rambam also writes something very similar in the Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Avodah Zara 11:16), where he insists that star signs and black magic have no power and effect, and that it is not fitting for Bnei Yisrael (who are considered a wise nation) to believe that they exist.

The Rambam seems to follow the approach of Rashi on Chumash. When the Torah says “You shall not have any other gods before you” (Shemot 20:2), Rashi interprets “other gods” to mean that they are ‘others’ even with respect to the people that worship them, since they have no effect when they are worshipped.

On the other hand, the Ramban (Bereshit 1:18) says that Hashem created star signs that control what occurs in the lower worlds and that they do exist. The verse in Parshat Va’etchanan, warning Bnei Yisrael against idol worship, says: “And lest you will raise your eyes to the heavens and see the sun and the moon and the stars, and you will go astray and bow to them and worship them; that which Hashem, your G-d has apportioned to all the nations under the heavens” (Devarim 4:19). The Ramban interprets these last words to mean that Hashem appointed different star signs as ministers over each of the nations (with the exception of Bnei Yisrael), and that the nations turned them into gods and worshipped them. According to the Ramban, it would seem that star signs actually have power and that if the nations prayed to their particular star sign, it would have an effect. Nevertheless, Hashem forbade the nations to worship them, since their power comes from Hashem and that it is fitting to worship Him alone (see Emet Le’Yaakov Devarim 4:19, who interprets the Ramban this way).

Perhaps a middle approach can be found in the Ibn Ezra. The Ibn Ezra writes in a few places (Shemot 20:2; 23:25; 33:21) that although star signs exist, praying to them has no effect, since they are programmed to perform exactly the way that Hashem decreed and they have no ability to change their own nature. Only praying to Hashem will have an effect, since He has the ability to change their nature or to save us from them. According to the Ibn Ezra, this is what the Gemara means when it says “Ein Mazal L’Yisrael” (Shabbat 156a). Although the occurrences of the world are controlled by star signs, when we worship Hashem, He will enable us to overcome their influences and be above nature.


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