Avodah Zarah, Chapter Four, Mishnah Seven

 

Introduction

This mishnah contains a fascinating discussion between the Sages of Rome and some idolaters. Note the different style of this mishnah.  Although most mishnayoth contain brief halakhic (legal) discussions, occasionally the Mishnah does contain aggadic (philosophic) material.

 

Mishnah Seven

1)                     They asked the elders in Rome, “If [your God] has no desire for idolatry, why does he not abolish it?”

2)                     They replied, “If it was something unnecessary to the world that was worshipped, he would abolish it; but people worship the sun, moon, stars and planets; should he destroy his universe on account of fools!”

3)                     They said [to the elders], “If so, he should destroy what is unnecessary for the world and leave what is necessary for the world!”

4)                     They replied, “[If he did that], we should merely be strengthening the hands of the worshippers of these, because they would say, “know that these are deities, for behold they have not been abolished!”

 

Explanation

In the fascinating discussion in this mishnah some pagans in Rome pose a serious theological problem to Jewish sages: if God is all-powerful why doesn’t he destroy any of his competitors.  The basic answer given is that God doesn’t destroy things which are necessary for the existence of the world.  If He were to destroy the sun, moon and stars our universe would not be able to function.  The pagans then ask why God doesn’t destroy the things that are worshipped and that are not necessary, such as idols.  The answer is that if he were to do so, this would seemingly demonstrate the power of those things that were not destroyed.  By doing so God would actually increase the number of idolaters in the world. 

An interesting question with regards to this mishnah is whom are these idolaters supposed to be representing?  Are these Greek philosophers?  According to the Rambam (Maimonides) Greek philosophy does not believe in the influence that inanimate objects such as stars and planets can have on human lives.  The Rambam, who was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, and in his book “The Guide of the Perplexed” applied philosophical principles to Torah, claims that these pagan beliefs are believed by the masses, but not by “true philosophers” who understood the unity of God.  He even claims that there are Jewish sages who believe that the stars and planets hold such a power over our lives, but that it is nevertheless forbidden by the Torah to worship them.  In this commentary the Rambam explains the astrological roots of idolatry.

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