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Avodah Kochavim - Chapter One

Avodah Kochavim - Chapter One

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Halacha 1

During the times of Enosh, mankind made a great mistake, and the wise men of that generation gave thoughtless counsel. Enosh himself was one of those who erred.

Their mistake was as follows: They said God created stars and spheres with which to control the world. He placed them on high and treated them with honor, making them servants who minister before Him. Accordingly, it is fitting to praise and glorify them and to treat them with honor. [They perceived] this to be the will of God, blessed be He, that they magnify and honor those whom He magnified and honored, just as a king desires that the servants who stand before him be honored. Indeed, doing so is an expression of honor to the king.

After conceiving of this notion, they began to construct temples to the stars and offer sacrifices to them. They would praise and glorify them with words, and prostrate themselves before them, because by doing so, they would - according to their false conception - be fulfilling the will of God.

This was the essence of the worship of false gods, and this was the rationale of those who worshiped them. They would not say that there is no other god except for this star.

This message was conveyed by Jeremiah, who declared (10:7-8): "Who will not fear You, King of the nations, for to You it is fitting. Among all the wise men of the nations and in all their kingdoms, there is none like You. They have one foolish and senseless [notion. They conceive of their] empty teachings as wood;" i.e., all know that You alone are God. Their foolish error consists of conceiving of this emptiness as Your will.

Halacha 2

After many years passed, there arose people - false prophets - who told [their nations] that God had commanded them to say: Serve this star - or all the stars - sacrifice to it, offer libations to it, build a temple for it and make an image of it so that all people - including the women, the children, and the common people - could bow to it.

He would inform them of a form that he had conceived, and tell them that this is the image of the particular star, claiming that this was revealed to him in a prophetic vision. In this manner, the people began to make images in temples, under trees, and on the tops of mountains and hills.

People would gather together and bow down to them and the [false prophets] would say: This image is the source of benefit or harm. It is appropriate to serve it and fear it. Their priests would tell them: This service will enable you to multiply and be successful. Do this and this, or do not do this or this.

Subsequently, other deceivers arose and declared that a specific star, sphere, or angel had spoken to them and commanded them: Serve me in this manner. He would then relate a mode of service [telling them:] Do this, do not do this.

Thus, these practices spread throughout the world. People would serve images with strange practices - one more distorted than the other - offer sacrifices to them, and bow down to them. As the years passed, [God's] glorious and awesome name was forgotten by the entire population. [It was no longer part of] their speech or thought, and they no longer knew Him. Thus, all the common people, the women, and the children would know only the image of wood or stone and the temples of stone to which they were trained from their childhood to bow down and serve, and in whose name they swore.

The wise men among them would think that there is no God other than the stars and spheres for whose sake, and in resemblance of which, they had made these images. The Eternal Rock was not recognized or known by anyone in the world, with the exception of a [few] individuals: for example, Chanoch, Metushelach, Noach, Shem, and Ever. The world continued in this fashion until the pillar of the world - the Patriarch Abraham - was born.

Halacha 3

After this mighty man was weaned, he began to explore and think. Though he was a child, he began to think [incessantly] throughout the day and night, wondering: How is it possible for the sphere to continue to revolve without having anyone controlling it? Who is causing it to revolve? Surely, it does not cause itself to revolve.

He had no teacher, nor was there anyone to inform him. Rather, he was mired in Ur Kasdim among the foolish idolaters. His father, mother, and all the people [around him] were idol worshipers, and he would worship with them. [However,] his heart was exploring and [gaining] understanding.

Ultimately, he appreciated the way of truth and understood the path of righteousness through his accurate comprehension. He realized that there was one God who controlled the sphere, that He created everything, and that there is no other God among all the other entities. He knew that the entire world was making a mistake. What caused them to err was their service of the stars and images, which made them lose awareness of the truth.

Abraham was forty years old when he became aware of his Creator. When he recognized and knew Him, he began to formulate replies to the inhabitants of Ur Kasdim and debate with them, telling them that they were not following a proper path.

He broke their idols and began to teach the people that it is fitting to serve only the God of the world. To Him [alone] is it fitting to bow down, sacrifice, and offer libations, so that the people of future [generations] would recognize Him. [Conversely,] it is fitting to destroy and break all the images, lest all the people err concerning them, like those people who thought that there are no other gods besides these [images].

When he overcame them through the strength of his arguments, the king desired to kill him. He was [saved through] a miracle and left for Charan. [There,] he began to call in a loud voice to all people and inform them that there is one God in the entire world and it is proper to serve Him. He would go out and call to the people, gathering them in city after city and country after country, until he came to the land of Canaan - proclaiming [God's existence the entire time] - as [Genesis 21:33] states: "And He called there in the name of the Lord, the eternal God."

When the people would gather around him and ask him about his statements, he would explain [them] to each one of them according to their understanding, until they turned to the path of truth. Ultimately, thousands and myriads gathered around him. These are the men of the house of Abraham.

He planted in their hearts this great fundamental principle, composed texts about it, and taught it to Isaac, his son. Isaac also taught others and turned [their hearts to God]. He also taught Jacob and appointed him as a teacher.

[Jacob] taught others and turned [the hearts] of all those who gathered around him [to God]. He also taught all of his children. He selected Levi and appointed him as the leader. He established him [as the head of] the academy to teach them the way of God and observe the mitzvot of Abraham.

[Jacob] commanded his sons that the leadership should not depart from the descendants of Levi, so that the teachings would not be forgotten. This concept proceeded and gathered strength among the descendants of Jacob and those who collected around them, until there became a nation within the world which knew God.

When the Jews extended their stay in Egypt, however, they learned from the [Egyptians'] deeds and began worshiping the stars as they did, with the exception of the tribe of Levi, who clung to the mitzvot of the patriarchs - the tribe of Levi never served false gods.

Within a short time, the fundamental principle that Abraham had planted would have been uprooted, and the descendants of Jacob would have returned to the errors of the world and their crookedness. Because of God's love for us, and to uphold the oath He made to Abraham, our patriarch, He brought forth Moses, our teacher, the master of all prophets, and sent him [to redeem the Jews]. After Moses, our teacher, prophesied, and God chose Israel as His inheritance, He crowned them with mitzvot and informed them of the path to serve Him, [teaching them] the judgement prescribed for idol worshiper and all those who stray after it.

Commentary Halacha 1

During the times of Enosh - the grandson of Adam. See Genesis 4:26, 5:6-11. Enosh lived from the year 235 after creation to the year 1140 (3525 to 2620 B.C.E.).

mankind made a great mistake and the wise men of that generation gave thoughtless counsel. - Interestingly, the Rambam does not attribute the rise of paganism to simple commoners, but to the "wise" of the generation.

Enosh, himself, was one of those who erred. - Our text of Shabbat 118b mentions that "the generation of Enosh" were idol worshipers. However, certain versions of that text omit the words "generation of." (See She'iltot D'Rabbi Achai Gaon, Bereshit.)

Their mistake was as follows: They said God created stars and spheres - See Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, Chapter 3, for a description of the stars and the spheres, and their place within the Rambam's conception of the cosmos.

with which to control the world. He placed them on high and treated them with honor, making them servants who minister before Him. - i.e., mediums of Divine influence

Accordingly, it is fitting to praise and glorify them and to treat them with honor. - Rashi finds an allusion to the worship of false gods in Enosh's times in Genesis 4:26: which he renders, "It was then that they called profanely upon the name of God."

[They perceived] this to be the will of God, blessed be He, that they magnify and honor those whom He magnified and honored, just as a king desires that the servants who stand before him be honored. Indeed, doing so is an expression of honor to the king. - In Hilchot Yesodei Torah, ibid., and in several places in the Guide for the Perplexed, the Rambam explains that the stars and the spheres are on a higher plane than the creations of our world. Though they influence our world, they are also God's creations and have no free will of their own. Thus, they are no more than an axe in the hands of a wood-chopper, and should not worshiped or served.

After conceiving of this notion, they began to construct temples to the stars - Note the Rambam's comments on astrology in his Commentary on the Mishnah (Avodah Zarah 4:7), which are quoted in the commentary on Chapter 11, Halachah 16.

and offer sacrifices to them. They would praise and glorify them with words, and prostrate themselves before them, because by doing so, they would - according to their false conception - It is questionable if such worship is forbidden to gentiles or not. Based on Deuteronomy 4:19, certain authorities maintain that the gentiles may worship other gods, provided they have the awareness that God is the ultimate power (שיתוף).

The Rambam, however, does not mention this perspective in these halachot, nor in Hilchot Melachim, Chapter 9, where he discusses the prohibition against the worship of false gods as it affects gentiles. [In Sefer HaMitzvot (positive commandment 2), however, he states "Israel is commanded regarding the unification of God"; from which it could be inferred that gentiles need not believe in this concept and can combine their worship of God with other powers.] All authorities agree that such worship is forbidden for Jews.

be fulfilling the will of God. - It is unclear from the Rambam's statements here whether, originally, they would worship the stars without any self-interest - merely with the intent of honoring those whom God honors - or whether their service was self-oriented - i.e., they worshiped the stars because they considered them as mediums of Divine influence and hoped to derive benefit from of their service. In the following halachah and in his Commentary on the Mishnah (Avodah Zarah 4:7), the Rambam mentions the second view. It is, however, unclear if this was the original intent of the star-worshipers or whether this was a later development.

This was the essence of the worship of false gods - See Chapter 2, Halachah 1.

and this was the rationale of those who worshiped them - at the outset.

They would never say that there is no other god except for this star - as the pagans mentioned in Halachah 2 later did. The first generations of star worshipers were aware of God's existence and conceived of the stars as no more than intermediaries between ourselves and Him.

This message was conveyed by Jeremiah, who declared (10:7-8): - See also the Guide for the Perplexed (Vol. I, Chapter 36) where the Rambam explains a similar idea using the same Biblical proof-text.

"Who will not fear You, King of the nations, for to You it is fitting. Among all the wise men of the nations and in all their kingdoms, there is none like You. They have one foolish and senseless [notion. They conceive of their] empty teachings as wood;" - i.e., as an entity of substance

i.e., all know that You alone are God. Their foolish error consists of conceiving of this emptiness - the worship of the stars

as Your will. - This and the following two halachot are somewhat problematic. The Rambam conceived of the Mishneh Torah as a book of law. He included philosophical and historical points only when they are halachot, directives for our behavior. In this light, this entire chapter seems unnecessary.

This difficulty can be resolved based on Chapter 2, Halachah 3, which states that it is forbidden to entertain thoughts of idol worship. Hence, in order to know which thoughts are forbidden, the Rambam feels it necessary to describe the entire thought process which led people to worship idols (Likkutei Sichot, Vol. 20).

The phenomenon described by the Rambam does not belong entirely to the past. Although, at present, bowing down to the "stars and spheres" is not very common - although it has been renewed by some cultists - the theoretical premise that motivated the ancients to serve the stars is still followed by many. Is it all that uncommon to find people who compromise their service of God in expectation of receiving benefits by following what they perceive as the natural order?

Commentary Halacha 2

After many years passed, there arose people - false prophets - Note Hilchot Yesodei Torah 9:5, which states that anyone who states that God told him in a prophetic vision to worship idols should automatically be considered a false prophet.

See also the Guide for the Perplexed (Vol. II, Chapter 36) where the Rambam describes how people can be overcome by their powers of imagination to the extent that they - as do others who see them in such a trance - think of themselves as prophets, although, in fact, they received no Divine influence.

who told [the people] that God had commanded them to say: - Thus, this represents a second stage in the spread of idol worship. At first - as explained in Halachah 1 - star worship was not institutionalized, but was practiced by individuals because of their mistaken conceptions.

The second phase involved the development of religious institutions and set modes of worship. The leaders, however, still recognized God and attributed the instructions to worship the stars to Him. In the third stage - as the latter portion of this halachah states - people would worship the stars and idols without any awareness of God.

Serve this star - or all the stars - sacrifice to it, offer libations to it, build a temple for it and make an image of it so that all people - including the women, the children, and the common people - could bow to it. - See the Rambam's Commentary on the Mishnah (Avodah Zarah 4:7) and his statements in Chapter 11, Halachah 16, where he explains that idol worship was instituted by the leaders of the nations to unite the people of a particular land, give them a sense of national identity, and establish a hierarchy of leaders.

He would inform them of a form that he had conceived, and tell them that this is the image of the particular star, claiming that this was revealed to him in a prophetic vision. - With these statements, the Rambam explains how people began to worship statues and idols. Since the star was far away and could not be perceived as more than a twinkling dot in the sky, the people wanted a more tangible image which they could relate to. The "prophets" obliged and devised forms for statues to serve as talismans to bring down influence from these stars.

In this manner, the people began to make images in temples, under trees, and on the tops of mountains and hills. - Note Deuteronomy 12:2, which commands the Jews to destroy "all the places where the nations... would worship their gods, on the high mountains, on the hills, or under any luxuriant tree." Note the Guide for the Perplexed, Vol. III, Chapter 45, where the Rambam mentions the gentile practice of building temples on hills and mountaintops.

People would gather together and bow down to them - the images

and the [false prophets] would say: This image is the source of benefit or harm. It is appropriate to serve it and fear it. Their priests would tell them: This service will enable you to multiply and be successful. Do this and this, or do not do this or this. - At this stage, their service was clearly self-oriented. They wanted to derive benefit or prevent harm to themselves through this service.

Subsequently, other deceivers arose and declared that a specific star, sphere, or angel - See Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, Chapter 2, for a description of the angels.

had spoken to them and commanded them: Serve me in this manner. He would then relate a mode of service [telling them:] Do this, do not do this. - This represented a further descent. Rather than prophesy in the name of God, these imposters would speak in the names of the idols themselves. (See also Chapter 5, Halachot 6-7.)

Thus, these practices spread throughout the world. People would serve images with strange practices - one more distorted than the other - Note Chapter 3, Halachah 2, which describes the service of Ba'al Pe'or. The people would defecate before the idol as an act of worship.

offer sacrifices to them, and bow down to them. As the years passed, [God's] glorious and awesome name was forgotten by the entire population. [It was no longer part of] their speech or thought, and they no longer knew Him. - It is not clear at which point in the history of the world this change took place. The period between Enosh's birth and Abraham's lasted slightly more than one thousand years, with the flood taking place approximately 750 years after Enosh's birth.

Thus, all the common people, the women, and the children would know - Note the Rambam's Commentary on the Mishnah (Chulin 1:1), where he also differentiates between the people who believe in the spiritual service intended to draw down spiritual energy from these celestial bodies and practice it, and the common people who worship the idols blindly, on faith.

only the image of wood or stone and the temples of stone to which they were trained from their childhood to bow down and serve, and in whose name they swore - i.e., they conceived of the images as gods. Such worship represented more than a mere conceptual error. Six of the seven mitzvot commanded to Noach and his descendants were also given to Adam, the first man. Among them was the prohibition against serving other gods (Hilchot Melachim 9:1). Thus, by worshiping these images, they were breaking an explicit Divine commandment.

The wise men among them would - not worship the images as gods in their own right, but they would

think that there is no God other than the stars and spheres for whose sake, and in resemblance of which, they had made these images. The Eternal Rock - the true God

was not recognized or known by anyone in the world, with the exception of a [few] individuals - Our Sages speak critically of these individuals, who were themselves righteous, but did nothing to influence the people around them.

for example - See also the Guide for the Perplexed, Vol. II, Chapter 39, where the Rambam cites these individuals as prophets.

Chanoch - Note Genesis 5:22: "And Chanoch walked with God."

Metushelach - Though his righteousness is not mentioned explicitly in the Torah, it is mentioned by our Sages in a number of places - e.g., Yalkut Shimeoni, Bereshit 42, which states: "Metushelach was a completely righteous man."

Noach - See Genesis 6:9: "And Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generation."

Shem - Noach's second son.

and Ever. - Shem and Ever are frequently mentioned by our Rabbis as righteous sages. See Bereishit Rabbah 63:6, which explains that when Rivkah went "to seek out God" (Genesis 25:22), she went to the house of study of Shem and Ever.

The world continued in this fashion until the pillar of the world - the Patriarch Abraham - was born. - Abraham was born in the year 1948 (1812 B.C.E.).

Commentary Halacha 3

After this mighty man - In several places - e.g., Bava Batra 15a and Rosh HaShanah 11a - our Sages referred to Abraham with this expression.

was weaned - Nedarim 32a states: "Abraham was three when he recognized his Creator." Although the Rambam states that it was not until Abraham was forty that he gained true awareness of God, his process of search began at age three.

he began to explore and think. Though he was a child, he began to think [incessantly] throughout the day and night, wondering: How is it possible for the sphere to continue to revolve without having anyone controlling it? - Note the Midrash HaGadol (Parashat Lech Lecha), which explains that Abraham questioned: Why should we bow down to idols, gods that we ourselves make? We should bow to the earth, for it produces crops that sustain us.

Therefore, he began to worship the earth. Then he saw that the earth needs rain, and began to worship the sky. Later, he saw that the most brilliant creation in the sky was the sun, and began to worship it. Afterwards, when the sun set and the moon rose, he began to worship the moon. When the sun rose the next morning, he did not know what to do. He did not see which was stronger: the sun or the moon. So Abraham continued in a quandary, questioning who was the true God.

Who is causing it to revolve? Surely, it does not cause itself to revolve. - Interestingly, in Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 1:5, the Rambam uses the same concept as a proof for the existence of God.

He had no teacher, nor was there anyone to inform him. -Bereshit Rabbah 61:1 elaborates on the lack of instruction that was available to Abraham.

Note the Ra'avad and the Kessef Mishneh, who question why Noach, Shem, and Ever (all of whom were alive at this time) did not try to nullify the worship of idols and why they did not instruct Abraham. They offer two explanations. The first is that they were afraid and hid from the idolaters. (See Midrash Tehillim 118. Note, however, teachings which state that these righteous men also protested the worship of false gods, Tanna Devei Eliyahu Rabba, Chapters 20 and 25.)

Alternatively, Shem and Ever lived in the land of Canaan, while Abraham lived in Babylon. The question remains, however, why did Abraham not seek out these righteous men (Kinat Eliyahu).

Rather, he was mired in Ur Kasdim among the foolish idolaters. His father, mother, and all the people [around him] were idol worshipers - Indeed, our Sages relate that his father had a shop where idols were sold.

and he would worship with them. - See Bereshit Rabbah 39:8, which states that Abraham was always worried that God would not absolve him from his sin of worshiping idols.

[However,] his heart was exploring and [gaining] understanding. Ultimately, he appreciated the way of truth - an awareness of God

and understood the path of righteousness - an ethical approach to behavior, which reflected his spiritual awareness

through his accurate comprehension. He realized that there was one God who controlled the sphere, that He created everything, and that there is no other God among all the other entities. - These are the fundamental principles of the Jewish faith, as explained in Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 1:1-6.

He knew that the entire world was making a mistake. What caused them to err was their service of the stars and images, which made them lose awareness of the truth. - Their worship of idols dulled their sensitivity to spirituality to the point where they lost all awareness of God.

Abraham was forty years old when he became aware of his Creator. - Note Bereshit Rabbah 64:4, which mentions two opinions regarding when Abraham became aware of God: one when he was three and one when he was forty eight. It is possible that the Rambam's text of the Midrash read "forty" instead of "forty eight."

As explained above, the opinions are not necessarily contradictory. Abraham's process of inquiry could have begun at age three, while at forty he gained greater understanding, and at forty eight, he achieved an even higher level of awareness.

Avot 5:21 states: "At forty, one achieves understanding." By associating Abraham's apreciation of the Creator with this age, the Rambam implies that this awareness can come as a product of our own thought and meditation.

When he recognized and knew Him - Bereshit Rabbah 39:1 explains Abraham's process of thought with a parable. A person saw a brightly lit palace. He wondered: Could this palace exist without an owner? Immediately, the owner revealed himself to him. Similarly, Abraham wondered: Is it possible for the world to exist without one who controls? Immediately, God revealed himself to him.

he began to formulate replies to the inhabitants of Ur Kasdim and debate with them, telling them that they were not following a proper path - by serving the stars and idols.

He broke their idols and began to teach the people that it is fitting to serve only the God of the world. - Our Sages relate that after breaking his father's idols, he put a stick in the hands of the largest idol. When his father asked him why he destroyed the idols, he replied that he didn't do it; the idol holding the stick did.

His father curtly dismissed his reply: "That idol is only metal. It cannot do anything," he roared at his son.

"If so, why do you worship it?" Abraham replied.

To Him [alone] is it fitting to bow down, sacrifice, and offer libations, so that the people of future [generations] would recognize Him. - The Rambam's words imply that the value of offering sacrifices at this time (before the Torah commanded that they be offered) was not as the acts of service of God, but in the educational effect they had on the people and the awareness of God they inspired.

[Conversely,] it is fitting to destroy and break all the images, lest all the people err concerning them, like those people who thought that there are no other gods besides these [images]. When he overcame them through the strength of his arguments, the king - Nimrod (Pesachim 118a)

desired to kill him - by tossing him into a burning furnace.

He was [saved through] a miracle - Interestingly, when the Rambam lists the ten trials that Abraham endured in his Commentary on the Mishnah, Avot 5:3, he does not mention this episode at all.

and left for Charan. - See Genesis 11:31. In his Commentary on the Mishnah (ibid.), the Rambam mentions Abraham's exile from his native land as the first of his ten trials.

[There,] - he did not encounter any of the formal opposition he had faced in Babylonia and

he began to call in a loud voice to all people and inform them that there is one God in the entire world. He would go out and call to the people, gathering them in city after city and country after country - On the phrase, Genesis 12:5, "the people they had gathered in Charan," Bereshit Rabbah 39:21 comments, "These are the converts they made. Abraham would convert the men and Sarah would convert the women."

until he came to the land of Canaan - See Genesis, Chapter 12, which describes Abraham's journeys within the land of Canaan.

proclaiming [God's existence the entire time] - as [Genesis 21:33] states: "And He called there in the name of the Lord, the eternal God." - Sotah 10a states: "Do not read 'And he called.' Read 'And he had others call' - i.e., Abraham motivated others to become aware of God and call out to Him.

When the people would gather around him and ask him about his statements, he would explain [them] to each one of them according to their understanding, until they turned to the path of truth. Ultimately, thousands and myriads gathered around him. These are the men of the house of Abraham. - The Rabbis question the fate of all these people. We do not find any mention of the perpetuation of their faith in God. Perhaps the cultural influences of the surrounding environment were too powerful. If the children of Israel themselves turned to idol worship after two generations in Egypt, could any more be expected from these individuals?

He planted in their hearts this great fundamental principle, composed texts about it - Most commentaries point to Avodah Zarah 14b, which relates that Abraham composed a four-hundred-chapter text against the worship of false gods. Kinat Eliyahu notes that here, the Rambam is not referring to the negation of idol worship, but to the propagation of the faith in one God. Therefore, he suggests that the reference is to the Kabbalistic tradition (Zohar, Vol. II, 275b) that Sefer Yetzirah was composed by Abraham. (See also Kiryat Melech.)

and taught it to Isaac, his son. - Note Genesis 18:19: "I have known him that he will command his children and household after him, and they will keep the way of God...."

Isaac also taught others and turned [their hearts to God]. He also taught Jacob - Jacob also studied under Shem and Ever (See Rashi, Genesis 25:27, Bereishit Rabbah 25:16).

and appointed him as a teacher - i.e., he and not Esau would convey the spiritual heritage of Abraham.

[Jacob] taught others and turned [the hearts] of all those who gathered around him [to God]. He also taught all of his children. - In contrast to Abraham and Isaac, all of Jacob's children were righteous. (See Hilchot Kri'at Shema 1:4.)

He selected Levi and appointed him as the leader. - The Torah itself does not mention Jacob's selection of Levi as a leader. A number of sources in the oral tradition (Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 39; Shemot Rabbah 15:27), however, reveal this concept.

He established him [as the head of] the academy - The Midrash Tanchuma (Vayigash) interprets Genesis 46:28: "And Jacob sent Judah before him," to mean that he charged him with founding a yeshiva. Similarly, Yoma 28b states that this Talmudic academy continued throughout the Egyptian exile.

to teach them the way of God - Note Hilchot De'ot 1:7, which explains that the expression, "the way of God," refers to ethics, emulating the qualities of spirit which God has revealed.

and observe the mitzvot of Abraham. - In this context, note the Rambam's statements in Hilchot Melachim 9:1. After relating the seven universal laws given to Noach and his descendants, the Rambam states:

In addition to these, Abraham was commanded regarding circumcision. He instituted the morning prayer. Isaac separated tithes and added another prayer service towards evening. Jacob added the prohibition against eating the gid hanasheh, the "displaced nerve," and instituted the evening prayers.

[Jacob] commanded his sons that the leadership should not depart from the descendants of Levi - Thus, the mantle of leadership passed to Kehat and then to Amram, Moses' father.

so that the teachings would not be forgotten. This concept proceeded and gathered strength among the descendants of Jacob and those who collected around them, until there became a nation within the world which knew God. - This describes the initial period of the Jews' stay in Egypt, when they prospered both spiritually and materially.

When the Jews extended their stay in Egypt - The entire period of the Egyptian exile lasted 210 years. As long as Jacob's sons were living, the Jews preserved the heritage of their fathers and were treated with honor by the Egyptians.

The last of Jacob's sons to die was Levi. After his death, the spiritual level of the Jews descended. Levi lived 127 years. He was 44 when he entered Egypt. Thus, this spiritual descent occurred 83 years after the Jews entered Egypt.

however, they learned from the [Egyptians'] deeds and began worshiping the stars as they did - When the Jews adopted Egyptian values - as a reflection of their spiritual state - they were enslaved by the Egyptians.

with the exception of the tribe of Levi, who clung to the mitzvot of the patriarchs - the tribe of Levi never served false gods. - The tribe of Levi was also the only tribe which perpetuated the mitzvah of circumcision (Sifre, Berachah). As a result of their spiritual fortitude, the tribe of Levi was never enslaved.

Within a short time, the fundamental principle that Abraham had planted would have been uprooted and the descendants of Jacob would have returned to the errors of the world and their crookedness. - Our Sages relate that, in the Egyptian exile, the Jews had descended to the forty-ninth degree of impurity. Had they descended another level, it would have been impossible for us ever to be redeemed.

Because of God's love for us, and to uphold the oath He made to Abraham, our patriarch - This is a reference to Deuteronomy 7:7-8: "It is not because of your greatness over all the other nations that God desired you and chose you..., but it was because of God's love for you and because He kept the oath He swore to your fathers."

He brought forth Moses, our teacher - Rav David Arameah notes that the word עשה, rendered as "brought forth," literally means "made." He explains that from Moses' birth, God granted him the potential to develop unique spiritual awareness. Although the Rambam also accepts this concept (see the Guide for the Perplexed, Vol. II, Chapter 32), it is more likely that he chose this expression as a reference to I Samuel 12:6 (Rav Kapach).

the master of all prophets - See Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 7:6, where the Rambam elaborates on the advantages Moses had over all the other prophets. Indeed, in his Commentary on the Mishnah (Introduction to Chapter 10 of Sanhedrin), he includes belief in the supremacy of Moses' prophecy as the seventh of his Thirteen Principles of Faith.

and sent him [to redeem the Jews] - after 117 years of idol worship and slavery.

After Moses, our teacher, prophesied, and God chose Israel as His inheritance, He crowned them with mitzvot and informed them of the path to serve Him - by

[teaching them] - the Torah which reveals

the judgement prescribed for idol-worship and all those who stray after it - as will be explained in the subsequent chapters. The Rambam's elaboration on the negative experience of our people in Egypt and the giving of the Torah has the following implication. Although man can appreciate the futile nature of idol worship and the greatness of God with his own intellect, because man is fallable, it is necessary to have these principles institutionalized in an objective, unchanging religious code (Likkutei Sichot, Vol. 20).

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