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Maimonides #5 - Service of God

Maimonides #5 - Service of God

The roots of idolatry and free will.


Based on a series of lectures by Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory.

He [God], may He be blessed, is the only One whom it is proper to serve [worship], to praise, to make known His grandeur, and to fulfill His commandments. This should not be done to any entity that is subservient to Him, be it the angels, the stars, the planets, or the elements or their compounds. For their activity is programmed. They have no control, and no choice but to perform His will. Thus it is improper to serve them as intermediaries in order to come close to God. Rather, one should direct his thoughts toward the Almighty alone and abandon anything other than Him. This is the fifth Principle, warning us against idolatry, as affirmed throughout the Torah.

-- Maimonides' 13 Principles of Faith


In order to understand the fifth Principle, concerning the worship of the Almighty exclusively, it is important to differentiate between a source of power and a wielder of power. To the intelligent mind the idea of idolatry is not in terms of the source of power but more in terms of the wielder of power.

The military can serve as a good example of the difference between the two. A sergeant is a wielder of power. However, in terms of the source of power, he is low in the hierarchy. His power is ultimately derived from the president, the commander in chief. Although the president is the source of power, he is not a wielder of power for the average serviceman.

Idolatry generally concerns itself with the wielder of power rather than the Source of power.

It doesn't make any difference to the soldier how far removed the sergeant is from the source of power. As long as the sergeant is the one who decides whether the soldier receives a weekend pass, or what type of work he has to do, it is the sergeant whom the soldier is concerned with pleasing. The sergeant then is the wielder of power, while the president is the source of power. Where the sergeant's power is derived from makes no difference to the serviceman. As far as he is concerned, he serves only the sergeant.


In the same way, idolatry generally concerns itself with the wielder of power rather than the Source of power. In the eyes of idolaters, the idol was seen neither as the source of their existence nor as the source of their well-being. They understood that ultimately there was a god who was the source of their existence, but they thought that he had delegated power in much the same way as the president delegates power to the sergeant. In this situation, man imagines a god delegating authority so that it might be able to concentrate on, so to speak, higher policies. Thus, when man creates his own image of God, he inevitably creates a god in the image of man.

As the Rambam explains (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry 1:1), originally everyone believed that God was the only Source of power. Unfortunately, the generation of Enosh began to speculate that since God created heavenly bodies and placed them in high positions, it was obviously His will that man honor them. Initially, these people understood that the heavenly bodies had no power of their own, but because they believed that God intended the heavenly bodies to be served, mankind fell into the belief that the endowment of this honor signified that these bodies actually had power.


The words of the Rambam make this relationship between power and freedom of choice quite explicit: "[God] is the only One whom it is proper to serve [worship], to praise, to make known His grandeur, and to fulfill His commandments. This should not be done to any entity that is subservient to Him, be it the angels, the stars, the planets, or the elements or their compounds. For their activity is programmed. They have no control, and no choice but to perform His will." (Rambam, Commentary to the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10:1)

To ask the angels to take your prayers to God is idolatry.

No created being but man has free will. All other beings are "programmed." To ask anything of them demonstrates that one is attributing power to them, which is the essence of idolatry. To ask the angels to take your prayers to God, thinking that they have a choice regarding whether to take your prayers or not to take them, is idolatry. Similarly, asking an angel to bless you, thinking that it can choose whether to bless you or not, is idolatry.

(It is a form of idolatry to attribute power or free will to any intermediary. Therefore, believing that one must beg angels to bring his prayers to God is idolatry. For this reason, the Maharal and Rav Chaim of Volozhin [Keser Rosh, no. 93] forbade the singing of "Barchuni leshalom," since it implies that one is asking the angels to bless him.

Those who do sing this popular prayer on the Sabbath should envision a situation in which the angels will have to bless him. The Talmud (Shabbos 119b) relates that, returning home after the Sabbath services Friday evening, one is accompanied by two angels. If, upon entering one's home, the angels find the table set for the Sabbath meal, they are forced to bless the home with the blessing that this joy and preparation should occur the following week as well. It is for this situation, where the angels must bless him, that one should pray.)

The Almighty uses the angels to relate to tasks not worthy of being dealt with directly by Him. They are like programmed mechanical hands assisting in the production of cars in an assembly line. They are the means by which God maintains His distance from those who have not merited His direct intimacy.

Although man's free will cannot affect a perfectly righteous man, it can and does affect those who are not perfectly righteous.

Only God and man have free will. For this reason, one cannot bow down to an angel but can bow to a man. For example, one can beg a doctor to take someone as his patient since the doctor has the power and can refuse to help. Therefore, David cries, "Let us fall into God's hands for His mercies are abundant, but let me not fall into human hands" (II Samuel 24:14). Although man's free will cannot affect a perfectly righteous man, it can and does affect those who are not perfectly righteous. The criteria that influence the decision of the Almighty not to intervene to prevent man's actions are different from those which influence His decision to punish someone. In a situation where His "patience" would give someone time to repent and mend his ways, He may decide not to intervene to protect that individual from the potential harm caused by his fellow man.

On the other hand, although "everything is in the hands of God" (Berachos 33b), man can influence the manner in which God rewards and punishes. This situation illustrates that man has power. We see the manifestation of this power with Abraham. God "descended" (Genesis 18:21) to consult Abraham about the impending destruction of Sodom, giving him a chance to influence Divine Judgment. Having this power to influence, man shares the title "elohim" with the Almighty (Rashi on Exodus 22:7). Because he has this influence, he and only he of all the creation can be bribed through gifts, money, or power. The power man has and all its ramifications result from the reality of man's free will.


The free will of man is the foundation of the Torah. The Rambam discusses the concept of free will at length in the Mishneh Torah within the Laws of Repentance (Ch. 5). Even so, this concept is not considered in any of the Principles. Apparently, the Rambam feels that it is not necessary for man to be consciously aware of the fact that he has free will when he approaches the mitzvot. Without such an awareness, one can still be a practicing Jew.

Philosophers who debate whether there is such a thing as free will are just playing a game, says the Rambam. Even as they debate, they are making decisions and choices. They can contemplate all they want as to whether or not they are making a choice, but the fact remains that they are using their free will. They react to the world as if they had free will; they become angry at those who hurt them and acknowledge those who please them; they won't elect anyone they fell is evil or corrupt; they denounce Hitler, although without free will there is no difference between Hitler and Mother Teresa. In every aspect of their lives they exercise and recognize free will, even if they deny that they do.

Since the ability to utilize our free will is instinctively with us, as illustrated above, there is no need to include it as an additional Principle. The intention of the Rambam was to include only those tenets of faith of which knowledge and awareness are absolutely necessary in order to relate to the Torah. Utilization of these tenets is not instinctive, unlike man's free will. Nevertheless, the Rambam discusses the concept of free will in the Mishneh Torah in order to remind us not to join in the game of those who attempt to deny it, and not to join those destructive elements of society whose hidden agenda involves portraying a mechanical universe where all events are caused and preconditioned. Essentially, the idea of such a universe relives man of all responsibility, which explains why seemingly intelligent people are willing to indulge in such fantasies.


The concept of free will is very deep and profound. Without it there would exist only the power of the Creator and, as a result, the entire universe would be impotent and passive. By giving man free will, God endowed him with power so that two forces would exist in the universe. As a result of this endowment, it became possible to have a covenant between the Creator and creation. It became possible to have commandments and a relationship with God, both of which are meaningless without man's free will. We have free will only because God grants us this magnificent gift.

The greatest paradox of existence is the independence which the Almighty gives to a totally dependent creature.

On the other hand, in examining the story of Pharaoh in Egypt (Exodus 1-14), we can understand that just as He grants man this free will, He can also deny it when man no longer deserves it. Because of the evil that Pharaoh had perpetrated, God "hardened his heart," taking away his free will in order to use him as a pawn in history (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 6:3).

The greatest paradox of existence is therefore the independence which the Almighty gives to a totally dependent creature. This gift is the immeasurable kindness the Sages speak of when they describe how the Almighty gives man the strength and intelligence to rebel against Him. A comparable situation would involve a government that supplies rebels with the guns, ammunition, clothing, and food with which to carry on a revolution. The gift of free will is such an act of loving-kindness, because without the potential to rebel, man could never come close to his Creator. A covenant, a treaty necessitates the participation of both parties. It can never be unilateral. The uniqueness of the Jewish Nation, the relationship that is based upon a covenant between the Jew and God, would not be possible without free will. That relationship, which was the purpose of Creation, and that pleasure – the greatest of all pleasures -- would be denied man.

To attribute free will to anything else in the creation inevitably leads to idolatry. If one would come to believe that an angel has the choice of granting or not granting a favor, he would be tempted, after pleading with the angel, to bring him a little gift to persuade him. Thus, the Rambam appropriately states that this Principle of serving only God is supported by all the admonitions against idolatry in the Torah.

This article is an excerpt from "Fundamentals and Faith: Insights into the Rambam's 13 Principles" by Rabbi Mordechai Blumenfeld.


May 17, 2003

Article 5 of 12 in the series The 13 Principles

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 2

(2) EA, August 14, 2011 8:17 PM

what about HaMalach HaGoel?

Funny that the article mentions Barchuni Leshalom as another example - how do we find Yaakov Avinu blessing his children with HaMalach HaGoel? Thank you for this most informative article!

(1) Rex Rambo, May 18, 2003 12:00 AM

Maimonides Fifth Principle: The Service of God is just as relevent today as when he wrote it.

I also learned to not use angels as intermediaries to God, or anything else for that matter.
After all these centuries, Maimonides continues to awe me. Even today he sounds so modern.

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