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In Mishneh Torah-Avodat Kochavim 1:1 Rambam states:

"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"

The following statement from the Talmud Bavli should be a Maimonides's source:

"R. Chiya bar Abba said in R. Yochanan's name: One who observes the Shabbat according to its laws, even if he practices idolatry like the generation of Enosh, he is forgiven "(Shabbat 118b)".

However, I have not been able to identify the other sources from which Rambam draws to affirm that the specific type of idolatry practiced by the generation of Enosh is substantiated in the adoration of the stars , but always recognizing in HaShem the Supreme Power to Which all the other realities of the universe are subjected.

Could you please indicate these sources to me?

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  • A great question. You might add that Rambam's claim is totally refuted by contemporary historiography - humanity didn't start with monotheism and proceeded to polytheism. But I think that the general view is that there were only single persons in each generation that keep the monotheistic tradition while all the rest strayed to pagan rituals, which can't be possibly refuted by science.
    – Al Berko
    Apr 2, 2021 at 9:24
  • I suppose, like in previous chapters (esp. Yesodei Hatora), Rambam follows the Aristotelian tradition of acknowledging God as the absolute and transcendent truth. If the forefathers were on a higher spiritual level than us, as is generally accepted in Judaism, we should infer that they possessed those views of the Divine and should have known that God is one and great. Therefore, in Rambam's eyes, idolatry was a byproduct of the diminished spirituality, supplementary to monotheism.
    – Al Berko
    Apr 2, 2021 at 9:29
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    @AlBerko "Rambam's claim is totally refuted by contemporary historiography - humanity didn't start with monotheism and proceeded to polytheism." In the pre-literary history of man (also known as pre-history) one would not expect to find evidence of monotheism. What artifact could or would convey that? We certainly see that the earliest civilizations that did record any written history (e.g. Sumerians) did in fact reflect an astrological orientation. So how exactly is the Rambam's view "utterly refuted"? Mar 15 at 17:00
  • Thank you for your question I posted a follow-up question that might help to find out an answer to your question too.
    – Al Berko
    Mar 21 at 8:46

2 Answers 2

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This idea comes from the following Passuk in Genesis 4:26

וּלְשֵׁ֤ת גַּם־הוּא֙ יֻלַּד־בֵּ֔ן וַיִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ אֱנ֑וֹשׁ אָ֣ז הוּחַ֔ל לִקְרֹ֖א בְּשֵׁ֥ם יְהוָֽה׃ (פ)

The word הוּחַ֔ל can mean began, but it can also mean "profane", and thus the verse reads that in the days of Enosh, " profaning the name of the Hashem began." " Chazal understand this to mean idol worship, which is the source of the gemara you quoted. However, it is not just idol worship, but specifically "profaning the name of the Hashem", which Rambam takes to mean what the describes, recognizing God, but making this fundamental error he talks about.

For a similar idea in Chazal:

Targum Jonathan on Genesis 4:26. with translation from Sefaria.

וּלְשֵׁת אַף הוּא אִתְיִלֵיד בַּר וּקְרָא יַת שְׁמֵיהּ אֱנוֹשׁ הוּא דָרָא דְמִיוֹמוֹהִי שְׁרִיאוּ לְמִטְעֵי וַעֲבָדוּ לְהוֹן טַעֲוָון וּמְכַנִין לְטַעֲוַותְהוֹן בְּשׁוּם מֵימְרָא דַיְיָ

And to Sheth also was born a son, and he called his name Enosh. That was the generation in whose days they began to err, and to make themselves idols, and surnamed their idols by the name of the Word of the Lord.

As you can see, these are not just idols, but idols with "the name of Hashem".

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    Do you have a source for this explanation?
    – user6781
    Apr 1, 2021 at 21:45
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    @user6781 you mean that Huchal means profane? Rashi leaarns that way, as do many others. Apr 1, 2021 at 21:58
  • You can also find alusions to this in Bereshit Rabbah, as well as other midrashim, that learn the passuk this way. Its clear Rambam's source is this Passuk Apr 1, 2021 at 22:00
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    See the Radak about Onkelos and Yerushalmi
    – kouty
    Apr 1, 2021 at 22:11
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    Not from the verse, but from the homiletic interpretation of it. It's a huge difference!
    – Al Berko
    Apr 2, 2021 at 9:20
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It's possible that he learned it from Shemot Rabbah 15:7 where it says:

"...כָּךְ מִתְּחִלָּה הָיָה הָעוֹלָם מַיִם בְּמַיִם, וְהָיָה הָאֱלֹהִים מְבַקֵּשׁ לְכוֹנֵן עוֹלָמִים וְלֹא הָיוּ הָרְשָׁעִים מַנִּיחִין, מַה כְּתִיב בְּדוֹרוֹ שֶׁל אֱנוֹשׁ (בראשית ד, כו): אָז הוּחַל לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם ה', עָלוּ הַמַּיִם וֶהֱצִיפוּם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (איוב ט, ט): עֹשֶׂה עָשׁ כְּסִיל וְכִימָה וגו'."

Translation: "...and so from the beginning the world was water within water, and God wished to found worlds and the wicked would not allow Him to do so, as it says about the generation of Enosh: "Then began men to call by the name of the Lord" (Genesis 4:26), [and] the waters rose and flooded them, as it says: "Who maketh the Bear, Orion, and the Pleiades, etc." (Job 9:9)

Both the Etz Yosef and the Matnot Kehunah comment and say that the reference to Job is a scribal error and the correct reference is Amos 5:8: "Who made the Pleiades and Orion, Who turns deep darkness into dawn And darkens day into night, Who summons the waters of the sea And pours them out upon the earth— His name is the LORD!"

It seems that the connection between the verse from Amos to the people in the time of Enosh is that according to the midrash, those people began referring to those creations by the name of Hashem (="...call [things] by the name of the LORD"), which is why it was necessary to emphasize that the only one who is called by the name of Hashem is the maker of these things- that is, Hashem Himself.

And of course, the verse also speaks of He who floods the land - as happened during the time of Enosh, as punishment.

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