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We translate עובדי עבודה זרה to mean serving an idol or idol worship.

The word זר mean foreign, as in, לא יהיה אל זר, do not serve a foreign god.

The word עובד כוכבים means serving the stars.

What is the difference between the two?

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    Why do you assume they refer to different things? It is colloquially understood to be the same thing. It would help if you could provide a source that treats the two as separate categories. – Isaac Kotlicky May 18 '16 at 18:32
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Star worshippers was a term invented by the editors of the printing process to avoid angering the religious majority amongst whom we lived.

They would have been very insulted (to the point of violence) if we kept the old term as they knew we considered them worshippers of a foreign Deity. By using the term star worshippers we along with them got to point and laugh at those fools who actually worshipped stars?!?! Ha ha! Everybody stayed happy. And alive.

As told by Rabbi Belsky a'h.

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    Happy and alive, that's nice. +1 – NVZ May 19 '16 at 14:37
  • Interestingly, at some point the censors got the idea that עכו"ם actually stands for עובדי כריסטוס ומרים (see for example this interrogation of R' Shabsai Bass, the Sifsei Chachomim), and so found it objectionable too. In some places they forced the printers to spell out the terms עובדי כוכבים ומזלות, and in other places they insisted on them using the abbreviation עכומ"ז. – Meir Apr 1 at 18:57
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Maimonides writes that people were first monotheistic, then they embraced polytheism in the days of Enosh when they thought they worshiped an aspect of G-d in the form of the stars.[1] While this was a ceremonial error, it was not a theological one. Maimonides explains that people,

"began to build temples to the stars and to offer them sacrifices, and to sing their praises and to bow down to the stars, out of the false belief that they were thereby fulfilling the desire of the Creator." (MT, Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim, 1:1)

In his commentary to Leviticus 17:7, Nachmanides notes Deuteronomy 32:17, “They [the Israelites] sacrificed to demons who are not G-d.” Onkelos ( renders “demons” literally but deviates from the notion that there are other gods, instead he substitutes “for whom there is no need.” The targumist derived this idea from the Midrash Sifrei:

“Had they worshipped the sun and the moon . . . things the world needs and which produce delight, this would not have increased G-d’s anger; but they worshipped things that do not benefit them, and which harm them."[2]

Idols are statues, which grew out of worshiping stars.

[1] For proof of Maimonides' statements, refer to the ancient Egyptians who worshiped the sun god, which they felt was one.

[2] Onkelos often relyed on tannaitic Midrashim.

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