Parashat Shemini: Ramban on alien worship and service of Hashem

Ramban’s views on alien worship are complicated by his accepting ideas that many today find unbelievable. I believe we can translate his ideas into modern enough terms to make them accessible and enlightening. In doing so, we’ll see that the line between natural and supernatural becomes hugely important in knowing what’s allowed and not allowed in our attempts to secure positive futures.

Delegating or Setting a Regular System?

I think it’s common to say that Ramban believed Hashem delegated the running of the world to certain angels (I know I’ve said it). That’s not untrue, but Ramban on Ya’akov’s dream stresses these angels’ lack of independence. The angels go up and down the ladder because every time they intend to do something, they check it out with Hashem, and Hashem commands them to return to earth and fulfill His command. Ramban throws in that Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer (which he quotes on this issue several other times as well) notes that Daniel 10 refers to the “officers” of Greece and Persia, which the Midrash understands to mean the angels who are in charge of those nations. Hashem was telling the Patriarch that he merited directed Divine Providence, with no angelic intermediation, in contrast to most righteous people, for whom, as Tehillim 91;11 says, Hashem commands angels to guard and care for them.

The puzzling part of this comment is what Ramban means by saying Hashem set up a system of angels who then have to check with Him every time they do something. If these angels are checking every single action they take with Hashem, isn’t that the same as Hashem is making every single decision about how the world runs?

Help with that question comes from Ramban’s explanation of the three categories of worshipped objects.

Angels, Stars, and Demons

In the second of the Ten Commandments, Hashem warns us not to have any other “elohim.” Ramban says that refers to the differentiated intellects, which (he says) do have power over the nations. People decided worshipping these angels could improve their lot in life (like Rambam, he assumes that alien worship was generally utilitarian, a way for fearful human beings to do their best to guarantee the future).

Some people moved from there to worshipping visible heavenly bodies, the sun, moon, and stars, because they knew the astrological impact of those stars on their lives, and jumped from there to assuming that worshipping those bodies could bring an improvement in that impact. Note Ramban’s belief that the movements of these bodies do affect our lives (astrology can be right, for Ramban); while many of us reject that, I would note that we still believe, for one example, that the movement of the moon affects the tides. If we were sailors, we could imagine jumping from there to thinking we can, with the right actions, either counteract or circumvent the impact of the moon.

We could even imagine discovering actions that would change the way the moon affects the tides. We would think of those as natural, which is an important difference (that we’ll discuss next week, when we talk about the line between acceptable medicine and unacceptable witchcraft and/or alien worship), but the line is less bright and clear.


Before I try to translate that into more contemporary terms, let’s look at Ramban’s third category. He says that from worshipping suns, moons, and stars, people moved to worshipping demons. To avoid the destructive power demons could unleash, people would try to appease the demons.

In Vayikra 17;7, Ramban notes Chagigah 16a’s saying that demons are like angels in some ways (they have wings, fly, and hear the future) and like humans in others (they eat and drink, procreate, and die). Their eating is what leaves them open to worship by humans—giving them the water and fire that is their sustenance, the alien worshippers hope, will convince them to leave them alone.

The Gemara’s portrayal of demons as beings that are half-human, half-angel explains how they hear the future; for Ramban, they communicate with the angels in charge of the constellations, and thus learn what the near future (note that he doesn’t think demons can predict the far future) holds.

Putting It into Modern Terms

To me, this comment sounds a lot like what weather forecasters do today, and I see it as the opening to explaining Ramban’s view. If we substitute “destructive short-term weather patterns” for demons, we could understand how they would only know the near future—beyond that, the system is too complex to allow for good predictions. That would be true for any complex system, that there would be the ability to make short-term predictions of what’s most likely, but nothing beyond that.

Once we’re on that path, we can substitute all the systemic natural forces for “sun, moon, and stars” in Ramban’s writing. Just as we today think that a combination of many parts of nature form the world around us, both in terms of climate and weather, and deposits of natural resources, etc., Ramban would have said the heavenly bodies shaped all that as well.

While Ramban seems to think that demons might be susceptible to worship, the sun, moon, and stars were not. But then Ramban added the idea that there are forces that run the general course of the world, the angels. In fact, Ramban’s view seems to say that what we call nature would work differently for different nations. Scientific rationalists counteract that by claiming that it’s only because of different regions, different climates, different concatenations of circumstance, but I think Ramban would say that all that is a way to avoid the truth, that beyond the natural forces deciding a nation’s course (in terms of climate, agriculture, medical history), there are supernatural ones.

These follow a general pattern set up by Hashem, and any deviations from that pattern are checked with Hashem. But it would be factually accurate, according to Ramban, to say that what we today call Nature isn’t a monolithic entity, it’s actually the interaction of the impact of each angel’s running of each nation’s section of the world, using the sun, moon, and stars, and bringing in demons as relevant.

All that being true doesn’t make it more relevant for Jews, because Ramban’s point in laying all this out is only to show how people came to alien worship. For Jews, the second of the Ten Commandments and the requirement of תמים תהיה, of being “whole” with Hashem, means that we have to know that the only way for us to find our best future is by worshipping and serving Hashem as wholly and fully as possible.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
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