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There are several opinions about Abraham’s age when he “discovered” G-d: one opinion says that he was three years old (Talmud Nedarim 32B), another says 40, yet another says 48 (Breishit Rabba 30:8), and yet another 50 (Pesikta Rabati). One commentary on the Rambam suggests that Abraham began to philosophize about G-d when he was three years old, and continued until he reached unmistakable conclusions when he was forty years old (Keseph Mishneh). In any case the Rambam says that Abraham was forty years old when he recognized G-d, and the question is twofold: a) why did he choose forty, when there were other opinions, and b) why was it necessary for the Rambam to mention any age whatsoever when speaking of Abraham?

Upon looking closer and analyzing the Rambam when he writes about Abraham (in the Hilchot Avoda Zarah, the laws of idol worship, in the very beginning), we see the following progression:

1) In the first halacha, he says, “In the days of Enosh, people committed a grave errorŔ They knew that G-d created the universe, but thought that He imparted independent existence to his own creations. They therefore thought that it was appropriate to praise and honor those creations as intermediaries. The Rambam explains this intellectual error, and concludes, Ӆand this was avoda zarah (idol worship).”
2)In halacha 2, the Rambam says, “as time went by, there appeared false prophets who claimed that G-d commanded people to worship a particular star, etcŔ He continues, “as the days passed, G-d was forgotten and no-one recognized Him…aside from isolated individuals such as Enosh, Metushelach, Noach, Shem and Eiver, and so time went on until that pillar of the world was born, Avraham Avinu.”
3)In the third halacha, the Rambam explains at length how Abraham came to recognize his Creator, and about all of the exalted deeds and achievements that Abraham performed, implanting in the hearts of thousands upon thousands of people the “main principle” of recognizing and serving G-d. Abraham also succeeded in passing this on to his son, Isaac, grandson Jacob, and ultimately to Moshe Rabeinu who brought us the Torah.

The question that begs asking is: Why all the lengthy explanations? The Mishneh Torah is a legal code, an explanation of the commandments and the halachot regarding how a Jew goes about living his everyday life. In such a code, what place is there for long stories and biographies? What halacha, or instruction in everyday life comes from this long explanation of the Rambam about how idol worship got started and what Abraham did about it?

It seems that the Rambam wrote the first chapter of the laws of avoda zarah as an introduction to the rest of the laws of idol worship. Although the main body of laws of idol worship deals with prohibitions that have to do with action, the Rambam establishes that avoda zarah begins with abstracts; with thoughts in the mind and stirrings of the heart. When one begins to think in his heart that a creature, an angel, a planet, etc, is a “god,” or at least an independent intermediary, he has already committed a serious sin. As the Rambam says in the beginning of the second halacha, “The main commandment regarding idol worship is not to serve one of the creatures, and not an angel…and even though he knows that G-d is the Creator and he serves this creature as did Enosh…this is what the Torah warned about, meaning to say that one should not cast about in his heart seeking to say that this is a leader of the world and the G-d put them here…to serve and bow down to them, and about this he commanded and said that one should not err in the thoughts of his heart to serve these entities as if they were intermediaries between you and the Creator.”

Further in the halacha, he continues and says that this is why “G-d commanded not to read in the books [of idol worship] at all and not to think about it at all…and not only the thought of idol worship is forbidden, but any thought that causes one to part with the ways of the Torah is forbidden.” From this it is understood that in order to properly fulfill the “do’s and don’t’s” of idol worship, it isn’t enough to know only the directions of how to act. It is first and foremost necessary to beware of one’s thoughts – and that is why the Rambam writes at such length about it at as an introduction to the laws of “avoda zarah.” First and foremost, one must know and understand in his mind that all the creatures and creations of the world have no independent existence, and that therefore there is no good reason to impart to them any importance or honor them, or worse – to serve them.

In the first two halachot, the Rambam explains the grave intellectual error of Enosh and his generation, that ultimately led to entire generations worshipping idols and forgetting about G-d. In the third halacha, the Rambam traces a corresponding, but opposite intellectual history. This is the history of Abraham, and it corresponds inversely to the process that led to idol worship:

1)While still among idol worshippers in Ur Casdim, Abraham started to “grasp the true path and understand the right direction.” At this point, Abraham did not yet negate idol worship, even though he was having doubts. In this he corresponded inversely (in an opposite fashion) to Enosh, who began to worship idols while still among those who served the one G-d.

2)How did Abraham pursue his intellectual search? “He wondered how it was possible that a planet could continue eternally on its path, without anything moving it. Who was moving it along, for is it possible for anything to move itself…and his heart was inquiring and starting to understand.” That is, he came to a tentative conclusion that even if the planet (or any other creature) truly exists, it is still under the dominion and sway of the one G-d. In this stage, he once more corresponded inversely to Enosh, who claimed that even if G-d was one, it was still possible to serve intermediaries because they have their own existence.

3)And finally, Abraham came to the conclusion that “there is one G-d, who moves the planet and created everything.” That is, no creation has a truly independent existence of its own, and the only real existence is the one G-d. Again in this conclusion of his thought, Abraham stood in diametric opposition to the conclusion of Enosh’s train of thought, which led men to forget about G-d completely. Correspondingly, Abraham came to the conclusion that the only entity that really exists is G-d, and everything else owes its existence to Him.

So, as an introduction and basis for all of the halachot of avoda zarah, the Rambam establishes that it is not enough for one to avoid any actual physical practice of idol worship. It is vitally important that in his heart and mind one recognize the truth. There should be no room for intellectual error - the creation and all of its inhabitants have no true existence of their own. To think anything else is already to plant the seeds of idol worship.

And now, we can also understand why the Rambam chose to mention Abraham’s age at the time that he came to recognize his Creator – forty years old. Pirkei Avot – the ethics of the fathers, tells us that at forty, man reaches “bina,” or full understanding. It is at age forty that man reaches the peak of his intellectual maturity, and at this stage, he experiences validation and confirmation of all that he knows to be true. Thus, though his pursuit of truth certainly began much earlier, since the Rambam wants to emphasize the intellectual nature of Abraham’s conclusions, he cites the age at which Abraham not only began, but actually attained full recognition of his creator – forty years old. In so doing, he once more emphasizes and underscores the intellectual nature of the mistake that led to avoda zarah, as well as what can prevent it.

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, ztz’l, vol. 20, pp. 13-24 Rabbi David Sterne, Jerusalem Connection in the old city of Jerusalem