Dear Rabbi Fried,
We recently saw some antique Jewish art pieces which were adorned with the signs of the zodiac; this was confusing to us. Do Jews believe in astrology? Do the stars have an effect on our lives and on who we are? If they do, how does that affect our free choice? Sometimes we read the horoscopes in the newspaper and it doesn’t seem very Jewish. Your comments are most welcome.
Martin and Hazel K.
Dear Martin and Hazel,
There are numerous references to the influence of the stars in the Torah, Prophets and rabbinic writings. For example, Abraham was known to be an expert astrologer, and read in the stars that he would never have a child, accounting for his barrenness until nearly age 100. G-d took him outside under the stars and said, “Gaze, now, toward the heavens and count the stars if you are able to count them … so shall your offspring be!” (Genesis 15:5) The Talmud and commentaries explain the emphasis on G-d “taking him outside” to the stars, that G-d was telling him “go out” of his astrology. True, the stars say you can’t have children, but I will take you “above the stars,” I will elevate you above their influence, and you will indeed have a son and a nation.
This is one of dozens of examples that the stars do, indeed, have an influence on one’s destiny, in this case on his progeny. If not for G-d intervening directly, Abraham would have lived out his life “by the stars,” without anyone to continue his lineage in fathering the Jewish people.
We also learn a second lesson from this example, that there is a level of connection to G-d which transcends one above the influence of the stars. This explains an apparent contradiction in rabbinic writings. On one hand the Talmud says that nothing grows or moves in the world without “its star” telling it to do so. On the other hand the rabbis state “Ain Mazal l’Yisrael,” which means that the stars don’t affect the Jewish people.
Two answers are offered, both considered true concepts in Judaism. One states that although individual Jews could be affected by the stars, the Jewish people, as a whole, remain above such influence and are subject to G-d’s direct Providence.
The second concept is that which we learned from Abraham’s example: Although an individual may be subject to what is written for him in the stars, he can transcend that destiny through actions which unite him to the Al-mighty. It is G-d Who endowed influence to the stars; it is He Who can go beyond them and directly enhance the life of an individual.
The question remains: Why would G-d choose to give powers to the stars and not do everything directly? The Kabbalistic writings ascribe the 12 constellations of the zodiac to the 12 tribes of Israel, which coincide with the 12 months of the year (lunar, not Gregorian solar months, hence the inherent flaw with the stuff you might read in the papers). These are the core 12 forms of spiritual energy through which G-d carries out His will in the world. An honorable king does not carry out all his decrees on his own; he has ministers and multiple layers of underlings to execute his bidding. G-d created the world in a way that we can be cognizant of the splendor and majesty of His Kingdom, hence the constellations, the 10 sefirot or upper, spiritual worlds, the angels and layers of ministers carrying out His Will.
The most common blessing given by Jews everywhere is “mazel tov.” Literally this means “have a good star.” Mazal means star, and also means “to drip.” The relationship is because G-d “drips” His blessings and bounty into the world through the stars. The blessing to have “a good star” means to have much blessing and goodness flow into the person’s life. Mazel tov!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Rabbi Fried,