By Rabbi Dan Lewin
The Hebrew word mazel refers to celestial spheres, often revered throughout the ancient world. But what is the Jewish view of auspicious times and astrological signs?
In a famous statement, the Talmud declares: “there is no such thing as mazel for Israel.” Similarly, in the book of Jeremiah (10:2), we find an instruction “don’t be dismayed by the constellations of the heaven,” which seems to suggest that they have no power.
On the other hand, we find references to times of “healthy mazel” for the Jewish people, a premise that even finds expression in Jewish law. (The mystical tradition further teaches that each month of the Hebrew year corresponds to a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, one of the 12 tribes of Israel, and a sense — kabbalah speaks of 12 senses — and a zodiac sign.
So how is one to reconcile these two seemingly opposite messages?
A more thorough examination uncovers a distinction between influence and determination. While mazel exists, it is always possible to avert or overcome astrological influence through our prayers and good deeds. Hence, don’t give credibility to signs, as Jeremiah suggests.
Last week we entered a new month in the Jewish calendar, Adar, whose sign is a fish. The mystical tradition teaches that fish symbolize good fortune and protection from evil. More practically, the Talmud states “Just as when Av enters, we decrease in happiness, when the month of Adar enters, we increase with happiness. (Taanit 29a)” Av is known as a period of “bad mazel” for the Jewish people, while Adar is strong mazel.
(One practical ramification mentioned that’s even mentioned in Jewish law is that if someone has a court case in Av, they should try to postpone it. In contrast, one should specifically schedule a hearing or business deal in the month of Adar.)
Accordingly, when Av enters, we practice customary mourning rituals; from the moment Adar enters, we adopt a festive mood. The question is: What is behind these two months of especially strong or weak mazel that distinguish them from other Jewish months (which also contain historical triumphs and tragedies)? And why should our mood change from the onset of the month (and not the precise date of the holiday.)
Events can set the tone
To answer this, let’s take a closer look at the wording in the Talmud: “Just as (i.e., for the same reason) we decrease in happiness … so too when Adar arrives, we increase in happiness.” This comparison implies that the same paradigm responsible for “negative mazel” in Av creates positive mazel in Adar. And by understanding the cause for sadness in Av, we can unlock the cause for joy in Adar.
There are two notable reasons given for the mourning period in Av. The first is the day of Tisha b’Av (the 9th day of Av), on which the destruction of both temples occurred, becoming a day of “double pain.” But the story really began earlier with the Biblical account of the spies. After scoping out the land of Israel, they returned in tears with a discouraging report that dissuaded the nation from fulfilling their mission. At that time, the Talmud says, G-d declared “If you will cry for no reason… you will have something to cry about on this day.”
This rebuke does not mean that the destruction was predestined. Rather, if there was to be any negative decree in the future, it would have an easier likelihood of manifesting during this already solemn period. Thus, when it comes to bad mazel of Av, we find a biblical event (the spies) that resulted in a later holiday (the destruction of both Temples,) a day of mourning which still endures.
The common understanding of what makes Adar a happy month is simply the miracle of Purim. But if we apply this same logic to Adar, we can assume that Adar was already established as an auspicious month even before the mysterious elevation of Esther and rescue of Jews in Persia. If so, what early event painted the mood of this month?
Ancient birth, enduring joy:
While providing more details about the backdrop of Purim, the Talmud recounts that after his plan to exterminate the entire Jewish people was approved, Haman cast lots (“purim”) to determine the date of execution. “When the lot fell in the month Adar, he confidently rejoiced, knowing that Moses, the Jewish redeemer, passed away in that month. Yet he failed to realize that it was also the month that Moses was born. (Megillah 13b)”
Moses was born on the 7th day of Adar. He passed away on the same date. The above passage continues: “the auspicious event of his birthday was enough to override the day of his death.” Furthermore, the descent of Moses’s soul brought about the story of Pesach and changed the entire month into a time of good fortune. (While birthdays of famous figured aren’t often noted or celebrated in Jewish tradition, the day, which altered the flavor of an entire month, is an exception.
So, upon further review, it was not the salvation on Purim that established Adar a month of “good mazel” but the reverse influence — the already strong mazel of Adar spurred the salvation of Purim.
The name Adar is from the Hebrew word adir — power. It is described as “the month that was transformed from sorrow into joy” and that influence reoccurs every year. As the new month approaches, happiness is in the air.
True happiness has the power to break through barriers, penetrate the heavens and draw blessings into this world. But it is often an elusive emotion. To accomplish the same feat in other times requires more work. In Adar, however, there is a latent force that gives us the strength to uncover the external trappings that confound us and to discover a core joy.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.