Chance or Choice?
Astrology — fact or fiction? Can we run to horoscopes for advice? The Avner Institute presents a newly released letter that was written by a member of the Rebbe’s secretariat, Dr. Nissan Mindel, of blessed memory, and heavily edited by the Rebbe, expressing the Chabad view on the folly of planet worship, the power of a Jew to shape his or her own fate, and a universe ultimately governed by a real Master and Creator.
In honor of David & Eda Schottenstein wishing them much success and Nachas.
“Source of All Influence”
10 Cheshvan 5734
Minneapolis, MN 55403
Dear Dr. —–:
Thank you for your letter of Oct. 29, and your patience regarding your inquiry about the relationship between Judaism and the signs of the zodiac.
First, let me assure you that the Talks and Tales continue to appear regularly. I am surprised you do not receive them on your paid-up subscription. I have referred the matter to the circulation department.
All in the Stars
Regarding your above inquiry, it is a topic that requires more space and time than this letter permits. Nonetheless, I will endeavor to answer your question by setting forth a few general principles, or “chapter headings.”
The zodiac, as you know, is an imaginary belt in the sky, representing twelve constellations, through which the sun and major planets move in the course of the year. Each constellation, occupying 30 degrees, is represented by a sign, nearly all of which are named after an animal (hence “zodiac,” from the Greek zoon, a living creature).
The ancient Chaldeans, Babylonians, Egyptians, etc., deified and worshipped the sun, moon, planets, and stars. This was natural enough, seeing the tremendous power of the sun and moon in their direct influence on the seasons, weather, crops, tides, etc. They assumed therefore that these heavenly bodies and, indeed, all planets and stars exercised vital influences on nature, including themselves, i.e. mankind as part of nature. The twelve signs of the zodiac formed the basis for a type of fortunetelling called astrology, and gave rise to various other notions, as well as superstitions. One of the basic beliefs stemming from this idolatry is “fatalism,” namely that the character, conduct, and destiny of a person are predetermined by the star under which he is born.
Needless to say, the entire concept of idolatry and all that is connected with it is repugnant to Judaism, which is based on monotheism in its purest form — the existence of one G-d (without partners, not to mention independent powers or deities), the sole Creator of the entire universe, including the heavenly bodies, and the sole Ruler and Master of the world.
Jewish monotheism goes back to the father of our Jewish nation, Abraham. Though he was born in the midst of an idolatrous world, he soon rejected idolatry and proclaimed the existence of One G-d, and dedicated himself completely to His service.
By attaching himself to G-d and placing himself under G-d’s direct care, Abraham transcended the forces of nature and the influence of the stars. Thus we read in the sidra [portion] of last Shabbos, “And G-d brought Abram outside,” etc. (Gen. 15:5). Our Sages (see Rashi ad loc.) see here an allusion to the fact that G-d took Abraham out of the influence of the stars, assuring him that regardless of what the stars may say about his fate, the new Abraham, the believer in G-d, and his children after him, would not be subject to the laws of nature, but would be under the direct providence of G-d Himself.
The above was clearly demonstrated when, after centuries of enslavement in Egypt, in a completely idolatrous culture, they were liberated by Divine intervention, in defiance of all the laws of nature, through a series of obvious miracles (the ten plagues, crossing of the sea, etc.). And when they were given the Torah at Sinai seven weeks later, the first two of the Ten Commandments proclaimed the unity and omnipotence of G-d, and the prohibition of any form of idolatry, as the very basis of Judaism.
Humanity at large, having rejected the Torah, continued under the influence of the stars and the laws of nature, though, of course, these are no more than the agents and instruments of G-d. The Jewish people, however, by virtue of their attachment to G-d and His Torah, are, as mentioned above, not subject to the laws of nature, in the same way as gentile nations. The miraculous existence of the Jewish people throughout its nearly 4000 years’ history (since Abraham) is clear testimony to this fact.
The zodiacal and other constellations were, of course, known to Jewish ancients as far back as Abraham. However, with the rejection of astrology, they assumed a quite different context and meaning. The twelve signs (in Hebrew mazal, pl. mazaloth, constellations), became associated with the twelve Hebrew months of the year and with special events that took place in these months. For example, the sign of Aries the Ram (in Hebrew mazel sheh, the Lamb, corresponding to the month of Nissan) is related to the Passover sacrifice, first carried out in Egypt on the eve of the Exodus, as the expression of complete denial of Egyptian idolatry, where the lamb was a sacred deity. Gemini the Twins (mazal te’omim, corresponding to the month of Sivan), is related to the Two Tablets with the Ten Commandments, epitomizing the whole Torah, the written Torah and oral Torah, simultaneously given by G-d at Sinai in the month of Sivan. Libra, the Balance (mazal moznaim, “scales,” corresponding to Tishrei) is related to the Day of Judgment (Rosh Hashanah), when G-d dispenses judgment to the world. In a similar way are the other signs of the zodiac related to their particular months in the Hebrew calendar.
The Hebrew word mazal is the transitive form of the verb nazal, to trickle down, flow, hence the etymological origin of mazal, as a noun, meaning “planet,” or a group of stars, because through them comes the Divine influence to the world, a continuous flow of existence and life.
Thus, mazal can mean several things:
planet, star, constellation
planetary influence, where the stars serve as instruments, or forces, through which G-d controls nature and the destinies of nations, etc.
influence emanating directly from G-d.
As already noted, Jews, are not subject to planetary influence (b), as our Sages of the Talmud expressed it: Ein mazal l’Yisroel — Israel is not subject to planetary influence (Sab. 156a). But, of course, insofar as Divine influence (providence) is concerned, “Everything depends on mazal, even a sefer Torah in the Ark (Zohar III, Nosso 134a).” It is in this sense that the well-known blessing mazal tov should be understood, i.e. in the sense of good (Divine) influence, or blessing, and not in the popular, but misconceived sense of “good luck” or “good fortune,” since we do not believe that things happen by “chance” but by Divine Providence.
While “fatalism” has no place in Judaism, predestination, in a limited sense, has a valid place in Judaism. Our Sages of the Talmud declare that before a person is born, all aspects of his life, except the moral aspect, are preordained (Niddah 16b). This preordination is often called mazal in the Talmud, e.g. “Life (longevity), children, and sustenance (riches or poverty) depend not on one’s merits, but on one’s mazal (Moed K. 28a).” Here the term mazal comes close to the astrological concept, yet it is quite distinct from it in that it is not “fatal” or necessarily irreversible. For through ardent prayer and special merits this mazal can be changed by G-d (Ibid., see also Agad. Maharsha ad loc.) . Sometimes a change of place can change this mazal (B.M. 75a).
The term mazal is sometimes used in connection with time in the sense of being “propitious” (favorable) or otherwise. We find, for example, the Talmudic statement that when a Jew has a dispute with a non-Jew, he should not attempt to resolve it in the month of Av, which is of “bad mazal,” but rather in Adar, which is of “good mazal (Taan. 29b).” Here again, though superficially close to the astrological concept, it is quite different basically. For the “auspiciousness” of any month, or day, or moment, insofar as Jews are concerned, is not due simply to a fortuitous configuration of stars at the particular time, but to events in Jewish history which in themselves are associated with the Jews’ merits or failures in their relationship to G-d. This has to do with the general idea of eis rotzon – a time of favorable Divine disposition. Not all times are alike. There are certain days which G-d set apart as especially propitious, such as Shabbos, Yom Tov, the Ten Days of Repentance, etc., or have assumed a special significance in the course of Jewish history.
In this connection it might also be mentioned that the 24 hours of day and night are also different, each representing a different channel of Divine influence, as explained in Kabbalah and Chassiduth. (The 12 hours of day and 12 hours of night correspond to the number of combinations of the letters of the two Divine names, YHVH and ADNY, respectively. However, the subject cannot be expanded here.) In this context we are also to understand the expression, “May it be in a mazeldige sha’ah.” As in the case of mazal tov, which does not mean “may you have a fortunate constellation,” but “good Divine influence,” so a mazaldike sh’ah refers to a time characterized by Divine influence and blessing.
Finally, we will mention one more connotation of the term mazal, in the sense of “Guardian Angel,” as, e.g. “A person has a mazal (Rashi: His angel interceding in his behalf), a beast has no mazal (Sab. 53b).” Plainly understood, it seems to refer to the fact that every good deed performed by a person creates an angel which serves as an “advocate” in his behalf before the Heavenly Court.
In Chabad we find a more profound explanation of the particular mazal of a Jew, where it is conceived in terms of the very essence of the Jew’s soul. Briefly, the explanation is as follows:
The neshama (soul), being infinite and sublime, is not completely incorporated in the physical body. Only a reflection of the soul comes down to inform and animate the body, while the essential aspect of the soul remains more directly attached to G-d, and is connected with the person only in a peripheral way, as it were. This essential aspect of the soul is called mazal, because it is the source of influence for the lower aspect of the soul which is in the body. It is the source of the sublimest intuitive experiences and inspirations, often coming inexplicably, without apparent cause or reason (such as when a Jew, long alienated from Torah, or without previous exposure to it, suddenly feels an urge to find his way to G-d to the point of mesiras nefesh). We have a reference to it in the Talmud in the statement “Although he does not see it, his mazal saw it (Meg. 3a).”
In modern terms it might, perhaps be described in terms of a higher state of consciousness, or “ultra-consciousness,” by contrast to “subconsciousness.” In popular terms it is sometimes referred to as dos pintele yid (and in the terminology of Chabad this source of influence, or the mazal of the soul, is associated with the two supreme aspects of the soul, chaya and yechida, transcending the three immanent soul categories nefesh, ruach, and neshama).
Dr. Nissan Mindel, Editor
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