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The Attitude of Israel’s Sages towards Astrology

In contrast to the idolaters who believed the stars influenced what happens in the world, our Sages explained that even the stars and constellations are creations, and any influence they have is according to God’s will * According to the majority of Sages, “There is no mazal (constellation) for Israel”, meaning that the people of Israel have the power to change their fate through their deeds and merits * According to nature, Abraham and Sarah should not have been able to give birth to Isaac, but God changed nature and enabled them to give birth to our forefather Isaac * One must always analyze reality with the best objective tools available, while simultaneously maintaining a vision of faith

Q: Last week, in an article about astrology, it was written that when there was a general consensus among the sages of the nations that astrology was a true wisdom, the Sages of Israel did not disagree with them. And in the times of the Rishonim, when the sages of the nations disagreed about whether the astrological system was mistaken, the Sages of Israel also disagreed about this. Don’t the Sages of Israel, who represent the Torah, have an advantage over the sages of the nations?

A: As I already wrote in the article, “One should not be surprised that the Sages of Israel take the sages of the nations into account, since the Torah Sages do not presume to rule according to the Torah on scientific questions, because the purpose of the Torah is to teach us the most important things: what is good and what is bad, what is forbidden and what is permitted, and not to decide scientific questions.” Indeed, an examination of our Sages’ attitude towards astrology is instructive, as we shall explain here.

The Emphases of the Sages of Israel

As mentioned, when all the sages of the nations agreed that astrology was true – the Sages of Israel did not disagree with them. However, they emphasized several principles based on the Jewish faith that fundamentally changed astrology’s nature, thereby preventing the concern that it would negatively influence the Jewish people. First, in contrast to the idolaters who believed that the stars influenced worldly events, our Sages explained that the stars and constellations themselves are creations, and their entire influence is according to God’s will, and consequently, God’s will can change one’s mazal.

They further said that even the most gifted astrologers cannot accurately predict the future, since God granted man free will, enabling people to change their fate through good or bad deeds. This is especially true for Israel, who received the Torah and mitzvot, through which they can elevate themselves above the stars and constellations, and rectify themselves, and the entire world. Conversely, by choosing evil, they will be more severely punished. Therefore, according to the majority of our Sages, “There is no mazal for Israel” (Shabbat 156a-b), meaning that the people of Israel have the power to change their fate through their deeds and merits.

And so, time and again, our Sages taught the people of Israel to believe in God, and toil in improving their character traits and deeds, and not to rely on astrological predictions.

Abraham Our Father

The Amora, Rav (Shabbat 156a), said that after God chose Abraham our father to establish the people of Israel from his offspring, Abraham turned to the Holy One, Blessed be He, and said: “Master of the Universe, I have looked at my astrological chart, and I am not worthy of having a son!” God said to him: “Leave your astrological chart, for there is no mazal for Israel.” For what did you see? That the planet Jupiter is in the west, and therefore you cannot have children? Behold, I will move it to the east, and you will be able to have children.” Similarly, our Sages said (Bereishit Rabbah 44:10) that Abraham our father said to God: “The mazal prevents me from having children.” The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him: “Indeed, ‘Avram’ and ‘Sarai’ cannot have children, but since I have changed your names to ‘Abraham’ and ‘Sarah’, you can have children.”

In other words, although according to the natural order, Abraham and Sarah should not have been able to give birth to Isaac, but since God chose them and they followed His ways, God, who controls all of nature, changed nature, and enabled them to give birth to our forefather Isaac.

Moses Our Teacher

Similarly, our Sages said (Sotah 12b) about those who gaze at the stars, that they “gaze, but do not know what they gaze at, they imagine, but do not know what they are imagining.” Pharaoh’s stargazers saw that the redeemer of Israel was about to be born and would be smitten by water, so they decreed: “Every newborn Hebrew boy shall be thrown into the Nile” (Exodus 1:22). When Moses was placed in a basket in the Nile, the sign disappeared, and they thought that he had already been smitten and died, so they cancelled the decree – not realizing they had foreseen that Moses would be smitten at the Waters of Merivah, preventing him from entering the Land. 

Here again, our Sages taught us that even though it is possible to foresee the future, the vision is imprecise, and therefore, one must choose to do what is right in the eyes of God and man, and thereby merit blessing in this world and the next.

The Snake That Was Cut Instead of Striking

Our Sages also related (Shabbat 156b) about the Amora Shmuel, who was sitting with Avlat, a great non-Jewish sage, and stargazer. Some people passed by on their way to cut reeds near a pond. Avlat pointed to one of the men and said: “This man will go, but not return; a snake will bite him, and he will die.” Shmuel said to him: “If he is a Jew, he will go, and return.” While sitting, that same man returned from the pond. Avlat got up to check his bundle, and found a cut snake in two pieces. It became clear that Avlat had indeed correctly predicted that a snake would come upon him, but he was mistaken in thinking that he would die. Shmuel asked the man what he had done that day. He related that he had performed charity by giving some of his food to a hungry friend, so the latter would not be embarrassed. It turned out that due to the mitzvah he had performed, his fate was changed from death to life.

Here again, our Sages taught us that even if the sages of the nations sometimes have an amazing ability to predict the future, the charity that a person gives wholeheartedly, can save him from death.

Rabbi Akiva’s Daughter

They also related (Shabbat 156b) that Rabbi Akiva had a daughter whom the stargazers foretold would be bitten by a snake, and die on her wedding day. Rabbi Akiva was greatly distressed about this, but did not refrain from marrying her off. On her wedding night, as she went to her chambers, she removed a hairpin-like ornament from her hair and placed it in a crack in the wall. In the morning, when she retrieved it, a dead snake was coiled around it – during the night, she had struck its eye with the hairpin. Rabbi Akiva asked his daughter what good deed she had done on her wedding day to merit being saved. She recounted that towards evening, a pauper had called at the door, but everyone was preoccupied with the wedding feast and did not hear him except for her – she took her own portion and gave it to him. Rabbi Akiva said: “You performed a mitzvah, and it saved you from death.”

The important lesson from this story is that even though Rabbi Akiva knew that the stargazers had great power, and was very worried that his daughter might die on her wedding day as they had predicted, he did not refrain from fulfilling the mitzvah of marrying off his daughter. This was both because sometimes the stargazers are mistaken, and because sometimes a great merit can change one’s fate, as happened to his daughter, who was saved from death by virtue of the great mitzvah she performed on her wedding day.

Yosef the Sabbath Observer

Our Sages also related a story (Shabbat 119a) about a wealthy non-Jew who wanted to improve his business and secure his assets, so he went to consult with the Chaldeans (stargazers). They told him that according to what they saw, all his possessions would fall into the hands of ‘Yosef the Sabbath observer’. The non-Jew wanted to prevent this, so he sold all his possessions and bought an expensive pearl with the money, hiding it in his hat. As he was crossing a river, a wind blew and swept his hat into the water, and a large fish swallowed the pearl. Days later, that fish was caught and brought to the market just before the Sabbath. Since everyone had already purchased their Sabbath needs, no buyer was found for the large and expensive fish. The fishermen said: “Surely Yosef the Sabbath observer, who customarily buys any delicacy in honor of the Sabbath, will want to buy it. They brought him the fish and he bought it, and upon gutting it, found the pearl inside. He sold it for an enormous sum, and became wealthy.

We see that our Sages brought stories in which the astrologers made accurate predictions, but in practice, failed to discern the truth, since Jews transcend astrological destiny through Torah and mitzvot, changing their mazal

Additionally, we learn how the Sages of Israel, on one hand, respected the sages of the nations and utilized their wisdom, while simultaneously removing potential moral harm, by applying the fundamentals of faith revealed to Israel through prophecy.

Lessons for Our Times 

Thus, in every generation, the Sages of Israel respectfully considered the wisdom that analyzes reality with the best tools at its disposal, but did not accept all of its conclusions. This is because wisdom relates to reality as a fixed state that cannot be changed, whereas by upholding a vision expressing the Divine image within man, reality can be transformed.

For example, according to objective analyses, social scientists rightly claim that a person who grows up in an impoverished neighborhood, or among an afflicted people, has almost no chance of advancing, and therefore efforts for their upliftment should be abandoned. In contrast, according to the faith of Israel, although it is true that their living conditions are extremely difficult, they still have free choice to change their situation, for better or worse.

Therefore, one must always analyze reality with the best objective tools available, while simultaneously maintaining a vision of faith, that despite all the difficulties, reality can be changed for the better through it. In any event there will be difficulties – the question is whether they will be birth pangs, or death throes.

The Six Day War

Before the Six Day War, many had despaired. Egypt, Jordan and Syria, with strong armies, threatened to destroy the State of Israel. France, which until then had supplied weapons to Israel, imposed an embargo on it. Foreign Minister Abba Eban said that Israel was now in Auschwitz’s borders. Had the Government of Israel accepted the situation as it was, our situation would have been disastrous. However, the Government of Israel and the military leadership mustered courage, and with faith in the Rock of Israel, we struck first, and foiled the enemy’s ability to attack first. Reality was turned upside down, and from crisis, we emerged victorious.

Since we did not proceed courageously to settle all parts of our Land, our status began to erode, and the nations of the world began pressuring us to retreat. This led to the Oslo process, the withdrawal from Gush Katif and southern Lebanon, and the disaster we are contending with – as the failed senior command continues to try to appease the enemy, instead of fighting continuously until its defeat. It is not too late – we can re-dedicate ourselves, decide that we intend to defeat our enemies, take control of the Gaza Strip, and plan long-term for the continued advancement of the Zionist vision that includes immigration, settlement throughout the Land, and security.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.

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