What does mazel mean? And is it a truth?
Literally, “mazel” means star, planet, or constellation. But our culture and Talmud use the word to refer to “planetary influence” and “nature”. It is these definitions that we will discuss. That is, whether mazel refers exclusively to planetary influence; is it a reality or a superstition; and if the latter, then it is a falsehood.
As we commence, you must realize that Torah is the only source for our direction in life. And Torah commands us to follow the Rabbis only in matters of the mitzvahs, not philosophy or science: “In accord with the ‘Torah’ that they teach you…” (Deut. 17:11) “Torah” is the dominion of the Rabbis, nothing else. (It would actually be foolish to follow a Rabbi’s advice on surgery, instead of a trained surgeon.) Therefore, as we discuss philosophy and science, no obligation exists here to follow any Rabbi’s view. However, by nature, we are compelled to either accept or reject a view. But in philosophical matters, or in science, our decisions are not subject to Rabbinic authority, which does not exist, but only on our intelligence. As the Talmudic section at hand unfolds, you will be confronted with opposing views. Both views cannot be correct. You can either accept that you don’t know the truth, or you will choose a view based on your own reasoning. But be careful that if you do accept a view, that you have arrived at it with intelligence and proofs. A simple head nod, or siding with a comfortable or popular view does not make your view true. Only reason can defend a view as truth.
Talmud Sabbath 156a discusses our matter. The Talmud first says that in Rabbi Joshua ben Levi’s notes were found the following comments: “If one was born on a Sunday, he will be all-good or all-evil. Why? Because on Sunday, light and darkness were created. If a man was born on a Monday, he will be angry, since the division of the upper and lower waters took place on Monday [division referring to an upset personality]. If a man was born on Tuesday, he will be lustful, for on Tuesday were the herbs of the field created [which multiply rapidly]. If born on Wednesday, he will be wise, since on that day the luminaries [enlightenment] were suspended in heaven.” The Talmud goes on, but we have cited enough cases to convey the Talmud’s point: man’s personality parallels some element of Creation of that corresponding day. “Parallels”…not necessarily “caused by”.
However, this parallel does appear arbitrary. For why don’t we suggest that if man is born on a rainy day, that he will be an expert swimmer or plumber? Or if born with a smile that he will always be happy or have a fine sense of humor? Or if at age 2 a child builds a sandcastle, he will be an architect? What significance exists, that the parallel is between the day of birth, and the corresponding weekday of Creation? Why only these two elements? And what is this idea in general: is there some undetected force at work whereby clods of clay and gas (stars) millions of light-years from Earth have some relationship with human personalities? And why only personalities? Furthermore, are Rabbi Joshua’s notes his own opinions, or just notes on worldviews? Is it significant that Joshua ben Levi didn’t teach these views, but merely that these comments were located in his notes? Be mindful as well, that Rabbi Joshua’s notes did not attribute powers to the planets and stars. His writings correlated days of Creation with human personality types.
But the glaring problem is that his notes claimed that a birthday falling on Sunday related to one’s perfection, as his notes read that this person will be all-good or all-evil. This appears to violate free will. So this surface understanding cannot be true. Rashi too says that this view “implies” that on Sunday, righteous and evil people are born. (This we can answer quickly: an “extreme personality” type is related to a Sunday birth. But not that free will is affected.)
Rabbi Chaninah then rejects Rabbi Joshua’s notes, claiming, “it is not the day that is causative, but it is the hour of one’s birth”. (We will soon explain the word “causative”.) He clarifies that the sun, moon, or some heavenly sphere influences each hour of the day, and those born during those hours. Rabbi Chaninah appears to support the theory of “planetary influence” saying, “The spheres affect one’s wisdom and wealth”. (Meharsha seems to comply with both the planetary influence theory, while clearly defending that free will is never lost. I am not sure of his meaning.)
Rabbi Chaninah then says “mazel makes wise and makes one wealthy, there is mazel for Israel”. Rabbi Yochanan rejects Rabbi Chaninah saying, “There is no mazel for Israel.” But didn’t Rabbi Chaninah already state his view above? Isn’t this redundant?
Rabbi Yochanan then proves his position form Jeremiah 10:2-4:
“So says God, ‘To the ways of the nations, do not learn. And from heavenly phenomena do not fear; for the nations fear from them. For the statutes of the nations are futile’…”
Radak explains there (ibid 10:2), “The spheres have no ability to do harm or good”. The nations feared them based on superstitious beliefs, which Radak says grew into full-blown idol worship (ibid 10:3). Maimonides too teaches this in his Mishneh Torah (Laws of Star Worship 1:1). Tosfos “Kaldai” (156b) cites many other Torah verses prohibiting stargazing and superstitions. There, he says deducing from the stars is akin to lotteries, “Lotteries and stargazing are one matter”. This makes sense. Just as one would not rely on a lottery draw for his life’s decisions, one should not rely on stargazing. Neither practice follows reason, for they are equally unrelated to a question one might have. Think a moment: how does an arbitrary lottery offer intelligent information? By definition, “arbitrary” is not “intelligent”! Tosfos says viewing the stars for answers is equally arbitrary. He outright discounts astrology, as does Maimonides in his Letter to Marseilles.
Rabbi Yochanan quotes this verse in Jeremiah since he discounts natural laws as determining Israel’s fate, described therein as “heavenly phenomena”. The Jewish nation is under God’s providence. He also rejects the idolatrous nations’ fearful projections onto heaven. Two messages are derived from this verse: 1) heavenly “signs” are not signs at all, but merely nature, and 2) our nation is not subject to those natural laws.
What must have been the views of the ancient astrologers? Certainly, we have the same skies they had. And we see absolutely no relationship between planets and stars and varying human personalities. (Personality has actually been shown as genetic.) And with no evidence of a relationship, God’s plan that we follow intelligence demands we reject unproven views. What ancient astrologers must have done, was correlated the zodiacs’ positions with Earthly phenomena. If enough cases corroborated their view, they “assumed” a relationship to exist between stars and Earthly phenomena. But ask yourself this: if each time someone sneezed, a shooting star crossed the sky, would it be sensible to suggest a causal relationship between man and stars? We must reject the coincidences that astrologers assumed as causal. We must look for a rational explanation. The Talmudic Rabbis as well meant something rational, not astrological. For we see Tosfos, Maimonides, Radak and God’s very Torah in Jeremiah rejecting astrology. So how can we understand our Talmudic portion?
If we are careful with our reading, there is a difference between the first and second Talmudic arguments above. The first dispute refers to “man”, while the second refers to “Israel”. This removes the redundancy I cited earlier. Rabbi Chaninah is addressing a new case when he says, “there is mazel for Israel.”
Perhaps Rabbi Joshua’s notes were his views…perhaps not. It is odd that the Talmud says, “they were found in his notebook” and not “taught by Rabbi Joshua”. Regardless, we can explain that view without resorting to “planetary influence”. It may very well be that just as a person aspires to embody his namesake, human identification works in other manners as well. A person has ego. He naturally views his birthday with significance. Learning about Genesis, a person born on Wednesday might identify with Day 4, when lights (sun & stars) were suspended in the heavens. He might then associate “light” and “wisdom” as part of his very identity, and become studious, and eventually, a scholar. When one strongly identifies him or herself in some way, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thereby, it is not the birth on a day that has a “causal” relationship. Rather, it is a psychological phenomenon of identification that propels the person towards certain feelings and activities that have real results.
In the first debate, Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Chaninah argue over whether days or hours “influence” man’s nature. This can be understood as a debate over how man identifies: does man identify more with his day of birth, or the hour of his birth. Nothing more. In support of the definition of mazel as “nature”, Rava said (Tal. Moade Katan 28a) “life, children and wealth depend on mazel”. What this means is that nature determines one’s health, wealth and children. Mazel is nature. But free will is in man’s hand, and not subject to mazel. The “nature” discussed here in our Talmudic portion is ‘human’ nature – identification.
The second argument addresses the nation of Israel, not individual men. Rabbi Chaninah says there is mazel (natural law) governing Israel, while Rabbi Yochanan says Israel’s fate is due to God alone. Not mazel. Israel is more of a reality before God, so nothing is left to natural law…unlike individuals whose merit is less than the nation’s.
The Talmud continues to prove no mazel exists for Israel, with a medrashic conversation between God and Abraham: Abraham said, “God, I see in astrology that I am not going to beget a child.” God responds, “Leave your astrology, for there is no mazel in Israel”. God assures Abraham he will in fact have his own child, unlike what Abraham deduced based on natural study. That’s what Abraham meant: Abraham studied nature, viewing the stars and the Earth under a single scientific approach…unlike today’s foolish astrologers who use tarot cards. Abraham had some system that was scientific. Abraham lived a life where reason led him to proofs of God. Are we to suggest that in one area, Abraham looked at stars and arbitrarily connected the dots? Mustn’t we be consistent and also give Abraham the credit that his decisions in all areas were rational? Of course. God then tells Abraham that he based his conclusion that he was to be barren on the alignment of Jupiter. God doesn’t say Abraham was wrong: He says he will move Jupiter from the West to the East. This metaphor means that God endorsed Abraham’s accurate recognition of nature, but that God will invert nature so as to allow this barren man to beget a child.
We thereby interpret the Talmud as not describing astrology, but psychology and natural law. We are taught that man will identify with the day or hour he was born. Man emulates what he identifies with. So he shares a quality with the day of Creation, or hour of his birth, due to his own emulation. Planets and stars are too far away to have any affects on distant objects, certainly on intangible things like personalities. And when it comes to the nation – not people – the Rabbis dispute whether nature plays a role at all, or is Israel’s fate solely due to God’s constant providence.
Again, there is no evidence for the “planetary influence” theory. And God desires we follow our minds so we must reject that view. Radak, Maimonides and Tosfos as well reject astrology. They all base themselves on sound arguments. Astrology on the other hand has no rational explanation. Furthermore, God rejects viewing the heavens as informative (Jeremiah 10). These are God’s words. This is the authoritative source. All else must follow suit. We must reject it.