Siman Tov u’Mazal Tov! Parashat Va’etchanan

Shabbat Nachamu

Parashat Vaetchanan Deut. 3:23-7:11 (Triennial: Deut. 3:23-5:18)

Haftarah Isaiah 40:1-26

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Siman tov u’mazal tov!

We offer these words of good wishes at every bar or bat mitzvah, wedding, and other happy occasions, but we probably don’t give much thought to what this actually means.The literal translation of these words is “a good sign and a good star,” suggesting a connection between good fortune and the positioning of the stars and planets. What are the origins of this idea?

In this week’s parasha, Va’etchanan, Moses prepares the people to enter the Land of Israel, by offering this warning: “And when you look up to the sky and behold the sun and the moon and the stars, the whole heavenly host, you must not be lured into bowing down to them or serving them. These the LORD your God allotted to other peoples everywhere under heaven; but you the LORD took and brought out of Egypt, that iron blast furnace, to be His very own people, as is now the case.” (Source 1).  Moses will reiterate the prohibition for the Israelites of engaging in any kind of magic or fortune telling in Deuteronomy Ch. 18 (Source 2).  The most straightforward reading of the texts here is that Jews are prohibited to worship anything but God and to engage in practices that attempt to know the future. However, these texts raise a few questions.

First, is Moses saying in Deuteronomy Ch. 4 that worshipping the sun, moon and stars might be fine for other peoples, just not Israelites? 

And secondly, given the strong prohibition against anything that smacks of idol worship, magic, or fortune telling, how do we make sense of remnants of these practices throughout Jewish history? 

The rabbis in the Talmud express a variety of opinions about astrology and its relationship to Jews. In one passage from Tractate Sukkot (source 3), several rabbis discuss eclipses and their indication of bad omens for Jews and other nations. Although it is a topic of debate, this discussion seems to affirm the idea that what appears in the heavens can be interpreted as signs for the future. In Tractate Shabbat (source 4), the rabbis disagree about whether the Jewish people are influenced by the stars or not. However, no doubt is expressed about the impact of stars on other nations.

Jewish sources throughout the Medieval period overwhelmingly indicate that astrology was not only practiced, but was permitted and believed to be effective. Nachmanides, a well-known rabbi in 13th century Spain, practiced astrology and validated its use in his halakhic writing (source 5). Even the Shulchan Arukh, the authoritative code of law written in the 16th century, indicates that people still had the practice of avoiding starting new endeavors or marrying on days that were seen as under a bad sign or star (source 8).

Maimonides, writing in the 12th century, seems to be the lone exception and in his typical style rejects astrology both as forbidden by the Torah and as nonsense that only foolish people would rely on (Sources 6 and 7). As we already saw, his view was not widely accepted and Jewish authorities considered astrology to be valid for hundreds of years afterward.

Somewhere along the way though, Maimonides’ rational perspective seems to have won out for the most part, even while we still wish each other “mazal tov” on happy occasions.

An examination of the Jewish practice of astrology highlights an ongoing question for us as Jews, which is:  how do we respond and adapt to the practices of the other people among whom we live? 

The Torah seems to draw a clear line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior for Jews. According to the Torah, we are supposed to avoid magic and divination precisely because they are practices of other nations. On the other hand, all the subsequent evidence points to Jewish practices of astrology that probably reflected the cultural norms and understandings of the societies in which they lived. Jews practiced astrology along with everyone else, and even offered their services as astrologers in the courts of non-Jewish rulers. Jews only left astrology and other “superstitious” practices behind as Europe and the west embraced the rationalism of the Enlightenment.

To be sure, Jewish communities have always been distinctive in many ways, but Judaism and Jewish belief and practice has always evolved in relationship with the surrounding culture.  Whether it is Chasidic Jews adopting the garb of 18th century Polish nobility, Italian Jewish composers writing synagogue music in high Renaissance style, or Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes of felafel and hummus becoming synonymous with Israeli Jewish cuisine,

Jewish life has never existed in a vacuum. It is up to every generation – including our own – to determine the direction that Judaism will take and to define what it means to be Jewish in our day.