intro to Jewish astrology

INTRODUCTION

Astrology is a wide-ranging term, referring to a number of divination practices, which predict future events through the observation and interpretation of celestial objects, such as the sun, the moon, the stars, and the planets. Nearly every ancient culture placed great importance on their celestial observations, with many developing their own astrological practices. For example, Hindus, Mayans, and Mesopotamians all practiced their own versions of astrology. Though not often associated with Judaism, Jews, too, have practiced astrology since ancient times, which is unsurprising, given that Jewish culture dates back some 3000+ years.

Most of us are familiar with Western astrology, which borrows from Ancient Greek, Roman, Mesopotamian, and Islamic astrology.

In antiquity, astrology was considered a scholarly and scientific tradition, present in academic, scientific, medical, and political circles. Since the eighteenth century, astrology has widely been considered a pseudoscience; nevertheless, since the 1960s, astrology has resurged in popularity in the West, with 29% of Americans attesting that they believe in it as of 2019.

In terms of Jewish astrology, I am personally of the opinion that, as Judaism is an ancient, Indigenous, tribal, closed practice (which was later widely appropriated and stripped from its intended context), the tradition should be respected as such, whether one believes in it as scientific or not.

 

PROHIBITION

Unsurprisingly, the validity and permissibility of astrology within Judaism has long been a subject of serious debate.

The Torah prohibits against idolatry, and, as such, Jewish authorities have long distinguished between observing celestial bodies to understand their influences on human beings, which is permitted, as opposed to worshipping the stars, which is not permitted.

In Leviticus, the Torah arguably forbids some practices of astrology: “You shall not practice divination or soothsaying” (Leviticus 19:26).

Deuteronomy states the following: “There shall not be found among you…one who practices divination, an astrologer, one who reads omens, a sorcerer…or one who consults the dead. For an abomination to the Lord is anyone who does these” (Deuteronomy: 18:10-12).

That said, there are also multiple passages in the Torah and Talmud that make reference to constellations providing both good luck and misfortune.

Additionally, “mazalot,” or Jewish astrology, comes up twice in the Tanakh, and specific constellations, such as Orion, are mentioned.

 

HISTORY

As far as is known, astrology among Jews was not common during the First Temple period (10th century BCE-587 BCE), though there are obscure references to Babylonian astrologers in the Torah. That said, “mazalot,” meaning constellations, are mentioned twice in the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”).

There are some rare references to Jewish astrology during the Second Temple period (539 BCE-70 CE). Some historians argue that astrology slowly made its way into Jewish culture thanks to Greek influences. That said, it’s well-understood that Jews practiced astrology during the Babylonian period (587 BCE-539 BCE), prior to the Greek occupation of the Land of Israel.

The Jewish historian Josephus admonished the Jewish People for ignoring the astrological signs foreshadowing the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE). Astrology is mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud, which was finalized around 350 CE.

In the Dark Ages, Jews living in Muslim-majority lands wrote countless books on astrology and astronomy. Jews in the Middle Ages widely considered astrology a “true science,” though some, such as Maimonides, strongly opposed the practice, considering it superstitious, dangerous, and secondary to the power of G-d. Some Jews in Medieval times even served as court astrologers for kings in Europe.

 

ASTRAL ENERGIES 

Jews have indisputably long believed in astral and other natural influences on the human and natural world; however, we are commanded not to place too much importance on them and put our trust and faith on the Hebrew G-d instead. For example, the Jewish sage Rashi (1040-1105) stated: “Break away from your astrological speculations, for [the People of] Israel are not bound by the influences of the horoscope."

In Jewish astrology, the day is divided into 12 equal hours, and the night is also divided into 12 equal hours. Each hour of the day and night is ascribed to one of seven planets or spheres, including Shabtai (Saturn), Nogah (Venus), Tzedek (Jupiter), Kokhav (Mercury), Ma’adim (Mars), Levanah (moon), and Hamah (sun).

Each of the planets works in conjunction with the twelve constellations. For instance, the sun is under the influence of Leo, while the moon is under the influence of Cancer. Each of the planets also governs a specific week.

Specific energies are associated with each of the seven planets or spheres. Some examples: (1) those born under the moon can lack in understanding, (2) Mercury is associated with teaching abilities, analytical minds, and artistic skills, (3) Venus is associated with beauty, favor among others, and attractive speech, (4) those born under the sun will be more virtuous than their ancestors, (5) those conceived under Mars will be courageous, (6) those born under Jupiter are wise and prudent, and (7) Saturn is associated with lack of success.

The planets also emanate energies that influence worldly events; for example, Mars can provoke wars. This slide is just a brief overview, as Jewish astrology is deeply complex and multilayered.

 

MAZALOT

There is a Kabbalistic practice of astrology, known as “mazalot.” “Mazalot” is the name used for the twelve constellations. Mazalot can be used to document and interpret a person’s birth chart to understand it through a Kabbalistic lens. Kabbalistic astrology differs from mainstream astrology in a variety of ways; for example, in addition to being a Jewish closed practice, Kabbalistic astrologers observe the planets not to see how they influence daily activities, but instead, to understand how they relate to each sephira (“emanations”) in the Tree of Life.

It’s likely that the Hebrew phrase “mazal tov” — translating to “good luck” but meaning “congratulations” — has its origins in ancient Jewish beliefs in astrology.

The Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation), one of the most mystical writings on Mazalot, explains that G-d created the seven planets* by means of the Hebrew letters. Historically, Jews have placed great mystical and spiritual importance on the Hebrew alphabet, as, for example, is the case of gematria, the Jewish practice of numerology, which assigns numerical value to names, phrases, or words. For example, the Hebrew word for life, חי (chai), is assigned the numerical value of 18, which subsequently makes 18 a spiritual number in Judaism. According to Jewish philosopher and poet Judah HaLevi (1075 – 1141), the seven planets and twelve constellations are “the means by which man is capable of understanding the unity and omnipotence of G-d, which are multiform on one side and, yet, uniform on the other.”

*for most of Jewish history, only seven planets or spheres were known, as other planets in our solar system were not discovered until relatively recently.

SPECIFIC EVENTS

Historically, Jews have attributed specific events to celestial influences.

As mentioned previously, Josephus admonished the Jewish People for ignoring the astrological signs foreshadowing the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE). Both the destructions of the First and Second Temples happened during the lunar month of Av while under the influence of Arieh (Leo), which is considered to be a negative influence.

Similarly, nearly the entirety of the Judean population in the city of Betar was exterminated during Av, under the influence of Arieh, in the midst of the Hadrianic Genocide. The Hadrianic Genocide was a genocide on the Jewish People in the aftermath of the failed Bar Kokhba Revolt. Some 600,000-million Jews were murdered.

Another tragedy in Jewish history attributed to astrological influences was King Edward I’s Edict of Expulsion on July 18, 1290, when Jews were expelled from England. This also took place on the ninth of Av, under the same celestial conditions.

World War I broke out on the fifth of Av, also while under the influence of Arieh.

 

 

RABBINIC OPINIONS

Since ancient times, Jewish rabbinic authorities have both the validity of astrology and, should astrology be scientifically accurate, whether astrology applies to the Jewish People.

Jewish sages and scholars in the past were divided. For example, Nahmanides considered it an exact science, whereas Maimonides ridiculed it, stating that it did not deserve to be called a science.

Today, most Conservative and Reform rabbis argue against astrology, specifically Western astrology (as opposed to Mazalot), while Orthodox rabbis are split.

Jewish astrology is generally interpreted to mean that “every happening related to man, whether small or great, has been delivered into the power of the stars by the blessed Creator.” However, Jews still believe in free will and self-determination, meaning that each person has the power to choose between right and wrong. Essentially, everything is pre-determined by G-d, save for an individual’s decisions regarding their righteousness or wickedness.

For example: in the thirteenth century, rabbinic scholar Menachem Meiri wrote that, while a person born under the influence of Mars might have a predisposition to shed blood, they could choose to become a mohel (the person who performs circumcisions in Jewish culture) or a butcher, as opposed to something more sinister.

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