Once upon a time, I worked at a Reform synagogue. One day, I asked one of the rabbis on staff if, since Judaism was on a lunar calendar, the moon was the same every Rosh Hashanah. He explained that yes, that was the case, but rushed to express that, “it’s not an astrology thing, like horoscopes or whatever.”
I seethed at this response. Speaking as if early Judaism didn’t dabble in astrology of any sort — particularly when we literally follow a calendar based on the skies — seemed like a fakakta, small-minded look at a culture. I am a passive aggressive sort, so instead of raging at the tiny rabbi, I’m choosing to provide you all with some cold, hard, Jewish astrology facts.
As Jews often do, let’s start with our forepappa, Abraham. It is traditionally thought that Saba Abe wrote the first book on Jewish esoterism and astrology, Sefer Yetzirah, somewhere in between migrating all over the Middle East and attempting to sacrifice his son. Either Abraham or the actual mystery writer claims God used letters to create the world. According to the first paragraph of the Sefer Yetzirah, these letters include “12 ordinary letters.” Various interpretations of the aged book, including one by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, explain that these specific letters “created” the 12 months of the year and 12 essential “leaders” or body parts including hands, feet, kidneys, etc. Both the months of the year and the “leaders” are at the mercy of the Greek Zodiac. Yikes!
Additionally, we’ve all heard the classic shtick from Genesis, when Abraham was (allegedly) told he would have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky. If that isn’t a lingering hint of astrology, I’ll eat my kippah!
Of course the Old Testament and its prophets loved to throw in their two-cents about not consorting with anything too fantastical. The prophet Jeremiah stated, “Be not dismayed at the signs of heaven” while Isaiah argued that listening to astrology is stressful and distracting so one should let “the astrologers, the stargazers, the monthly prognosticators, stand up and save thee from the things that shall come upon thee.” Seems to me their need to distance themselves from astrology speaks to the fact that it actually was a part of the life of your average Jew.
As per usual, the Talmud has conflicting views on the whole thing. One fun story told about a first century wiseman, Rabbi Akiva, details the events that occured when an astrologer warned that the Rabbi’s about-to-be-wed (nameless) daughter would die on her wedding day by snake bite. She didn’t, and the next morning woke to find a dead snake in her wall, stabbed by a barrette she had placed in a wall-hole on her wedding night. When Rabbi Akiva got down to the bottom of the mystery, he learned that his daughter (ole whatshername) had helped a beggar at their door while everyone was distracted with marital preparation. The rabbi decided his daughter saved herself from destiny by doing a mitzvah. His idea was that the Jewish people can subvert their fate as declared by the stars by being a good person because, you know, #Chosen. Way to go, identity-less bride!
Meanwhile, the Talmud references a lot of characteristics about months in the Hebrew calendar with a direct correlation to astrology. It is actually written that, “One who was born under the influence of Venus will be a rich and promiscuous person.” If that’s not enough sky-power for you, the reason for this is, “because fire was born during the hour of Venus.” Meanwhile, people born under Mars are likely to become “either a blood letter, or a thief, or a slaughterer of animals, or a circumciser.” You can’t make this sh*t up. Or, I don’t know, I guess somebody did.
According to Rabbi Levi Brackman, ancient Rabbis viewed a birthday as the time when personal astrological fortune was the most potent. The Talmud literally states, “Upon entry into the month of Adar one should become increasingly joyous” and that “a Jew should avoid litigation with gentiles in the month of Av, because his ‘mazal’ is bad; and he should move the court case to the month of Adar, when his ‘mazal’ is good.”
In fact, the word “mazal,” when directly translated in this case, means not “luck” but “constellation” or “fate.” According to Haaretz, “the ‘mazalot’ (to use the plural) are the signs of the Zodiac, and ‘galgal hamazalot’ is the wheel of the Zodiac… ” They also call attention to a (sort of, kind of deeply touching) line in Rabba Bereshit, “Every single blade of grass has a corresponding ‘mazal‘ in the sky which hits it and tells it to grow.” It is the grass’ fate to grow, and so it does (I mean, right? TOUCHING). How cray-cray banay-nay-nay is it that so many of us use the phrase “mazel tov” on the regular without even realizing its astrological root?
It should come as no surprise that Kabbalah dabbles in astrology. The Kabbalah Centre website claims that an astrological chart reading can help the recipient learn more about themselves and how to better relate to their personal vision. If you’re interested, all over the world, Kabbalah Centres provide New Moon connections which showcase mediations that are meant to guide with specific consciousness. At least some Jews are diving into our astrological past, and so can you! You know, if you’re into that sort of thing.
I am 99.9999% sure that the rabbi whose (small-minded) beliefs sparked this passive aggressive rant will never read this. But I hope that this writer born in the month of Av (one of the most negative months of the year) has opened up a world of astrological possibility to all you people born under better moons, or heck, even worse ones.
If we head back to Father Abraham and God’s (alleged) promise to him of all those descendants, it stands to reason that said descendants might have conflicting views. That’s how families work, even ginormous ones that span the entire world. So if you want to get your astrology on, do your thing. If you think that’s wrong, don’t do that thing. To me, the best part of Judaism is the ability to interpret it whichever way one wants. Happy interpreting! Mazel Tov!