"STARSTRUCK" - THE PLACE OF ASTROLOGY IN JUDAISM
The gemara in Shabbat 156b relates: "Rabbi Chanina said 'mazal makes one wise, mazal makes one wealthy, and there is a mazal for the Jews.' Rabbi Yochanan says 'there is no mazal for the Jews.'" From there, the Talmud proceeds to give examples of astrological influences over the Jews. It is related that Abraham refused to believe Hashem when informed that he would have a son, as he had seen in his astrology that such an event was impossible. Similar tales are told of Rabbi Akiva and Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak, both of whom had been told by Chaldeans of certain events in the future (Chaldeans, or Kasdim, are synonymous with astrologers throughout the Talmud, as they engaged in the practice to a greater extent than any other people). Rabbi Akiva thanked God for intervening and saving his daughter from the evil fate that had been foreseen for her, and Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak's mother took steps to prevent his fate from occurring. In Moed Katan 28a it states "Rava said 'life, children, and livelihood are not dependent on individual merit but are dependent on the constellations (b'mazla talya milta).'" Seemingly, Rava sides with the view that states that there is a mazal, an astrological influence over the Jewish people. The Ba'alei HaTosafot in both tractates deal with the two selections, and thereby give a hint into the path that the Medieval philosophical debate would take. They state that there are times that events will be ordained by the stars, but there are times that one's personal merit will overcome astral influences.
The normative law debate has its Talmudic roots in two other locations. Sanhedrin 65a discusses the meaning of the word me'onein found in Leviticus 19:26. Rabbi Akiva is of the opinion that this forbidden act refers to one who is mechashev itim - meditator on times, who determines what times are auspicious or inauspicious for particular undertakings. In a less direct fashion, Pesachim 113b quotes a statement from Rav Yosi Ish Hutzal who claims that the source for not consulting the Chaldeans is from Devarim 18:13 - "Tamim tihiyeh im Hashem elokecha" - "You should be perfect (Ran - complete) with the Lord your God."
For most of the Rishonim, the Talmudic concepts concerning astrology did not translate into a definitive prohibition, and in the context of the Neo-Platonic movement prevalent during their time period they were generally accepting of the fact that the stars did play a role in daily events (The Neo-Platonists believed in the idea of "emanations," that God's glory would "spill over" onto the celestial bodies, thus providing them with a certain degree of power).Ritva, in his commentary on Shabbat 156a, postulates that while it is prohibited to inquire of the Chaldeans concerning the stars, if they volunteer information their advice should be considered, as it often contains truth. Thus, a pious individual should engage in prayer, charity, and repentance if the stars forecast an evil fate for him. Taking the belief a step further, Ramban ad loc. claims that coordinating events with certain movements and positions of the stars is no different than any other action done as a simana tava, a good sign, and that it certainly does not fall under the category of darchei ha-Emori (the way of the Emorites, i.e. adopting practices of the non-Jews that are alien to Judaism). Ramban is of the opinion that the stars can have an effect on the lower world, although God will sometimes perform miracles for those who fear Him and thus spare them from the astrological decrees. However, he concludes that it is forbidden for one to rely on these miracles, and thus, as the Ritva stated, one should react appropriately to news of a fate foretold in the heavens. Finally, there is the view of the Ein Yaakov. He removes astrology from the purview of the prohibition of me'onein for two reasons. First, he claims that if it was subsumed under this biblical prohibition, there would be no room for an Amoraic argument about it. Second, since Pesachim 113b forbids it on the grounds of tamim tihiyeh, it suggests the fact that any prohibition here is not one of me'onein. He thus concludes that the stars do have power to control events, but since the giving of the Torah at Sinai Hashem has removed the Jewish people from under that control. The verse exhorting the Jews to be complete with Hashem is a command to perceive Him as the main source of power, despite that of the stars. Finally, he concurs with Ritva and Ramban saying that while it is forbidden to consult the stars or astrologers, one must follow their counsel if it is volunteered, as it contains truth.
Among philosophical works, there is a broad spectrum in terms of how concessions are made to the idea of astrology in light of a belief in God. Avraham Bar Chiya, a 10th-11th century Spanish astrologer, states in his Iggeret that the stars do have power to control general characteristics of people as well as general ideas of events, and that refraining from astrology is for the reason that one might come to worship the stars. He concludes that the Talmudic injunction against consulting Chaldeans is premised on the fact that by asking them to consult the stars, one may cause them to use a method of consultation that would be prohibited by Torah law. This answer seems to indicate that there is not a strong problem inherent in astrology, rather only a worry of abetting those who may misuse it. He further vindicates the position of astrology by referring to Shabbat 156a, and saying that it cannot possibly be said that anything that Abraham engaged in is forbidden, and thus it must have some degree of validity. He further claims that astrologically-based advice should be followed as closely as a doctor's medical advice, and concludes by highlighting its importance in Judaism as a fulfillment of the verse "Ki hi chachmatchem u'vinatchem l'einei ha'amim." - for it is your wisdom and your understanding before the nations (Devarim 4:6).
Ran assumes a similar approach, yet he arrives at a different conclusion. He too recognizes the power of the stars to control general traits and events, and concedes that their operations are part of nature - just as a fire warms, so do the heavenly bodies influence the world below. He answers the question of how belief in astrological influence allows for the concurrent belief in the concept of reward and punishment by claiming that the stars can only make an imprint on the physical bodies below, but not on the human spirit that ultimately retains the ability to choose between right and wrong. He resolves the argument over whether or not there is a mazal for the Jews by saying that there is no all-powerful heavenly influence over the Jews, as God can always intervene to change what is decreed in the stars. Ultimately, Ran is more concerned with the possibility of one's coming to worship the stars that he consults than Bar Chiya is, and thus he states that it is forbidden to engage in astrology.
Responding from more of a religious and less philosophical standpoint, Yehuda HaLevi, in his Kuzari, offers a new twist on the place of astrology in Judaism. He says that astrology may be believed if it can be fit into divine and Torah wisdom. In the end, any power in the cosmos flows from God, and it is in God alone that belief must be placed. A few paragraphs later, he mentions astrology, presumably as it was practiced in his time, as being one of the actions that was being intended to overturn the way of nature.
Not all Medieval Jewish philosophers were able to somehow fit astrology into their religious beliefs. Most notable and adamant in his opposition to the practice wasRambam. In both his Yad haChazakah (Hil. Avodah Zara 11:8-9) and his Sefer HaMitzvot (lo ta'aseh 32) he defines a me'onein as one who uses astrology to define which times are good and bad for certain actions. Unlike anyone else, he then proceeds to comment that anyone who practices astrology is held responsible and incurs the punishment of lashes, administered to one who has transgressed a negative commandment of the Torah. In his Moreh Nevuchim (3:37) he focuses on the idea that the Torah is concerned with the weeding out of all forms of idol worship so that no one should ever entertain the notion that any star has any real influence on the world below. Unlike Ramban, he concludes by saying that these practices do fall into the purview of darchei haEmori.
At the end of the era of the Rishonim, Don Issac Abravanel, a Spanish court Jew, summarized all aspects of the discussion over astrology in Judaism in his commentary on Deuteronomy 4:15. He first delves into the question of whether or not the stars have power over the Jewish people. In favor of the position that they do, he contended that the Jews are like all other human beings, that the stars are another functionary of nature and thus non-discriminatory, and that there were scriptural proofs to this end as well. Reversing the argument, he shows from the selectivity of the plagues in Egypt, from the fact that the Jews were spared, that there can be some higher form of intervention in events. He further contends that acknowledgment of the power of the stars would invalidate the concept of reward and punishment, and he again cites scriptural proofs, this time to show that the Jews are exempt from heavenly influences. Unable to reach a definite conclusion until this point, he finally creates a dialectic in astrology, postulating the notion of an astrology that influences individuals and a separate astrology that influences nations and cities. He claims that that of a nation can cancel out that of an individual, and that the Jews do not have the latter type of astral influence over them, as Hashem Himself is their "guardian angel." Abravanel further limits the power of astrological forces by saying that they cannot affect the fulfilling of a commandment, that they can only create potential for events to occur, and that prayer can negate a heavenly prediction.. He interprets the discussion in Shabbat 156a as not being over whether or not the Jews are subject to astrological forces, but rather being over whether or not prayer possesses the power to cancel out heavenly influences. He claims that Rabbi Chanina's statement that there is no mazal for the Jews is along the lines of his idea that the Jews are under no national astrological influence, as Hashem has taken them as His own. He concludes that the stars do have an effect on the Jews save for the possibility of divine intervention.
Finally there are the views of the poskim. TheTur quotes the opinion of Rambam that the me'onein referred to is indeed an astrologer. However, the Beit Yoseif counters that based on Shabbat 156b (the stories of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Nachman bar Yitzchak) it can be seen that it is permissible to listen to the astrologers, although Hashem will sometimes perform miracles for those who believe in Him. As did Ramban, the Beit Yoseif forbids one to rely on such miracles. Ramo says that the commandment to be complete with Hashem is the basis for not consulting astrologers, although he too states that they must be listened to. To conclude, the G"RA claims that consulting an astrologer, based on the formulation of Ramo, would not constitute a sin per se, but rather a failure to follow the biblical exhortation to be tamim, complete, with Hashem.
The debate over astrology has been more or less quiet since theShulchan Aruch. The Aruch HaShulchan completely omits the chapters dealing with astrology from his code, and very little has been written elsewhere about it. The reason is more or less a simple one: the "astrology" of today, as found in newspaper horoscopes and the like, is not the astrology that once existed. Belief in the power of the stars is no longer mainstream and thus there has been little need of late to deal with this issue as a contemporary problem.
Back toChabura-Net's Home Page