ASTROLOGY


ASTROLOGY, the study of the supposed influence of the stars on human events and the predictions based on this study.

Bible and Apocrypha

There is no explicit mention of astrology in the Bible, but two biblical passages dealing with the diviner (menaḥesh) and soothsayer (me'onen; Lev. 19:26; Deut. 18:10) were understood by the rabbis as bearing relation to astrology (Sanh. 65b–66a; cf. Maim. Yad, Avodah Zarah 11:8, 9). The prophets were aware of the practices of "star-gazers" (ḥoverei ha-shamayim) among the Babylonians and other peoples but they scoffed at them (Isa. 47:13; Jer. 10:2). In the book of Daniel the Babylonian astrologers are called kasdim (Chaldeans), and in Aramaic kasda'ei (2:2, 4, 5, 10; 4:14; 5:7, 11). The Sibylline Oracles (219–231) praise the Jewish people for refraining from astrology, which is a delusion. The Book of Jubilees (12:16–18) depicts the patriarch Abraham as overcoming the beliefs of the astrologers. The first Book of Enoch (8:3) includes astrology among the sins spread among mortals by the primeval giants (nefilim). Josephus, however, writes that astrology was common among the Jews in his days and that Jewish misinterpretation of celestial signs was partially responsible for the outbreak of the revolt against the Romans and its continuation for four years (Jos., Wars, 6:288ff.).

Talmud and the Midrash

In the Babylonian Talmud astrologers are known as kaldiyyim (Pes. 113b), Aramaic kalda'ei (Shab. 119a, 156b; Yev. 21b) – a term used by the Greeks, Romans, and Syrians. Iẓtagninin ("astrologers") and iẓtagninut ("astrology") were also common terms. In the Jerusalem Talmud and in Palestinian Midrashim astrologos and astrologiyya are the most frequent terms. The majority of the talmudic sages believed in the decisive role played by celestial bodies in determining human affairs in the sublunar world. On the one hand the patriarch Abraham and his descendants are spoken of as having been elevated beyond subjection to the stars (Gen. R. 44:12; Yal., Jer. 285), but on the other hand, the blessing bestowed on him in Genesis 24:1 is interpreted as the gift of astrology (Tosef., Kid. 5:17). Astrological consultation is one of the methods suggested by Jethro to Moses for governing the Children of Israel (Mekh., Amalek 2). Several instances are cited of astrologers whose predictions of future events came true (e.g., Shab. 119a). Gentile rulers were considered to have been especially well versed in astrology or to have consulted astrological experts; but knowledge of astrology was also attributed to King Solomon (Eccl. R. 7:23 no. 1). Nevertheless, the rabbis of the Talmud were skeptical of the astrologers' ability to interpret the stars correctly; they conceded the possibility that the astrologers might be able to predict the future by consulting the stars, but claimed that they err in understanding the contents of their forecasts. On the basis of the phrase in Isaiah 8:19, "the familiar spirits that chirp and mutter" (ha-meẓafẓefim ve-ha-mahgim), they developed the exegesis: "They gaze (ẓofin) and know not at what they gaze, they ponder (mehaggin) and know not what they ponder" (Sot. 12b). In several places in the Talmud it is stated that every man has a celestial body (mazzal), i.e., a particular star which is his patron from conception and birth (Shab. 53b; BK 2b) and which perceives things unknown to the man himself (Meg. 3a; Sanh. 94a). Two people born under the same star have a bodily and spiritual kinship (Ned. 39b; BM 30b). Not only human beings are influenced by the stars; but "there is not a blade of grass that has not its star in the heavens to strike it and say to it: grow!" Stars in certain constellations (the Pleiades, Orion, Ursa Major) were connected with the growth and ripening of fruits (Gen. R. 10:6).

As among most ancient peoples, eclipses were thought to be an evil portent, particularly for Jews, "because they are accustomed to calamities." According to another opinion, a solar eclipse was a bad omen for the Gentiles, a lunar eclipse for the Jews, since the Jews based their calendar on the moon, while the Gentiles based theirs on the sun (Suk. 29a).

Some held that there was a direct connection between the signs of the days of the week and the characters of those born on those days: a person born on Sunday would have one perfect attribute, either good or bad; a person born on Monday would be irascible, and so forth. According to another opinion, "it is not the sign of the day, but the sign of the hour, that determines." Thus, for example, he who was born under the rule of Venus would be rich and adulterous; he who was born under Saturn (Heb. Shabbetai) would have his plans annulled (maḥshevotav yishbotu); he who was born under Jupiter (Heb. Ẓedek) would be a righteous observer (ẓidkan) of the commandments (Shab. 156a).

A number of important tanna'im and amora'im, such as R. Akiva, R. Johanan, Mar Samuel, Rav Naḥman b. Isaac, were of the opinion that the power of the stars over ordinary mortals did not extend to the People of Israel. "R. Johanan said: there is no star (mazzal) for Israel" (Shab. 156a; cf. the statement by R. Samuel, 156b; also, Suk. 29a). R. Ḥanina b. Ḥama held the opposite opinion: "The stars make one wise, the stars make one rich, and there are stars for Israel" (ibid., 156a). The rabbis were divided as to whether a fully virtuous person could transform and abrogate the decrees of the astral configurations for himself. Mar Samuel, who was an astrologer as well as an astronomer, formulated several rules of health and agriculture on the basis of astrological principles (Shab. 129b; Er. 56a); it was his opinion that "righteousness delivers from death" (Prov. 10:2) as it is ordained by the stars (Shab. 129b). Such deliverances were said to have been granted to R. Akiva's daughter and to R. Naḥman b. Isaac and his mother. The contrary position was upheld by Rava: "Life, children, and sustenance – these things depend not on merit, but on the stars" (MK 28a); by way of illustration he cited the histories of several great men of learning and faith. Because of the warnings of the "Chaldeans," R. Joseph refused appointment as head of a yeshivah (Ber. 64a); but R. Yose of Huẓal decreed that "one must not consult the Chaldeans" (Pes. 113b); cf. Rashi and Samuel b. Meir ad loc.

In several places in the Talmud (MK 27a; Ned. 56a; Sanh. 20a), one of the customs mentioned is clearly a survival of an ancient astrological belief: an unslept-in bed, called "the bed of Gad" (arsa de-gadda), would be kept in the house as a good luck charm. The astrological character of this custom was forgotten and the noun gad, originally the name of a star, came to mean simply "luck," as was eventually the case with the term mazzal ("star of luck") itself.

Dark Ages

During the eighth to the tenth centuries several famous Jewish astrologers lived in Islamic lands and wrote books on astronomy and astrology. First among these both in chronology and importance was Māshāʾallāh; of his many astrological treatises only two in Hebrew translation from the Arabic remain: Sefer She'elot ("Book of Queries") and Sefer be-Kadrut ha-Levanah ve-ha-Shemesh ("Book on the Lunar and Solar Eclipse"). Both were found among the astrological manuscripts of Ibn Ezra, and accordingly, it has been conjectured that Ibn Ezra himself was their translator. Second to Māshāʾallāh in time and rank was Sahl ibn Bishr, who wrote many books on astrology, at least one of which was translated into Hebrew under the title Kelalim ("Principles"). Toward the end of the Middle Ages the Hebrew translations of both these astrologers were translated into Latin and printed. Ibn Ezra refers several times to the Persian Jewish astrologer Andruzgar b. Zadi Faruk (ninth century). The Jewish astrologer Abu Dāʾūd, who lived in Baghdad at the beginning of the tenth century, composed the Sefer Nevu'ot ("Book of Prophecies") which also appearedin Arabic. Several astrological treatises in Arabic composed in the ninth and 11th centuries, some anonymous, were translated into Hebrew, and some of them, apparently by Jewish translators, into Spanish. Hebrew translations of Arabic version of the astrological works of Ptolemy, the Tetrabiblos and Centiloquium, have also been preserved.

Middle Ages

Among medieval Jewish scholars and philosophers who were versed in astrology and considered it to be a true science were *Saadiah Gaon, whose Arabic commentary on the Sefer Yeẓirah contains astrological material; Shabbetai *Donnolo, also the author of a commentary (Ḥakhmoni or Taḥkemoni) on the Sefer Yeẓirah possessing special importance for the histories of astronomy and astrology, and of a commentary on the Baraita di-Shemu'el, a type of Midrash on astronomy, astrology, and the science of intercalation; Samuel b. Joseph ha-Nagid; Solomon ibn *Gabirol, whose Keter Malkhut includes a detailed account of the influence of each of the seven planets on the events of the sublunar world, and who, according to Ibn Ezra (end of his commentary on Daniel), "wished to show that the end of days was dependent on a 'conjunction' of the two superior stars"; and Abraham *Ibn Daud, whose book Emunah Ramah argues that the positions of the stars were set at Creation and predictions can be made on the basis of them.

ABRAHAM BAR HIYYA

Abraham b. Ḥiyya and Abraham *Ibn Ezra took a positive position toward astrology. The former even based decisions in practical affairs on astrological considerations. He also undertook to prove from the Talmud that the rabbis of that time in their use of astrology agreed in principle with the gentile sages about the role played by the stars, differing only in that "they say that the power of the stars and the constellations is not a perfect power … all being at the beck and call of God, who can at will set aside their rule and abrogate their decrees whenever He desires." The reason for prohibiting consultations with "Chaldeans" was that in talmudic times certain astrological techniques were compromised by idol worship. In his Megillat ha-Megalleh Abraham b. Ḥiyya predicted the date of the coming of the Messiah as 1358.

ABRAHAM IBN EZRA

Abraham ibn Ezra's reputation as a great student of astrology spread beyond Jewish circles. He believed that all beings in the sublunar world were influenced by the configurations of the stars and the zodiac, and that most men were entirely enslaved by the powers of the seven planets (Commentary on Ex. 23:28). Nonetheless, it is within the power of man to free himself of the dictates of the stars by perfecting himself spiritually. In his commentary on Deuteronomy 4:19 Ibn Ezra writes: "It is known from experience that every nation has its own star and constellation and similarly there is a constellation for every city; but God bestowed His greater favor on Israel by rendering them starless and Himself their adviser." In his commentaries on the Bible Ibn Ezra discusses astrological matters at length. To reconcile predestination by the stars and divine providence, he assigns an astrological significance to the two biblical names for God: Elohim refers to the Creator in His "natural" manifestations, revealed in conjunction with patterns of the stars, while the Tetragrammaton refers to the Creator as He is manifested miraculously, i.e., as "the pattern smasher." Ibn Ezra interpreted the word mishpat ("law") in the phrase ḥoshen ha-mishpat ("the breastplate of the Law" – Ex. 28:30) as an allusion to astrology (mishpetei ha-kokhavim), that is, to the prediction of events by means of contemplating the astral configurations. This accords with his opinion that the *Urim and Thummim of the high priest were an astrological instrument akin to the *astrolabe, and that by consulting them it was possible to read the future. Ibn Ezra composed a large number of astrological books; some of these were printed, but the majority are in manuscript. Most of these writings were translated into Latin at the close of the 13th century and were printed in 1507; several were also published in a French translation.

JUDAH HALEVI

Judah Halevi never took a definite stand concerning the value and reliability of astrology. He admitted (Kuzari 4:9) that the celestial bodies had an influence over terrestrial affairs, that terrestrial (sublunar) life was due to the changing constellations, and that all astrological sayings attributed to the rabbis of old were based on genuine traditions. At the same time, however, he rejected the astrologers' claim that it was possible to determine the exact influence of the stars on sublunar beings. Halevi complained that the Jewish people continued to be seduced by astrological charlatanry despite the biblical injunction to the contrary (ibid., 4:23).

HASDAI CRESCAS AND JOSEPH ALBO

Ḥasdai *Crescas' attitude toward astrology was also skeptical. Inquiring whether the movements of celestial bodies really exercised "leadership and governance over the events of human life," he came to the conclusion that while there is no clear evidence rebutting the assumptions of the astrologers, in view of human free will and divine providence it is nevertheless impossible to attribute an absolutely decisive character to "the dictates of the configurations" (Or Adonai 4:4). Crescas' pupil Joseph *Albo followed his approach. He launched a series of attacks against the beliefs of the astrologers based not only on dogmatic considerations but on empirical events as well: many times thousands of people had perished by plague, in war, or had been drowned at sea, yet it was unimaginable that the horoscope of each should have been responsible for his untimely death in the general disaster. Accordingly, Albo fell back upon the opinion of Abraham ibn Ezra that there are several factors capable of annulling the destinies of private individuals (Sefer Ikkarim 4:4).

MAIMONIDES

Among the Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages *Maimonides alone rejected astrology completely, referring to the astrologers' beliefs as vain superstitions unworthy to be called a science. Upon being asked by the rabbis of southern France whether it was possible to combine the theories of astrology with the principles of Judaism, Maimonides replied: "… This science, which is called the decree of the stars … is no science at all, but mere foolery … and it behooves us never to engage in it…. Those who composed treatises upon it… were the Chasdeans, the Chaldeans, the Canaanites, and the Egyptians … however, the wise men of Greece … scorned, mocked, and condemned these four nations… and compiled proofs to reject their notions completely…. I well know that you may seek and find in the Talmud and the Midrashim isolated sayings implying that the stars at the time of a man's birth will have a certain effect upon him… but this need not perplex you," inasmuch as "he is unworthy of pursuing knowledge … who would forsake it for the isolated saying of a rabbi of old who may perhaps have been mistaken…." Maimonides goes so far as to criticize the Jews of antiquity severely for their superstitious faith in astrology, as a result of which they brought upon themselves the destruction of the Temple and exile (Maimonides' epistle to *Jonathan b. David ha-Kohen of Lunel). He also ruled: "Who is a me'onen ["soothsayer"]? He who allots dates in the manner of the astrologers, who say … such-and-such a day … is good for performing such-and-such a task, such-and-such a year or month is bad for such-and-such… and even though he does nothing but tell lies, the foolish believe that his words are the truths of the wise. Thus, whosoever heeds the astrologers when he chooses to do something or go somewhere at a certain time, such a one should be punished by stripes, for it is written 'Ye shall not soothsay'" (Yad, Avodah Zarah 11:8–9). Similarly, in his commentary on the Mishnah he speaks of "the falsifying astrologers, who are wise and enlightened in their own eyes" (Sanh. 10 beginning).

Later Thinkers

Despite Maimonides' great prestige, his criticism of astrology had practically no influence on subsequent Jewish writers. With the exception of Joseph b. Judah ibn *Aknin and his enthusiastic admirer R. *Jedaiah ha-Penini (Bedersi), none of the Jewish philosophers of the succeeding generations opposed or deprecated astrology. Even the rationalistic *Levi b. Gershom maintained that the activities and events of a man's life were predestined by the positions and movements of celestial bodies. The astrologers fail, he asserted, first of all because of insufficient knowledge about the movements of the stars and the effects of their changed positions on sublunar beings, and secondly, because of the intervention of intellect and free will, "for the intellect and the will are empowered to carry us beyond the limitations imposed by the celestial bodies" (Milḥamot Adonai 2:2). Shem-Tov ibn *Falaquera also considered astrology a true science and made use of it. Many of the great rabbis, commentators, preachers, and ethical teachers dealt with astrology and were favorably disposed toward it; *Abraham b. David of Posquières, in his Hassagot, a commentary on Maimonides' Mishneh Torah; *Naḥmanides (Commentary on Gen. 1:16; Lev. 23:24, and passim) and his pupil Solomon b. Abraham *Adret (Responsa, no. 652); *Baḥya b. Asher (Commentary on Ex. 11:4; and passim); Isaac *Aboab (Menorat ha-Ma'or, 143; passim); Simeon b. Ẓemaḥ *Duran (Magen Avot, 72bff., and Tashbeẓ, no. 513); Isaac *Abrabanel, who cited many proofs "from the science of astronomy in regard to the celestial conjunctions" for his opinion that the redemption of Israel would begin in 1503 and come to completion in 1531 (Ma'yenei ha-Yeshu'ah, 12:2); Isaac *Arama (Akedat Yiẓḥak, 34, 56), though he disapproved of eschatological reckonings based on astrology; Moses b. Ḥayyim *Alshekh; *Judah Loew b. Bezalel (Maharal) of Prague, who is reputed to have practiced astrology in the company of his friend Tycho Brahe; David *Gans; Leone of *Modena; Joseph Solomon *Delmedigo of Candia, Jonathan *Eybeschuetz; and *Elijah, Gaon of Vilna (Commentary on Sefer Yeẓirah). A definitely negative attitude toward astrology was assumed by Azariah dei *Rossi (Me'or Einayim, 42, 43).

KABBALISTIC LITERATURE

The Sefer Yeẓirah contains several astrological passages concerning such topics as the relationship of the seven Hebrew consonants that take a dagesh to the seven planets and the seven days of the week, and the relationship of the 12 simple consonants to the 12 houses of the zodiac and the 12 months. In the Sefer Razi'el ha-Malakh ("Book of the Angel Raziel") the principle basis for a systematic astrology is found, for example: "How can the seers know what a man's life will be as soon as he is born? The ruling planet ascending in the East [at the hour of his birth] is his life's house. If the house of Saturn is in ascension, he will live to be 57, if it is the house of Jupiter, he will live 79 years, and so forth… Saturn presides over wealth, poverty, and the like… Jupiter presides over life, well-being, favorable circumstances, happiness, riches, honor, greatness, and royalty; Mars presides over blood, the sword, and the like… Venus presides over comeliness, grace, appetite… and the like."

The Zohar takes astrology for granted and in several places employs imagery and terminology that are clearly astrological (e.g., 3, Ki Teẓe, 281b. Raya Meheimna). It is stated explicitly: "All the stars and constellations in the heavens were appointed to be rulers and commandants over the world… there is not a single blade of grass in the entire world over which a star or a planet does not preside, and over that star one [angel] is appointed who serves in the presence of the Holy One Blessed Be He, each according to his merit" (2:171d; see Mishnat ha-Zohar, Tishbi-Lachower trans. vol. 1, 1957, 486). Astrological reasons for the commandments (mitzvot) are occasionally also given 3:251a–b, Raya Meheimna). On the whole, however, the Zohar's kabbalistic system deprives astrology and astrological beliefs of most of their relevance and importance. In Part 3 (Pinḥas, 216b, Raya Meheimna) it is stated that prior to the giving of the Torah all earthly creatures were dependent on the stars; after the revelation at Sinai, however, God exempted those children of Israel who studied and observed His Law from the rule of the stars, whereas the ignorant and the skeptical "were not absolved from the stars' jurisdictions." In the Tikkunei Zohar and other kabbalistic works the seven planets were linked with the seven days of the week and the seven nether spheres; the 12 houses of the zodiac were linked with the 12 months of the year, the 12 tribes of Israel, and the 12 permutations of the Tetragrammaton. According to the Sefer ha-Peli'ah, the higher powers descend on the seven planets from the divine name of 42 letters, each planet receiving the influx appropriate to it from six of the letters of that name.

Jewish Astrologers at the Courts of Christian Kings and Popes

Several Jewish astronomers and astrologers served in various royal capitals of Southern and Western Europe as court astrologers. Among them were Judah b. Moses ha-Kohen at the court of Alfonso X of Castile (1252–84); Jacob Alcorsono and Crescas de Vivers at the courts of Pedro IV (1336–87) and John I (1387–89) of Aragon; and Abraham *Zacuto (1450–1510), the author of the Sefer Yuḥasin, at the court of Manuel I of Portugal from 1494 until the expulsion of the Jews from Portugal in 1497. Jacob b. Emanuel Provinciale (Bonet de Lattes) served as physician and court astrologer to popes Alexander VI and Leo X. In his Prognosticum, dedicated to cardinals Valentiniani and Borgia, he expressed the opinion, based on the prophecies of Daniel and on a conjunction of Jupiter with Saturn in the house of Cancer due to take place on June 10, 1504, that the Messiah would appear in 1505.

Vestiges of Astrology in Jewish Folklore

In the Jewish religious literature of modern times there remain only vestiges of earlier astrological beliefs. On joyful occasions in individual and family life, Jews everywhere congratulate each other by saying mazzal tov ("good luck"). A successful person is popularly referred to as a bar-mazzal ("one of luck"), and a perennial failure is known as a ra-mazzal ("poor luck"; Yid., shlimazl; Aram., bish-gadda). It was customary in some parts to begin no new undertaking on Mondays or Wednesdays (Sh. Ar., YD 179:2, on the basis of the responsa of Naḥmanides, no. 242), since Mondays were ruled by the moon and nothing could be properly done on them, while Wednesdays were ruled by Mars, a hard patron. Another custom was to perform marriages only in the first half of the month while the moon was waxing (ibid.; Naḥmanides, responsum no. 282). R. Mordecai Jaffe explains the custom of fasting on the anniversary of a parent's death (Isserles to Sh. Ar., YD 402:12) as deriving from the belief that on that day the luck of the child is vulnerable. Until recently it was the custom in certain localities to prepare a bed (or table; see Isserles, ibid., 65:11) in a mother's room on the eve of her son's circumcision so that the child should enjoy good luck (ibid., 178:3).

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Ginzberg, Legends, index; R. Levy, Astrological Works of A. Ibn Ezra (1927); A. Ibn Ezra, Beginning of Wisdom, ed. by R. Levy and F. Cantera (1939); S. Sachs, Ha-Yonah, Keneset Yisrael (1851), 59ff.; S. Rubin, Ma'aseh Ta'tu'im (1887), 39ff.; Guttmann, Philosophies, 246 70; Steinschneider, Uebersetzungen, 186, 501ff.; Rosin, in: MGWJ, 42 (1898), 247ff.; Poznański, ibid., 49 (1905), 45ff.; Marx, in; HUCA, 3 (1926), 311–42.

[Alexander Altmann]


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.