We commemorated the planet Venus transit yesterday with a walk near our home at the near-by historic David Rittenhouse Estate. Rittenhouse,observed this rare transit in 1768, and then calculated the distance from Earth to the Sun.During our walk, my Hubbatzin * Barry asked me if Judaism has much to say about the sun and planets, as many ancient traditions do. I told since you know the phrase "mazel tov," you know the beginning of the answer….
While most Jews mean the phrase colloquially these days, as in "congratulations," or may you have "good luck." Some still intend to bless with the original intent of mazel. Mazel actually means constellation, as in, "may the alignment of the heavenly bodies" be auspicious for this good thing that you are celebrating. We get even more specific upon hearing someone is pregnant, we bless instead of with mazel tov, rather with b'sha-ah tova, may the hour [of birth] be good, i.e., astrologically auspicious for a good outcome for both mother and child, in the birthing and as the child's life unfolds. The sages don't have the perspective of the ancient Greeks or Romans; there are no gods in the stars, just God-created effects of celestial conjunctions throughout eternity.
As moderns, we are learning more about all this, e.g., the influence of sun flares upon all sorts of things, the pull of the moon on tides in oceans and our bodily fluids, etc. Some of the work on the affect of the heavenly bodies provided to us by the sages will turn out to be bubbe meisehs (Yiddish metaphor for "urban legends") and some will prove to be useful clues. I say this also keeping in mind how researchers follow Native American practices and legends about herbs and roots to find potential medications.
Talmudic and subsequent sages are all over the place on the topic of Judaism and astrology – some clearly pro, others strongly against. In the "pro" category we find the festival Kiddush (holiness) blessings and the Shehecheyanu blessing "laz'man hazeh" invoke and invite our connection to the celestial auspiciousness of the timing of festivals within the lunar calendar. Pesach, for example, is z'man heyruteynu mikraei kodesh – "a conjunction of the heavens [i.e., a z'man, time when] we are free, holinesses happen…Each "holiday," chag, is set within the Jewish lunar calendar for a time auspicious for increased awareness. Z'man simchateynu for Sukkot, "time of our rejoicing/happiness…etc."
There's a tremendous amount of material in Judaism about the influence of lunar months, as well: "One who enters Adar becomes increasingly joyous. [Talmud, Taanit 29a-b] Rav Papa taught the mazel of Adar bodes ill for those planning to launch a lawsuit [Ibid, Shabbat 156a.] Birthdays are viewed as a person's most auspicious time for reflection and action. [Talmud, Rosh HaShannah 3:8]
The Ritva, the Rav Yom Tov ibn Avraham Asevilli (Seville, 1250-1300) understood mazal as a generic term for a decree built into the essence of creation. The sages of the Talmud describe the Jewish people as collectively unaffected by mazal – ein mazal l'yisrael [Talmud Shabbat 156b]. But for individuals, Rab Yom Tov is suggesting we are subject to mazal. One might say he proposes them as growth opportunities, as we are empowered to subvert the decrees through the performance of mitzvot, good deeds [Taanit 29a].
Perspectives on Jewish topics often change with time. So let's scroll ahead in time to the Ba'al Shem Tov, who doesn't read this verse as ein mazal l'Yisrael, but rather as aiyin mazal l'Yisrael. Ein meaning "is not", and aiyin, meaning "nothingness." Some see this as him drawing upon a teaching of the Ari, from a tract known as the Eitz Chayyim (Tree of Life). The Ari reported levels beyond the twelve constellations (signs) of astrology and points us for our "nothingness" to the sublime experience of Havayah – pure undifferentiated being - the top level of the twelve possible permutations of the YHVH, four letters of God's most holy name in our tradition. The Yud Hey Vav Hey, the tetragrammaton, is made up of the letters for all the forms of the verb "to be" – is was will be. We are created b'tzelem, in the image of our God-sense, meaning unlimited in our potential, ever-evolving, free of embedded decrees. How cool is that!
In closing, and in memory of David Rittenhouse and Ray Bradbury, the exceptional science fiction writer, may we be blessed to keep looking to the stars with our imagination and when we settle upon the heavenly bodies one day. There too, may we be blessed to cultivate the unimaginable and unlimited possibilities for the good. May we never forget to live through the lens of mitzvah!
with care, R'Goldie
*Rebbetzin is Yiddish for the wife of a rabbi. So Hubbatzin is the word I made up decades ago to mean the husband of a rabbi.