From [what happened to] Shmuel, [we can conclude] there is also no constellation for Israel (i.e., the Jewish people). Shmuel and Avlet were sitting together and [saw] some people going to a lake. Avlet said to Shmuel, “This person will go but he will not return. A snake will bite him and he will die.” Shmuel said to him, “If he is a Jew, he will go and return.” While they were sitting, [the person under discussion] went and returned. Avlet arose and threw down [the man’s] pack, and found within a snake severed in two. Shmuel said to [the man], “What did you do?” He said to [Shmuel], “Every day we all take bread and eat [together]. Today, one of us did not have bread. He was embarrassed. I said to [the others], ‘I will go and collect [bread from everyone].’ When I came to him, I made it appear as if I were taking [bread] from him so he would not be embarrassed.” [Shmuel] said to him, “You performed a mitzvah.” Shmuel went and taught: Charity will save from death (Proverbs 10:2; also 11:4)—not only from an unusual death, but from death itself. (BT Shabbat 156b)
TMT 147 featured a disagreement between R. Chanina, and R. Yochanan and Rav concerning astrology. Astrology was a serious science in Babylonia during the period of the Talmud. Some rabbis, including R. Chanina, claimed stars had the power to determine one’s destiny and the ability of the astrologer to decipher it. R. Yochanan and Rav allowed this may be true for Gentiles, but categorically rejected the notion that constellations determine the destiny of Jews, individually or as a nation. Legitimizing astrology suggests that God is not wholly in charge, or that God outsources a vitally important matter to elements of creation. R. Yochanan and Rav drew their proofs from scriptural verses. Talmud then offers a proof based on an event witnessed by Shmuel, the scholar and astronomer who headed the academy in Nehardea in Babylonia. The Rabbis tell a story that places a Jewish astronomer who rejects astrology together with a Gentile astrologer to show the illegitimacy of astrology.
The sage Shmuel is sitting with a Gentile named Avlet. We know little about Avlet, but given the situation and conversation, it is reasonable to surmise that a shared fascination with the stars brings them together in conversation. Shmuel is an astronomer. Avlet is an astrologer. As they sit together, they see a group of people heading out for a hike to a lake. Avlet, who claims to be able to decipher people’s destinies by the alignment of the stars, informs Shmuel that one particular member of the party (let’s call him Reuven) will be bitten by a poisonous snake during the hike. As a result, Avlet says, Reuven will die and not return with the rest of his companions. Shmuel, who rejects the validity of astrology in the lives of Jews, accordingly rejects Avlet’s prediction. He responds that if Reuven is a Jew, Avlet’s prediction will come to naught and Reuven will return safely. And indeed, Reuven returns very much alive, proving Avlet wrong and Shmuel right. (This is either a very long conversation, or one that occurs in installments, because the hiker returns several days later.)
But couldn’t Shmuel be correct and Reuven not die from some other cause? It’s one thing to predict Reuven’s from a poisonous snake bite, but quite another to claim he will return alive. All confident predictions of events we would consider otherwise unforeseeable (like a snake bite) presume predestination. On what can such a prediction be based?
Surprised to see Reuven return alive, Avlet rises, takes hold of Reuven’s backpack, and examines its contents. He finds inside a dead snake cut through—the very snake Avlet had predicted would kill the hiker. Shmuel asks Reuven what he did, the implication being that he must have done something so meritorious that God intervened and protected him from the poisonous snake—proving that constellations do not determine destiny because a person can influence their future by performing mitzvot. Reuven explains that each day he and his comrades pooled and shared their food supplies. On the last day of their outing, one person had nothing left to contribute and therefore would feel embarrassed. To prevent his embarrassment, Reuven took it on himself to make the food collection. He make it appear to everyone that the person without bread had, in fact, contributed to the food collection, thereby performing the mitzvah of saving the man from public embarrassment. This act of charity, Shmuel concludes, is what determined his fate. Quoting Proverbs 10:2, Shmuel extends the scope of his claim: Not only do the stars not determine or predict our future, and not only can acts of charity protect one from an unusual death (e.g., the snake crawling into Reuven’s backpack) but all the more so, charity can protect the giver from death in general.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- Why do you think some people would choose to believe that personality traits or one’s future are determined by astrological signs?
- What do you think Shmuel means by "not only from an unusual death, but from death itself?” On the basis of “Charity saves from death,” some Jews carry tzedakah onboard an airplane to disburse in Israel, believing God will protect them while engaged in an act of tzedakah. Do you agree with this interpretation-application of Shmuel’s teaching? Or does this make tzedakah a talisman?
- Mo’ed Katan 28a (below) seems to contradict the claims here and in TMT 147 that constellations have no bearing on destiny. How do you understand this passage? Can you reconcile the two?
Rava said: Lifespan, children, and income are not contingent on merit; rather, they depend on mazel (“constellation”). Consider two righteous rabbis: Rabbah and Rav Chisda. When one would pray, rain would fall, and when the other would pray, rain would fall. Rav Chisda lived 92 years; Rabbah lived 40 years. The house of Rav Chisda [celebrated] 60 wedding feasts; the house of Rabbah [experienced] 60 calamities. (Mo’ed Katan 28a)