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It was stated: R. Chanina says: A constellation makes one wise, a constellation makes one wealthy, and there is a constellation for the Jewish people. R. Yochanan said: There is no constellation for the Jewish people. R. Yochanan reasoned: Whence [do we know] there is no constellation for the Jewish people? As it is stated, Thus said Adonai: Do not learn to go the way of the nations and do not be dismayed by portents in the sky; let the nations be dismayed by them! (Jeremiah 10:2) The nations will be dismayed, but not the Jewish people. And Rav also holds there is no constellation for the Jewish people, as Rav Yehudah said that Rav said: Whence [do we know] there is no constellation for the Jewish people? As it is stated, [God] took [Abraham] outside [and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars if you are able to count them. And [God] added, “So shall your offspring be.”] (Genesis 15:5) Abraham said to the Holy Blessed One, “Master of the universe, [since You have granted me no offspring,] my steward [Eliezer] will be my heir (Genesis 15:3).” [God] said to [Abraham], “No. None but your very own issue shall be your heir (Genesis 15:4).” [Abraham] said before [God], “Master of the universe, I looked into my astrological map and I am not fit to have a son.” [God] said to him, “Emerge from your astrology because there is no constellation for Israel. Are you thinking that because Tzedek (Jupiter) is in the west? I will restore and establish it in the east.” Thus it is written, Who has roused a victor from the East, and will call justice to his steps, [has delivered up nations to him, and trodden sovereigns down? Has rendered their swords like dust, their bows like wind-blown straw?] (Isaiah 41:2).
(BT Shabbat 156a,b)
In ancient times, the movement of constellations across the night sky was foundational to the development of calendrical systems, but also presumed to have influence far beyond. The Persian culture of Babylonia in which the Rabbis were immersed considered astrology a serious science, key to predicting the future and discerning the meaning of events in the terrestrial world. Just as individuals were born “under a constellation,” so each nation was presumed to be influenced by its own constellation. One who knew how to interpret its movement might be able to discern the future.
The Rabbis, like all of us, wanted to know what the future holds and why things unfold as they do. Are events the result of inevitable fate? Do the stars determine Israel’s destiny, or an individual’s destiny, as the people around them believed? Here and elsewhere in the Talmud, the Sages debate the truth and efficacy of astrology.
R. Chanina asserts that an individual’s constellation determines whether they will be wise and affluent. The implication of R. Chanina’s claim is that if constellations determine one’s attributes and future, virtue and righteous deeds influence neither. Of equal import, if Israel has its own constellation, and that constellation determines its destiny, God is left out of the equation. This amounts to predetermination without God.
R. Yochanan and Rav categorically reject R. Chanina’s assertion that astrology determines Israel’s destiny. Citing Jeremiah 10:2, R. Yochanan declares that the stars (“portents of the sky”) might influence the destinies of other nations, but not those of individual Jews or the people Israel. Only God does. As further proof, Rav cites God’s covenantal promise to Abraham in Genesis 15:5. As Abraham gazes at the constellations in the night sky, God asserts divine dominion and the power to determine Abraham’s future. In Rav’s midrashic explication of the verse, a conversation ensues in which Abraham expresses a measure of doubt, pointing out that God promised Abraham progeny yet he remains childless, with only his steward, Eliezer to inherit from him. Abraham, presuming that constellations determine destiny, tells God he has consulted his astrological map and concluded from it that he is unworthy to have a child. God pointedly instructs Abraham and thereby all Jews to come, “Emerge from your astrology,” i.e., “Forget astrology.” In Rav’s midrashic expansion of Genesis 15:5, God tells Abraham: You can look at the stars, but they mean only what I tell you they mean—that your progeny will be exceedingly numerous. You cannot decipher your future from them because it is I who determines what will be. In Rav’s telling, God continues: Do you think this is because Jupiter (called “Tzedek” at this time) appears in the western sky rather than the east? No problem, I’ll move it to the east. I control the movement of the heavenly bodies you believe determine destiny. I am the sole sovereign of the universe. The stars are My servants; they possess no independent power.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- The Rabbis’ ambivalence concerning astrology is mirrored in the contrast between R. Chanina’s claim here with the opinion ascribed to him in BT Berakhot 33b: "R. Chanina said: Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven." What do you believe God’s role is in future events? Do people possess free will? Is there a contradiction between free will and God’s intervention in human affairs? What is the meaning of personal moral responsibility and adherence to mitzvot if constellations control destiny? if all is under God’s control? Is there a parallel between the claim of astrology and notions of biological determination we see today?
- Although the implications of astrology would seem clearly at odds with most contemporary Jewish beliefs and values, the Rabbis had difficulty unequivocally rejecting what the dominant culture “knew” and accepted as truth. What ideas widely accepted by the dominant culture today do you think are at odds with Judaism or which you, yourself, reject? Does this present a difficulty for you? If so, how?
- If it were possible to know your personal future, would you want that knowledge? Why or why not? Would it help or hinder you?