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Monday, November 18, 2019

#148: Destiny or Mitzvot? (Part 2) — Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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.

  1. Why do you think some people would choose to believe that personality traits or one’s future are determined by astrological signs?
  2. 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?
  3. 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)

Monday, November 4, 2019

#147: It’s All in the Stars (part 1) — Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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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.

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. If it were possible to know your personal future, would you want that knowledge? Why or why not? Would it help or hinder you?