Jewish views on astrology
In Hebrew, astrology was called hokmat ha-nissayon, "the wisdom of prognostication", in distinction to hokmat ha-hizzayon (wisdom of star-seeing, or astronomy). While not a Jewish practice or teaching as such, astrology made its way into the Jewish community, and became especially predominant in some books of Kabbalah.
In the Bible
"You shall not practice divination or soothsaying." (Leviticus 19:26)
"When you enter the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of the nations. Let no one be found among you who...is an auger, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one casts spells.....For anyone who does these things is abhorrent to the LORD..." (Deuteronomy 18:9-12)
These commandments are understood by some rabbinic authorities as forbidding astrology, while others limit these mitzvot to other forms of soothsaying, and thus view astrology as permissible.
"And Elohim said, Let there be lights in the raki’a of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for otot (signs), and for mo’adim (seasons), and for yamim (days), and shanim (years)" (Genesis 1:14)
The Hebrew word Mazarot, which literally means "constellations" or "zodiac", is used twice in the Hebrew Bible. Specific constellations are also mentioned, such as Orion (named "Kesil" "כסיל", literally: "fool"; possibly etymologically connected with "Kislev", the name for the ninth month of the Hebrew calendar (i.e. November–December), which, in turn, may derive from the Hebrew root K-S-L as in the words "kesel, kisla" (כֵּסֶל, כִּסְלָה, hope, positiveness), that is, hope for winter rains), which is mentioned three times: Job 9:9 ("He is the maker of the Bear and Orion"), Job 38:31 ("Can you loosen Orion's belt?"), and Amos 5:8 ("He who made the Pleiades and Orion").
In the Hebrew Bible the prophets scoffed at "star-gazers" (hoverei ha-shamayim) in Isaiah 47:13 and Jeremiah 10:2. Astrologers from Babylon were called Kasdim/Kasdin (Chaldeans) in the Book of Daniel. In rabbinic literature, the term Chaldeans later was often used as a synonym with those who practiced astrology.
Some historians hold that astrology slowly made its way into the Jewish community through syncretism with ancient Hellenistic culture. The Sibylline oracles praise the Jewish nation because it "does not meditate on the prophecies of the fortune-tellers, magicians, and conjurers, nor practice Astrology, nor seek the oracles of the Chaldeans in the stars" (iii. 227); although the author of the Encyclopaedia Judaica article on astrology holds that this view is mistaken.
In the Apocrypha
In early classical rabbinic works written in the land of Israel (Jerusalem Talmud and Palestinian midrash compilations) astrologers are known as astrologos and astrologiyya. In early classical rabbinic works written in Babylon, astrologers were called kaldiyyim, kalda'ei, and iztagninin.
The Babylonian Talmud (BT), in Shabbath 156a, records rabbinic mention of character traits associated with one's having been born on specific days of the week. This wink to superstition did not extend to astrology, however, as R. Johanan, the Palestinian amora, is reported to have said "there is no mazal (literally "star") for Israel, but only for the nations [which recognize the validity of astrology.]" This opinion was shared by Rav (BT Shabbat 156a). Moreover, whereas BT Sanhedrin 65 merely suggests that individual Jews may not consult an astrologer, tractate BT Pesachim 113b clearly states that Jews may not consult astrologers.
Samuel of Babylonia (circa 250 CE) is the only sage in the Talmud who seriously studied astrology, yet he held that it was not compatible with Judaism. Quoting Deuteronomy 30:12, "The Law is not in the Heavens", he is reputed to have taught that "Torah can not go together with the art that studies the heavens" (Midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah 8:6).
A similar remark is made by the Babylonian sage Jose of Hu?al: "We are not permitted to appeal to the Chaldeans, for it is written (Deut. 18:13), 'You shall be perfect with the Lord your God'" (BT Pesachim 113b).
Rabbi Maimonides's mitzvot say that superstitions should not be trusted.
However, other statements in the Talmud and in the midrash literature show that many Jews had some level of admiration for astrology.
Some hold that the stars generally do control the fate of people and nations, but Abraham and his descendants were elevated by their covenant with God, and thus achieve an elevated level of free will. (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 44:12, Yal., Jer. 285). A statement in the Tosefta (Kiddushin 5:17) holds that the blessing bestowed on Abraham is the gift of astrology. Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah states that the rulers of some non-Jewish nations were experts in astrology, and that King Solomon too had expertise in this realm. (7:23 no. 1)
There is a story in the Talmud according to which God showed to Adam all the future generations, including their scribes, scholars, and leaders (BT Avodah Zarah 5a). According to this source, the biblical Patriarch Abraham bore upon his breast an astrological tablet on which the fate of every man might be read. Thus, kings are said to have congregated before his door in order to seek advice.
An announcement is found to the effect that it is dangerous to drink water on Wednesday and Friday evenings (Pesachim 112a). Samuel, a physician and astrologer, taught that it was dangerous to bleed a patient on Monday, Tuesday, or Thursday, because on the last-mentioned day Mars reigns at the even-numbered hours of the day, when demons have their play. The new moon was likewise regarded as an unfavorable season for bleeding, as were also the third of the month and the day preceding a festival (BT Shabbat 129b).
Qualified acceptance; partial skepticism
However, contrary stories are related. It is said that Abraham predicted in these astrological tablets that he would have no second son, but God said unto him, "Away with your astrology; for Israel there is no mazal ("luck", literally "planet" or "constellation")!" The birth of his second son, the patriarch Isaac, then gives lie to the idea that astrology is valid. (BT Shabbat 156a). Midrash Genesis Rabbah states that Abraham was not an astrologer, but rather a prophet, inasmuch as only those beneath the stars could be subject to their influence; but that Abraham was above them (Genesis Rabbah xliv. 12).
In general, many people quoted in the Talmud believed that in theory astrology had merit as some kind of science, but they were skeptical that astrological signs could be interpreted correctly or in a practical fashion. Commenting on astrologers in Sotah 12b, the Talmud says of them that "They gaze and know not at what they gaze at, they ponder and know not what they ponder."
The most popular form of astrological belief was the selection of propitious days. According to this idea, certain periods of time are regarded as lucky or unlucky. Rabbi Akiba contends against the belief that the year before the jubilee is exceptionally blessed. The belief is also condemned that no business should be begun on the new moon, on Friday, or on Sabbath evening (Sifre, Deut. 171; Sifra, Kedoshim, vi.; Sanh. 65).
Hebrew calendar correlation to zodiac
- Aries - Ṭaleh - Nisan
- Taurus - Shor - Iyar
- Gemini - Teomim - Sivan
- Cancer - Sarṭon - Tammuz
- Leo - Ari - Av
- Virgo - Betulah - Elul
- Libra - Moznayim - Tishrei
- Scorpio - 'Aḳrab - Cheshvan
- Sagittarius - Ḳasshat - Kislev
- Capricorn - Gedi - Tevet
- Aquarius - D'li - Shevat
- Pisces - Dagim - Adar
In should be noted that the 12 lunar months of the Hebrew Calendar are just that: based on the 12 lunar months of 29.53 days each and the lunar year of 354 days. To ensure that the holiday of Passover falls in the spring, a leap month is added 7 times in the 19-year calendar cycle. The calendar originally alternated between 29-day months and 30-day months based on witness testimony before the Sanhedrin, and the leap month added when deemed necessary. Subsequently, with the end of the Sanhedrin, the modern Hebrew calendar was adopted based on mathematical calculation.
For astrological purposes therefore, the months continue to match approximately with the assigned constellations (in contrast to a purely lunar calendar, which would shift association of the relevant Hebrew month with the dominant astrological Sun sign). The season aspect of the signs corresponds with the seasons in Israel. Thus, the water signs fall in the winter months which mark the rainy season. When a leap month is required, it is always the month of Adar (the traditional end of the rain season), thus perpetuating the influence of Pisces for one additional month.
In the medieval era
Many rabbis in the Geonic era (after the close of the Talmud, early medieval period) discussed the varying Talmudic and midrashic views on astrology. One responsa takes a middle view: Otzar HaGeonim 113, concludes that astrology has some reality, in that the stars give a person certain inclinations; however each person has the ability to overcome their own inclinations, and thus maintains free will.
Astrology was practised by some Jews throughout the Middle Ages, both as a professional art and as a science. Coming from the East, Jews were sometimes looked upon as heirs and successors of the Chaldeans. For this reason Jews sometimes were regarded by the Occidental world as masters of Astrology. Their supposed power over destiny on occasion filled the multitudes with awe and fear (Jassuda Bédarride, Les Juifs en France, pp. 49, 454, note 21; Jacques Basnage, Histoire des Juifs, iv. 1212; P. Cassel, Juden, in Ersch and Gruber's "Encyc." pp. 16, 17; 52, note 78; 67, notes 50 and 51; 115, 171, 224).
Abraham ibn Ezra was a follower of astrology, which he calls "a sublime science." Besides translating another Jewish philosopher Mashallah's astrological work Questions and another work of this author on the eclipse of the moon from the Arabic into Hebrew, he wrote Nativity, Sentences of the Constellations, Reshit Hokhmah (Beginning of Wisdom), Book of the World, a treatise on the Planets, a treatise on the Luminaries, and a horoscope. He often refers to astrology in his Bible commentaries. To him heaven with its constellations is "the book of life," in which man's destiny is written, and against which there is recourse to God as "the Almighty," who overrules all these influences. These remarks may be found in his commentary to Psalms 69:29, Genesis 17:9, and to Exodus 6:3, 33:21. In the book Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra: Studies in the Writings of a Twelfth-Century Jewish Polymath (Harvard, 1993, ISBN 0-674-74554-X), the author of a chapter dealing with Ibn Ezra's astrological views ("Some Astrological Themes in the Thought of Abraham Ibn Ezra") states that: "The gist of the Jewish attitude toward astrology as formulated by Ibn Ezra has usually been understood—in general, correctly—as follows. The deity has delegated to the stars the governance of the sublunar world. Israel [Jews], however, enjoys a special status, which is manifest most decisively in its possession of the Torah. As long as a Jew is engaged in the study and observance of the Torah, he is linked to a spiritual realm which is itself superior to the stars. In this way a Jew may liberate himself from the decrees of the stars" (p. 49).
Rabbi Abraham ben David of Posquières, in his critical notes to Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, Teshuvah, 5:5, asserts the influence of the stars upon destiny, while also contending that by faith in God man may overcome this influence.
Gersonides believed that astrology was real, and developed a naturalistic, non-supernatural explanation of how it works. In Philosophies of Judaism, Julius Guttmann explains that for Gersonides, astrology was:
founded on the metaphysical doctrine of the dependence of all earthly occurrences upon the heavenly world. The general connection imparted to the prophet by the active intellect is the general order of the astrological constellation. The constellation under which a man is born determines his nature and fate, and constellations as well determine the life span of nations....The active intellect knows the astrological order, from the most general form of the constellations to their last specification, which in turn contains all of the conditions of occurrence of a particular event. Thus, when a prophet deals with the destiny of a particular person or human group, he receives from the active intellect a knowledge of the order of the constellations, and with sufficient precision to enable him to predict its fate in full detail..... This astrological determinism has only one limitation. The free will of man could shatter the course of action ordained for him by the stars; prophecy could therefore predict the future on the basis of astrological determination only insofar as the free will of man does not break through the determined course of things.
Gersonides believed astrology to be a science that predicts events according to set laws of nature (albeit, a different set than the ones we are used to.) He also believed that a person who has perfected his thinking could interact with the laws of nature through the active intellect. Gersonides thus thought of himself as creating a rationalist and non-supernatural theology. In this sense, there is a similarity between Gersonides and Maimonides.
Nahmanides wrote a responsum stating that while one may not ask an astrologer for a prediction, astrology itself is real. He states rules that one must ultimately trust in God, and not in any lesser force. As such, he concludes that one is forbidden to ask an astrologer for a prediction, but one may act on the words of an astrologer if advice is freely given. Ultimately he holds that while the stars give a person certain inclinations, people have the ability to overcome their own inclinations, and thus maintains free will.
Maimonides answered an inquiry concerning astrology, addressed to him from Marseilles. He responded that man should believe only what can be supported either by rational proof, by the evidence of the senses, or by trustworthy authority. He affirms that he has studied astrology and that it does not deserve to be described as a science. The supposition that the fate of a man could be dependent upon the constellations is ridiculed by him; he argues that such a theory would rob life of purpose and would make man a slave of destiny.
Isaac ben Joseph ibn Pulgar (14th century, Spain) was a Jewish philosopher who wrote Ezer ha-Dat ("Support of Faith"), and wrote against the validity of astrology.
In the Tur, an early code of Jewish law, the author brings forth the views of Nahmanides and Maimonides, and concurs with Nahmanides (Yoreh Deah 179). A later code of Jewish law, the Shulkhan Arukh avoids contention by stressing the common point: One may not consult an astrologer; the act is forbidden. Whether or not its author, Yosef Karo, thought that astrology might have some basis in fact is not mentioned in this work (Yoreh Deah 179:1).
Moshe Chaim Luzzatto
In Derekh Hashem Section II, chapter 7, Moshe Chaim Luzzatto discusses the influence of stars on humanity and events on earth. There he gives two reasons for the existence of stars and planets. The first is that stars and planets maintain the existence of all physical things on earth, acting as the means by which spiritual forces are transmitted to physical entities. The second is that events on earth are also initiated through planetary and stellar activity. Luzzatto states that each earthly phenomenon is assigned to a specific star, which controls it. Quoting the Talmudic dictum in Sanhedrin 156a – "for Israel, there is no mazal ("luck", literally "planet" or "constellation")", he also states that higher powers (i.e. God or angels) may overcome the influences of this system, and that they typically do so for Jews.
Luzzatto notes that the laws and rules governing this system of astrological influence are extremely complex, and not easily ascertainable through direct observation; thus astrologers are rarely able to predict the future accurately or clearly. The accuracy of their predictions is further reduced by the aforementioned propensity of Divine providence to intervene and override the system. This, Luzzatto states, explains the use of the word me'asher ("something") in Isaiah 47:13 ("Now let the astrologers, stargazers and fortunetellers stand up and tell you something about what will come upon you"); in Luzzatto's view, this means they can tell you something about the future, but not everything.
Views in the modern era
Strictures against astrology appear in the official Torah commentary of Conservative Judaism and on the official website of Reform Judaism, and a number of Conservative and Reform rabbis have written against the practice. Meanwhile, the traditionalist stance of Orthodoxy and Modern Orthodoxy maintain the guideline established in Karo's Shulchan Aruch.
Commenting on Deuteronomy 18:9-12, Etz Hayim, the official Torah commentary of Conservative Judaism writes "Hence the use of astrology is prohibited (BT Pesachim 113b)." Similarly, Simchah Roth, a Conservative rabbi comments negatively on astrology in his "Halakhah Study Group" session. (Halakhah Study Group, Nov. 18 2003, Bet Midrash Virtuali)
Conservative Rabbi Aaron Kriegel writes:
"However, astrology is by and large nothing more than magic. The Torah is very clear that we are to steer clear of magicians and practitioners of "witchcraft." I'm not talking about the David Copperfield type of entertainment; I'm referring to those who believe that their predictions or tricks can have a real influence on the world, and by implication, can force God to give them what they want. The idea that if only we could say the right words or take the right actions, God will give us anything we want is nearly idolatrous. It turns God into nothing more than a tool for us to use when we want something, rather than the majestic creator of the world."
On the Union for Reform Judaism website Jeffrey K. Salkin derides astrology as "a new-age trap":
"If you visit a Barnes and Noble superstore, you will see what much of American religion has become. There are three bookcases for Judaism; three bookcases for general religion and Christianity; three for general inspiration; two each for Bible, eastern philosophy, and myth; and nine bookcases for New Age. The New Age menu is diverse, including spiritualism, astrology, and psychic phenomena; alchemy, tarot, goddess worship, and Wicca (witchcraft); out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, and reincarnation: angels, Satanism, and the occult..."
"The Torah tells us in Deuteronomy 18:9, that when the Jewish people enter the land of Israel, they must not follow the abominable practices of the nations that reside there. It is strictly prohibited to cause a son or a daughter to pass through the fire, to practice divination, astrology, or to visit one who reads omens....to follow these practices is an abomination in G-d's eyes.
It is quite extraordinary that Maimonides...virtually alone in the Middle Ages, rejected belief in astrology. In a letter to the rabbis of Southern France he distinguishes between astronomy as a true science and astrology which he deems to be sheer superstition. Many hundreds of years passed until the Western world came to the same conclusion. Maimonides boldly declares that in Judaism a person's fate is determined by G-d alone, not by the stars."
The Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom (Orthodox) Jonathan Sacks, writes:
"Wrestling with men: since the days of Abraham, to be a Jew is to be an iconoclast. We challenge the idols of the age, whatever the idols, whatever the age. Sometimes it meant wrestling with idolatry, superstition, paganism, magic, astrology, primitive beliefs."
In contrast, Modern Orthodox Rabbi Nachum Amsel writes:
"It seems that most of the authorities believe that astrology has some sort of power, but there is a fine line between believing in this and believing in power other than God, which is not the Jewish view. Thus, one cannot give credence to any power except God nor use astrology on a regular basis to guide one's life.
"The Significance of Astrology in Judaism" is an article along these lines from the Orthodox Union. This article concisely puts this issue into perspective.
"In Judaism, Astrology is not regarded as "idol worship," even though the generic name for "idol worship" is "Avodat Kochavim U'Mazalot," Worship of the Stars and the Signs of the Zodiac." From the Jewish perspective, the stars are not unrelated to events on earth. It is not irrelevant whether one was born on Pesach, or Yom Kippur, or Lag Ba'Omer or on any particular day. Each day is special and has a unique imprint. On the other hand, if an individual was born under the "sign" of Mars, the Talmud says that he will have a tendency to spill blood. This tendency can be realized in a number of very different ways, however, which are subject to an individual's choice. In this case, options might be a soldier, a surgeon, a murderer, a "shochet," a ritual slaughterer of animals, or a "mohel," one who performs ritual circumcisions. These options correspond to a potential hero, a healer, one who violates the "image of G-d," to those who do "holy work" of different types. There is a principle, "Ayn Mazal L'Yisrael," "Israel's fate is not determined by the stars." The Jew, raised in his People's traditions and Torah values, feels the reality of "freedom of choice" in his bones. So deeply ingrained is this knowledge and feeling, that the Jew rarely has cause to think about astrological factors. It is the belief that one cannot escape from the grip of the stars that distinguishes Astrology from "Worship of the Stars and Signs of the Zodiac." It is always possible to define one's fate, by choosing behavior which is guided by morality and integrity, within the parameters – intellectual and emotional, physical and spiritual, which a person is given to work with."
Aryeh Kaplan, known for his rationalist synthesis of modern scientific thinking and Kabbalah, and creator of a modern translation of Derekh Hashem, echoes the viewpoint of its author (Moshe Chaim Luzzatto) on astrology. In his translation of and commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, Kaplan writes:
"In order to understand the significance of the astrological forces, we must first understand the role of angels in the chain between the Sefirot and the physical world. The Sefirot are in the universe of Atzilut, and below this is Beriyah, the universe of the Throne, which serves to allow the Sefirot to interact with the lower worlds. Between Beriyah and Asiyah is Yetzirah, the world of the angels. ....every one of God's words is actually an angel. When we speak of "God's word," we are actually speaking of His interaction with the lower worlds. The force that transverses the spiritual domain is what we call an angel.
The stars also form an important link in God's providence over the physical world. Between God and man, there are many levels of interaction, the lowest being those of the angels and the stars, The Midrash thus teaches, "There is no blade of grass that does not have a constellation (Mazal) over it, telling it to grow." As the commentators explain it, God's providence works through the angels, but these angels, in turn, work through the stars and planets."
However, Kaplan also writes,
"Faith and trust in God are partners, since one who believes in an omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent God must also believe that He will provide for His faithful. Therefore, one should trust in God and not be overly concerned about the future....Therefore, one should not seek to ascertain the future by fortune telling, astrology or other superstitions. Concerning this, The Torah commands us, "You must remain totally faithful to God your Lord" (Deut. 18:13), which some authorities count as a positive commandment."
Kabbalistic astrology, also called mazal or mazalot, ("zodiac," "destiny") is a system of astrology based upon the kabbalah. It is used to interpret and delineate a person's birth chart, seeking to understand it through a kabbalistic lens.
Most astrologers cast and use horoscopes to depict planetary placements which are believed to influence daily activities. Kabbalistic astrologers tend to take a slightly different approach because they wish to observe the planets as they relate to each sephira in the Tree of Life.
Each sephira points to a specific character trait. Each sephira in the trestleboard corresponds with a specific planet and is therefore closely aligned with the celestial art of astrology.
|Sephira Name||Planetary Correspondence||Astrological Signs|
Mystical connection of Scriptures and Menorah to the 7 Classical Planets and Lunar Phases
The ancient Hebrews (unlike their neighbors the Babylonians and Egyptians) believed in their one God and did not worship the 7 moving objects in the heavens - the 7 Classical planets - as heavenly gods which influenced events on Earth. However, they were well aware of the Sun, Moon, and five planets seen with the naked eye and Hebrew mysticism recognized their great importance. Therefore, along with the 4 lunar phases being slightly over 7 days (~7.4 days) each, the number 7 was held in very high regard. The Torah reflects this with Bereshis 1:1 (Book of Genesis 1:1) being 7 words and 28 letters (7x4) in its original Hebrew. This is known as God's signature.
Genesis 1:14, "And God said, 'Let there be lights in the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons, days, years and festivals'...the 4th day (of 7)." The #7 is the great recurring numerical theme of the Hebrew (and Christian) scriptures. The menorah's 7 lamps on 4 branches correspond to the lights of the 7 Classical planets: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun (4th), Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.
- See Book of Job 38:31-33, & II Kings 23:5
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- (12 Signs, 12 Sons: Astrology in the Bible, David Womack, Harper & Row, San Francisco 1978, pg 43)
- Union for Reform Judaism: Jeffrey K. Salkin, How To Be A Truly Spiritual Jew And Avoid The Pitfalls Of Quick-Fix Religious Consumerism
- (Torah commentary, National Jewish Outreach Program, Parashat Shoftim 5763-2003)
- Covenant and Conversation: Thoughts on the Weekly Parsha, Vayyishlach 5755, Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom
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- Julius Guttman. Philosophies of Judaism, JPS. 1964
- Kaplan, Aryeh. Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation, Weiser Books, Revised edition (May 1, 1997) ISBN 0-87728-855-0
- Kiener, Ronald. “The Status of Astrology in the Early Kabbalah: From the Sefer Yesirah to the Zohar.” In The Beginnings of Jewish Mysticism in Europe: Proceedings of the Second International Conference on the History of Jewish Mysticism (Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought, vol. VI), edited by J. Dan. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1987: 1*-42* (English section).
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- Von Stuckrad, Kocku. "Jewish and Christian Astrology in Late Antiquity – A New Approach," Numen 47/1 (2000), pp. 1–40.
- The Jewish Encyclopedia (1906), Astrology
- “Gersonides on Astrology, Divination, and Dreams,” in Proceedings, Eighth World Congress of Jewish Studies, Division C , World Union of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem, 1982, pp. 47–52.
- Divination, Magic and Healing: A Book of Jewish Folklore, Jason Aronson
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- Berg, Philip. Kabbalistic Astrology Made Easy. Research Centre of Kabbalah: USA, 1999. ISBN 1-57189-053-X.
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- Research sources for Jewish astrology
- Article by Robert Zoller
- Jewish Astrology
- Jewish Astronomy
- The Jewish Astrologer
- Astrology - Kabbalah Center
- Review of "The Secrets of the Stars" by Rabbi Ari Storch
- Response by Rabbi Ari Stroch to review of his book