Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple
Rabbi Dr. Raymond AppleCourtesy

Q. Do Jews take astrology seriously?

A. Many cultures think a person’s destiny is determined to some extent by the stars and planets.

Ancient monarchs thought astrology was a science, and their courts had their official astrologers. Even King Solomon is said to have believed in astrology, and some of the rabbis took it seriously, though others called it a gentile and not a Jewish practice.

Rabbi Yochanan said, "Ein mazal b’yisra’el" – "Jews do not believe in planetary influences" (Talmud Shabbat 156a). Maimonides regarded astrology as mere superstition and argued that to believe that the heavenly bodies influence your life undermines the power of free will.

The prophet Isaiah mocked the resort to astrology and sarcastically told the Babylonians that if they feared destruction they could consult the astrologers and see if the stars could help (Isa. 47:13).

Not that the Bible or Judaism lacked respect for the heavens. The Psalmist tells us that the heavens "declare the glory of God" (Psalm 19:1), but observing the heavenly bodies was not for the sake of homage but to see the greatness of the Creator and to know that He who implanted the heavenly bodies was the director of destiny.

The great 3rd century rabbi, Samuel, was said to have known the pathways of heaven as well as he knew the streets of his own town (Ber. 58b), but he and other sages watched the skies as part of their mathematical and astronomical studies, especially in order to work out calendrical principles.

Some of our medieval and later forebears did take astrology seriously and were sure that the stars influenced one’s personal life and prosperity.

To this day the most rational of people wish one another "Mazal Tov", literally "a good planet", but no-one takes the greeting literally.

A SENSE OF SELF

The sidra tells how the enslavement came to an end. The Hebrew liberation movement was led by Moses and Aaron. Why were two leaders necessary?

The regular view is that Aaron was the speaker and Moses was the man of action. However, Reb Shmuel Mohilever said that there was a double task to be performed. One leader was needed to take the people out of Egypt; the second was there to take Egypt out of the people.

The Hebrews were there so long that they had become immersed in Egyptian ways. Despite the bitterness of the enslavement the Hebrew community had got used to Egyptian customs (including Egyptian speech, clothing and names) and needed to regain their self-respect, self-confidence and self-identity.

They needed to regain a clear and unambiguous sense of self.

TOO SOON TO CELEBRATE?

Chapter 12 of Sh’mot names Nisan as the first month of the year.

For other purposes Tishri is the first month, making it one of four New Years listed in the Mishnah Rosh HaShanah.

The choice of Nisan to head the list of Hebrew months is because that was the month when the tribes of Israel became a people and set out on their journey through history.

We appreciate the logic in the choice of this month, but we often fail to notice that the command to place Nisan on a pedestal and celebrate the redemption of the Israelite slaves was given whilst they were still in Egypt in a state of bondage.

The Exodus event had not yet happened, but they were already told to celebrate it. It is not simply that the slavery was visibly winding down and the people’s release was inevitable.

The Torah was not just thinking pragmatically but spiritually. Its message was one of faith: “Know that God has heard your cries and will redeem you and protect you!”

It would be a terrible anticlimax if the time of bondage came to an end and the people were left to pick themselves up and fend for themselves.

There was a Divine promise: they would march boldly out of Egypt, cross the sea and move into the future with the Almighty smiling upon them and holding their hands.

Rabbi Raymond Applewas for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Judaism. After serving congregations in London, Rabbi Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He also held many public roles, particularly in the fields of chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and Freemasonry, and is the recipient of several national and civic honours. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem and blogs at http://www.oztorah.com