Guest Column by Rabbi Richard Baroff
Mazel tov, like shalom, is that rare Hebrew term that is known by almost everyone.
In its Yiddish iteration, mazel taf, it means congratulations. The older Hebrew term means good luck. Specifically, mazel tov signifies the hope that you have the good luck that comes from living under a propitious constellation of stars visible in the night sky.
Mazel in Hebrew means a star constellation. Mazel tov, the best-known Hebrew/Yiddish/Jewish expression of all, is the product of rabbinical astrology.
Astrology at first glance would not seem to have much to do with Judaism. In fact, because it is forbidden in Vayikra (Leviticus) in the Torah and condemned by the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, as well as by the greatest of all Jewish philosophers, Maimonides, one would think that astrology would be rare among the Jewish people. But one would be wrong.
Although the Torah is clear on the subject, it appears that the Jews could not stay away from astrology. There were different systems of astrology.
For instance, we all know that the Chinese have a 12-year zodiac cycle in which each year is represented by a different animal. I was born in 1958, the year of the dog. Anyone who has dined in an old-fashioned Chinese restaurant has seen this zodiac on a placemat.
The Egyptians also developed a sophisticated astrological system. The 12-part zodiac that the Babylonians developed — and that folks to this day consult — probably was invented in ancient Egypt and borrowed by the Mesopotamians.
The zodiac we normally associate with astrology, the one used to cast horoscopes, comes from ancient Babylonia. It is this system that brings together in the birth chart (the horoscope) the planets, the houses (12 places on Earth that correspond to 12 parts of the personality), and the 12 signs of the zodiac, which correspond to 12 times of the year. I was born Jan. 13, so my sign is Capricorn, the old goat.
The signs of the zodiac we now have reflect the Greco-Roman tradition, which was greatly developed from the Babylonian model. The Babylonians cast horoscopes, but it was the Greeks who to turned the practice into a science.
The very word zodiac comes from the Greek for a circle of animals. The names we use for the zodiac (Gemini, Aries, Aquarius, etc.) are Roman. By the way, the Hebrew word mazel can be translated as zodiac.
The Jews were exiled by the neo-Babylonian tyrant Nebuchadnezzar in 586-7 B.C.E. This began a long association with Chaldean (Babylonian) culture. (Abraham came from Ur of the Chaldees in very ancient Mesopotamia.)
As rabbinic Judaism took shape, both within Eretz Yisrael and within Mesopotamia (the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers), many Babylonian ideas found their way into Jewish religion and culture. Astrology as we know it made its way into Jewish life from the Chaldean experience.
The very word Chaldean came to mean astrologer.
We learn from the Bible that Daniel, a court Jew in the time of the Persian Empire — over 13 centuries after Abraham — called the astrological wizards Chaldeans. The sages of the Talmud used Chaldean for astrologer, following the example of the Book of Daniel. Chaldean still is used for astrologer.
If you go to a Renaissance festival, you may very well have your horoscope drawn and read by a Chaldean wizard. Astrology became popular in the Renaissance. Of course, astronomy became important as well.
Some important astronomers — Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, for example — were believers in astrology to one degree or another. It appears that the Jews became particularly involved in astrology in the 1500s. At that time astrology and astronomy, like alchemy and chemistry, had not yet separated from each other.
In medieval times and even more so during the Renaissance, many Christian kings, queens and other nobility had Jewish court astrologers. This was especially so in Spain.
The greatest of all the Jewish court astrologers was the Spaniard Abraham Zacuto. He used an advanced astrolabe to make accurate star charts used by Christopher Columbus himself on his fateful voyage in 1492.
In that year also the Jews were expelled from Spain. Zacuto went to Portugal. His charts helped another great explorer, Vasco da Gama, make his way to India in the late 1490s.
Most of the Talmudic rabbis and medieval philosophers — even Saadia Gaon and Solomon ibn Gabirol — believed that astrology was accurate. More amazing still, even the Litvak rationalist Elijah the Vilna Gaon thought astrology was real.
The Jewish mystics following the Kabbalah generally followed astrology as well. The great Kabbalist Nachmanides was prominent in this regard.
Since the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment in the 1800s, the intellectual leaders of the Jews became more rationalistic. They decided as a whole that Maimonides was right after all. Astrology was hokum; astronomy alone was science. This thinking was ironic in that astrology became more popular than ever before in the 19th and 20th centuries.
But not for the Jews. At least not the intellectual ones. But all Jews at weddings and b’nai mitzvah celebrations still say, “Have a lucky constellation” — mazel tov.
Also this: Zol zein mit mazel. Good luck (astrologically speaking).
Rabbi Richard Baroff is the president of Guardians of the Torah.