Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

Do Jews Believe in Luck?

November 23, 2012 2:34 pm 3 comments

Depiction of the 'Evil Eye.'

Sam Goldwyn famously said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” So why do I constantly come across perfectly sane, intelligent people who tell me they are unlucky? Or religious God-fearing Jews who believe in Mazal (luck), let alone the Ayin Hara, the Evil Eye? It does not make sense.

The Bible is very clear that luck has no impact on Israel, in Balaam’s famous phrase, “There is no magic in Jacob and no divination in Israel” (Numbers 23:23).

The Talmud debates the issue. “R. Hanina said, ‘The planetary influence gives wisdom, the planetary influence gives wealth, and Israel stands under planetary influence.’ R. Johanan said that Israel is immune. Rav too agrees. For Rav, Judah said in Rav’s name, ‘How do we know that Israel is immune from planetary influence?…. Because Avraham said, ‘Master of the Universe! I have looked at my constellation and find that I am not fated to have a child.’ The Almighty replied, ‘Leave your planets alone, for Israel is free from such influence.” R. Akiva also says that Israel is free from planetary influence.” (Shabbat 156a and b)

The overwhelming weight of opinion is against the idea. But what is the idea? Neither the word Mazal, meaning luck (or the signs of the zodiac) nor the Evil Eye figure in the Bible. On the other hand, the earliest astrological chart dates back to Mesopotamia four thousand years ago, where Avraham came from. Clearly Avraham wanted a different approach. But astrology continues to hold a grip on humans to this very day. Even in the nineteenth century, people still thought that lunacy was linked to the moon.

In Judaism, astrology’s link with mysticism gave it continued relevance and influence, so that today there are many “rabbis” who use astrology and its allied systems to help the sick and the disturbed try to cope with the pressures of life. Snake oil salesmen, hustlers, and Ponzis still make a good living.

There is a major divide in Judaism between the rationalists and non-rationalists. On this point I side with the rationalists. Evil spirits, bad luck, and the evil eye are only relevant to people who are credulous, uneducated, or desperate enough to believe in them. Humans who face an insurmountable crisis turn wherever they can for sustenance and support. And we must offer them that. As they used to say in World War I, “There are no atheists in trenches.” But I do not want to equate turning to God in despair or from the depths, which is a profound human expression, with belief in magic or luck.

It is true there are areas in our lives that we have control over and areas where do not. But if I do not study hard, I am unlikely to pass an exam. If I do not apply for a job, I am likely to remain unemployed. If I do not make an effort to meet the sort of partner I want to marry, I am more likely to get involved with someone unsuitable. There are other areas where events beyond our control cause things to happen to us. Is the act of getting on a plane that then crashes a matter of bad luck, or is it the absence of information about a bomb or fault in the engine that results in my death? Insurance companies rely on statistics, on probability. It is not certainty, but it works better than anything else in predicting things. Investment advice based on hunches may work occasionally, but over time the cold numbers tell the more reliable story. There are general trends and specific exceptions in everything, including life expectancy, susceptibility to disease, and everything else in life.

Every year thousands of Bangladeshis are killed when the Ganges delta floods. This is because they are too poor to live higher up. If people build homes on the shoreline they are more likely to be flooded than those inland. If they build amongst trees, they will more likely be killed by one that falls in a storm. If you live on the San Andreas fault, you had better build earthquake-proof. But then is it luck if a tree falls on you and not your neighbor? If your house is too well founded to wash away?

Is it bad luck to catch a virus or a disease? Bacteria are part of our world. Who is to blame if one affects you badly? We take risks all the time. Whenever we get into a car. And we know that a certain percentage will be killed on the roads. We just hope the drunken driver coming the other way misses us or stayed behind for another drink. We go about our lives knowing we will all die one day. Is it luck if I die at 40, 70, or 90?

As Rabbi Yannai so honestly said in the Mishna, “We have no idea why the good suffer or the evil prosper.” At least he didn’t come with some cockamamie theory, or suggest it was because of luck or a letter in a mezuzah that was out of kilter. Insofar as we can understand the idea of Divine intervention, it is on the basis of our behavior. We simply don’t understand how God works. But that doesn’t mean that luck had anything to do with it. Did millions die in the Holocaust because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time? Was it just bad luck to live in Europe when Nazis came to power? When people tell me they know why the Holocaust (or any other tragedy) happened, I know they are charlatans. No human can know the mind of God.

Is it luck that decides who will be president, or make a fortune? We make use of the circumstances of our time. Rockefeller made money out of oil. Gates made it on computers and Zuckerberg on the internet. Similarly we suffer from the negative circumstances of our time, be they war or peace. If we keep fit, we will be more likely to resist disease. If we keep spiritually alive, we will better survive trials and tests. But there is no magic, no luck that will protect us from the realities and challenges of life. Charms, promises, and holy water are placebos. Placebos work because people want them to; but they are nothing to do with luck. Faith helps us cope. But there’s a difference in having the faith in God that will help us cope and believing that whether God is good to you or bad depends on hocus pocus. It is goodness that appeals to the Almighty, not charms.

What we should mean by luck comes from reducing the odds and taking advantage of situations wherever they may happen. The luck that we make is far more effective than the luck others promise us.

3 Comments

  • Pim

    I am saying that even believing that God intervenes in human life and history, we have, being human, no idea how or when or in what way.
    Those who say for example that the Holocaust was Divine punishment for assimilation or that the wars against the Palestinians are a punishment for Zionism or that Sandy was punishment for Wall Street excesses make no sense at all any more that do Muslims who say rockets falling on Israel are Divine punishment for stealing their land. Its as ridiculous as those players who believe God intervenes to help them win football matches!

    But more than that I believe people who claim to know why and how God responds are merely showing themselves to be foolish and arrogant, as if any human however great can know how God ‘thinks ‘ or ‘acts.’ We have to accept Divine authority regardless and focus on improving ourselves. That is why when a disaster does happen, we are required to be even more introspective and self analytical. But this is not the same as pretending we know what we cannot.

    When I wish someone Mazal Tov I am simply hoping that good things will come his or her way from the Almighty. Note that Birchat Chanim does not say anything about Mazal, only Bracha, the hope that the Almighty will take care of us.

    Jeremy

    • JEREMY,
      A GOOD ANSWER AS ALWAYS,BUT IT DOES NOT CHANGE
      MY OPINION HOW RELIGION IN GENERAL IS GETTING
      CORRUPTED BY ITS PEOPLE.
      THE SHOAH WAS A DIRECT RESULT OF THIS CORRUPTION.
      MAYBE ONE DAY YOU CAN WRITE AN ARTICLE ABOUT THIS,
      NOT EASY I ADMIT.

  • ” When people tell me they know why the Holocaust (or any other tragedy) happened, I know they are charlatans. No human can know the mind of God.”

    ARE YOU SAYING THIS WAS THE WILL OF GOD ?
    I AM SAYING THIS WAS THE ABUSE OF A RELIGIOUS SYSTEM.

    JEREMY, I WOULD APPRECIATE YOUR ANSWER.
    PIM.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Features Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    JNS.org – Aside from Israel itself, those with a vested interest in the Jewish state are accustomed to tracking developments related to Middle East players such as Iran, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. But much global attention has recently focused on the Caucasus region at the Europe-Asia border, specifically on the suddenly intensified violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh area of western Azerbaijan. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, while not taking place in Israel’s immediate neighborhood, does have what one scholar called […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    JNS.org – On Friday, April 22, 196 nations across the world mark Earth Day, the annual day dedicated to environmental protection that was enacted in 1970. Not to be forgotten on this day is Israel, which is known as the “start-up nation” for its disproportionate amount of technological innovation, including in the area of protecting the environment. For Earth Day 2016, JNS.org presents a sampling of the Jewish state’s internal achievements and global contributions in the environmental realm. Water conservation Israeli […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture World New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    Holocaust humor and the role that laughter played in the lives of Jews during World War II are the focus of a documentary that made its world premiere on Monday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. In The Last Laugh, first- and second-generation survivors, as well as famous Jewish and non-Jewish comedians, discuss their thoughts on when joking about the death camps is appropriate or taboo. “Nazi humor, that’s OK. Holocaust humor, no,” Jewish comedic giant, actor and filmmaker Mel Brooks says in the film. “Anything I […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    JNS.org – Sherri Mandell’s life was devastated on May 8, 2001, when her 13-year-old son Koby was murdered by terrorists on the outskirts of the Israeli Jewish community of Tekoa. Yet Mandell not only shares the story of her loss, but also celebrates the lessons she has learned from tragedy. Indeed, “celebrate” is this Israeli-American author’s word choice. Her second book, The Road to Resilience: From Chaos to Celebration (Toby Press), came out earlier this year. The lesson: in every celebration, there is […]

    Read more →
  • Features Opinion For Alan Gross, Cuban Prison Didn’t Harden His Heart or Weaken His Ambition

    For Alan Gross, Cuban Prison Didn’t Harden His Heart or Weaken His Ambition

    JNS.org – Alan Gross used to be nothing more to me than a tragic headline. When I started my position at this news service in July 2011, Gross had been imprisoned in Cuba since December 2009 for what that country called “crimes against the state.” Gross, a subcontractor for the United States Agency for International Development, went to Cuba to help the Jewish community there access the Internet. After his arrest, he received a trial he describes as a “B movie,” […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Features New Movie Shows How Global Economic Instability Grew From Very Local Greed

    New Movie Shows How Global Economic Instability Grew From Very Local Greed

    JNS.org – When I saw the recent Academy Award-winning film “The Big Short,” I was struck by the sheer genius of the financiers who devised the schemes and packaged the loans for resale, but it left me with unanswered questions about how the properties these loans represented were moved. “The Big Short” was largely about paper transactions, big money, and wealthy investors, and it mildly touched on the way the actual end-users — the home buyers and brokers — played into this […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Book Reviews Psychiatry and the Spirit

    Psychiatry and the Spirit

    Why do we think so negatively about psychiatrists that we still insult them by calling them shrinks? Some medics might be quacks, but we don’t generally refer to them as witches! Shrinks; The Untold Story of Psychiatry, by Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, is a sobering account of how psychiatry has swung from a marginal, unscientific mixture of weird theories into one of the most common and pervasive forms of treatment of what are commonly called “disorders of the mind.” Is it […]

    Read more →
  • Features Opinion At Forbes Summit in Israel, Entrepreneurship Is a ‘Common Language’

    At Forbes Summit in Israel, Entrepreneurship Is a ‘Common Language’

    JNS.org – Nine months ago, Seth Cohen, director of network initiatives for the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and Randall Lane, editor of Forbes Magazine, were schmoozing about the “vibrancy of Tel Aviv and soul of Jerusalem,” as Lane put it. They dreamed about how they could bring young and innovative millennials to the so-called “start-up nation.” From April 3-7, Forbes turned that dream into a reality. Israel played host to the first-ever Forbes Under 30 EMEA (Europe, the Middle East, and Africa) […]

    Read more →