Do Jews Believe in Luck?
by Jeremy Rosen
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.