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...

  • Sports Israeli Fans Mob, Dance With Basketball Player Amar’e Stoudemire at First Jerusalem Team Practice (VIDEO)

    Israeli Fans Mob, Dance With Basketball Player Amar’e Stoudemire at First Jerusalem Team Practice (VIDEO)

    Israeli basketball fans mobbed Hapoel Jerusalem’s newest player, American pro Amar’e Stoudemire, dancing around with him during a practice open to the public. On Friday, the team posted a video on Twitter of the happy romp with fans jumping around Stoudemire, while chanting in Hebrew. Unfamiliar with the lyrics, Stoudemire pumps his fist in the air. The basketball player, who has Jewish roots on his mother’s side, also waved a flag emblazoned with Hapoel Jerusalem’s logo. The former New York Knicks forward retired from the NBA earlier […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Playboy Columnist Calls Israel’s ‘Burning Man’ Festival ‘Ultimate Revenge on Hitler’

    Playboy Columnist Calls Israel’s ‘Burning Man’ Festival ‘Ultimate Revenge on Hitler’

    The Israeli version of the famed American Burning Man music festival is the “ultimate revenge on Hitler,” according to a column in Playboy magazine on Thursday. In his column, Jeff Weiss also took note of the fact that Midburn — a five-day bacchanal in the Negev Desert, self-described as an event celebrating “a communal life style, creativity, art and radical self-expression” — began on June 8, the day of the Sarona Market terrorist attack in Tel Aviv, which left four people dead. Weiss asked rhetorically, “What could needle the mustached […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Author of New Book on Connection Between Jews, Punk Rock Describes Bands Flinging Gefilte Fish, Bagels at Audience (INTERVIEW)

    Author of New Book on Connection Between Jews, Punk Rock Describes Bands Flinging Gefilte Fish, Bagels at Audience (INTERVIEW)

    Some punk rockers integrate their Jewish identity into their music through food, the author of a new book on the topic told The Algemeiner on Wednesday. Michael Croland, author of Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk, described the way different musicians express this connection. “One band is known for throwing gefilte fish in the mosh pit, and people at its concert slide around on it while dancing,” he recounted. “Another used to drink Manischewitz [sweet kosher] wine out of a shofar [the ram […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Scottish Soccer Club Manager Hails ‘Fantastic’ Jewish-State Visit After Victory Over Israeli Team (VIDEO)

    Scottish Soccer Club Manager Hails ‘Fantastic’ Jewish-State Visit After Victory Over Israeli Team (VIDEO)

    The manager of Scotland’s Celtic soccer club lauded Israel, after his team won a match against the Jewish state’s Hapoel Be’er Sheva on Tuesday night. Brendan Rodgers said at a post-match press conference: On behalf of the players, the people of Celtic and Scotland, Israel’s been fantastic for us. We came out here on Sunday, [and from] the hotel, the staff, we’ve been very, very warmly received. The atmosphere at the game was amazing and, obviously, one team has to lose, but you have a wonderful team here, […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Second Jaffa Jazz Festival to Reunite International, Israeli Musicians

    Second Jaffa Jazz Festival to Reunite International, Israeli Musicians

    For the second time, Israel will host the Jaffa Jazz Festival, according to Broadwayworld.com. The festival will unite 43 Israeli musicians and eight international artists for a three-day event. The program will include a special performance by an ensemble of top jazz students studying at Belgium’s Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp, the Belgrade Music Academy in Serbia, Israel’s Rimon School of Music and the jazz program of the Israel Conservatory of Music in Tel Aviv. There will also be a jazz show for children led by Israeli saxophonist […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Israel’s First NASCAR Driver Revved Up to Win

    Israel’s First NASCAR Driver Revved Up to Win

    JNS.org – As a young boy growing up in Ashdod, Israel, Alon Day got his first go-kart at age 9. By 15, he was racing them. Less than a decade later, Day has become the first Israeli professional race car driver on the NASCAR circuit. He made history by competing in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series race at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on August 13. “Driving a race car is not like any other sport,” Day told JNS.org. “You are actually almost flying […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Writer of Popular Kids Series to Premiere Autobiographical Solo Show ‘Not That Jewish’

    Writer of Popular Kids Series to Premiere Autobiographical Solo Show ‘Not That Jewish’

    The writer of a popular children’s television series will premiere an off-Broadway solo show called “Not That Jewish,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. Written and performed by Monica Piper — the Emmy Award-winning showrunner of Nickelodeon’s “Rugrats” — the show is described as “the autobiographical telling of a Jew…’ish’ girl’s life.” “Not That Jewish” explores Piper’s Bronx upbringing in a show-business family, her comedy-club debut and her “almost” night with former Yankees legend Mickey Mantle. “Audiences can expect to leave laughed-out, a little teary-eyed and […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Scottish Soccer Team Will Fly to Israel on Private Jet Used by Madonna

    Scottish Soccer Team Will Fly to Israel on Private Jet Used by Madonna

    Scotland’s Celtic soccer club will fly to Israel with the same private jet Madonna used while on tour, The Scotsman reported on Monday. According to the report, the team is heading for the Jewish state to compete against Israel’s Hapoel Be’er Sheva on Tuesday night, and will be transported in the customized, luxurious Boeing 757-200 that the pop icon used in New Zealand for her six-month Rebel Heart tour, which wrapped up in March. The plane is on loan from Greece-based GainJet Aviation and can accommodate 62 passengers. The […]

    Read more →