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.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Book Reviews Personalities How a Jewish Leader With 3 Months to Live Created a ‘Seminar’ on Life

    How a Jewish Leader With 3 Months to Live Created a ‘Seminar’ on Life

    JNS.org – What would you do if you found out that you had only three more months to live? Gordon Zacks was a successful businessman, a leader of Jewish life, and a confidante and adviser to President George H.W. Bush. He knew that he had prostate cancer, but doctors advised him that it was very slow-growing and nothing to worry about. Then came the day when the doctors told him his cancer metastasized to his liver, and that he had [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Theater 10 Things I Learned From My Play About Holocaust Denial

    10 Things I Learned From My Play About Holocaust Denial

    Last month, my one-man show Hoaxocaust! Written and performed by Barry Levey with the generous assistance of the Institute for Political and International Studies, Tehran ran in the New York International Fringe Festival, where it won an Overall Excellence Award. The play has now been selected to run in the Fringe Encores Series at Baruch College’s Performing Arts Center, for four performances which started on Thursday, September 11. Getting the play to the stage was not easy, however. Here are [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Israel Israeli Music Producer Racks Up Over 535,000 YouTube Hits – in Two Days

    Israeli Music Producer Racks Up Over 535,000 YouTube Hits – in Two Days

    Phenomenon: Tel Aviv-based musician and “sampler” extraordinaire, Kutiman (aka Ophir Kutiel) has hit another one out of the park with “Give It Up,” a fully-functioning song in its own right, assembled from hundreds of ameteur and instructional music videos. The Jerusalem-born musical prodigy is best know for his diverse online musical projects. In the latest video, uploaded to YouTube on Sept. 12th, Kutiel thanked most of the musicians and individuals he chose to include in the meticulously-edited clip, which opens with [...]

    Read more →
  • Theater US & Canada Behind-the-Scenes Reel of Ridley Scott’s Moses Epic Shows Scenes Using 4000 Extras (VIDEO)

    Behind-the-Scenes Reel of Ridley Scott’s Moses Epic Shows Scenes Using 4000 Extras (VIDEO)

    A recently released behind-the-scenes reel of Ridley Scott’s upcoming film Exodus: Gods and Kings shows just how far the director has gone to portray one of the Bible’s most famous narratives. In the clip, which shows scenes involving up to 4,000 extras, the visionary director discusses what drew him to the biblical tale of Moses. “The Moses story was a massive challenge, which I really love. I wanted to explore the complexity of his character and I was stunned by [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity Turner Classic Movies Showcases ‘Broad Sweep’ of the Jewish Experience on Film

    Turner Classic Movies Showcases ‘Broad Sweep’ of the Jewish Experience on Film

    JNS.org – Since 2006, the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) cable and satellite TV network has hosted “The Projected Image,” a month-long showcase examining how different cultural and ethnic groups have been portrayed on the big screen. At last, after previously covering African Americans, Asians, the LGBT community, Latinos, Native Americans, Arabs, and people with disabilities, the annual series is delving into Jewish film this month. “The Projected Image: The Jewish Experience on Film,” whose first segment aired Sept. 2, runs [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish Identity An Inside Look at the Hasidim (REVIEW)

    An Inside Look at the Hasidim (REVIEW)

    The sight of young girls in pinafores and young boys wearing peyos – sidelocks – dangling over their ears is a sure sign that you have entered the enigmatic precincts of the Hasidim – the pious ones. Veteran New York Times journalist Joseph Berger’s new book, THE PIOUS ONES: The World of Hasidim and their Battles with America, takes the reader on a journey into the enclaves where various sects of Jews live a seemingly outmoded way of life in [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity How Jewish Television Pioneer Milton Berle Inspired Modern Comedy Stars

    How Jewish Television Pioneer Milton Berle Inspired Modern Comedy Stars

    JNS.org – Today’s comedy superstars, especially those whose careers are driven by television, may very well owe their success to pioneering Jewish entertainer Milton Berle. Born Mendel Berlinger in Manhattan in 1908, Berle became America’s first small-screen star. Aptly nicknamed “Mr. Television,” he influenced and helped promote the work of hundreds of younger comics. “Milton Berle was deceptively successful and very Jewish,” says Lawrence Epstein, author of The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America, published the year [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports Jewish ‘Hoops Whisperer’ a Secret Weapon for NBA Stars

    Jewish ‘Hoops Whisperer’ a Secret Weapon for NBA Stars

    JNS.org – Idan Ravin’s friends chipped in to buy him a humble but life-changing bar mitzvah gift—a basketball hoop his father attached to the roof of his garage. Little did his friends know that years later, he would be the personal trainer of National Basketball Association (NBA) stars Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, and Stephen Curry. Ravin’s new book, “The Hoops Whisperer: On the Court and Inside the Head of Basketball’s Best Players,” details his rise from a Jewish upbringing [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.