Mazal: Hope or Superstition
We have just celebrated Purim, a festival named after the lottery, the pur, that nearly decided the fate of the Jewish people. But the randomness of the genocidal lottery was defeated by God. You might have thought that this would have knocked Jewish belief in astrology on its head once for all. But it hasn’t.
Indeed, Jews wish each other mazal tov all the time, and many of us are very concerned about whether other people can have a good or bad impact on our mazal — whether “the evil eye” might strike us down or a curse ruin us.
But isn’t this total superstition? And isn’t the Torah unmistakably clear that we must not be superstitious? “There is no divination in Jacob and no magic in Israel,” says Balaam in Numbers 23, the law in Deuteronomy 18 is similarly specific: “You must not practice divination, astrology, reading omens, charms or sorcery, dealing with spirits or calling up the dead.”
The term mazal is used only once in the Bible, in Kings II: “The pagans worship the sun the moon and the planets [mazalot].” Clearly it does not approve.
I always believed that monotheism countered the thinking that spells and incantations carried out by experts could change the course of the stars and our fates. For centuries, man looked to the planets for answers. The earliest astrological chart dates back to Mesopotamia, nearly four-thousand years ago. The great Alexandrian Claudius Ptolemy (90-168) linked the astronomical solar system to astrology — a framework used to this day, although it no longer holds any scientific weight. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) did not think the stars determined human behavior, but that they did influence it. Even such moderns as Carl Jung were still attempting to modify astrology and keep it relevant. Paganism saw us as the playthings of the gods, astrology says our fates are decided by planets, whereas Judaism, Christianity and Islam posited that the world functioned according to its own rules (Avodah Zara 54b) and only our relationship with God could affect us. Monotheism taught that our task was to accept what happens to us and see the positive in it. “Whatever God does (or allows to happen) is for the best.”
Yet, the idea persists in some Orthodox circles that astrology in Judaism is still a tool to explain the way God intervenes in the world. (Then again, so does the idea that past rabbis could never have gotten any science wrong, and if some claimed the earth was flat or that the sun revolved around the earth every day, then we must be wrong not they.) Astrology’s interconnection with Jewish mysticism has given it continued relevance and influence. Today, there are many “rabbis” who use astrology and its allied systems to help the sick and disturbed cope with life pressures. Usually for a healthy fee or “charitable donation.”
The Talmud in Shabbath 156a discusses the issue: “R. Hanina said, ‘The planetary influence gives wisdom and wealth and affects Israel.’ R. Johanan, on the other hand, said that Israel is immune from planetary influence [mazal]. Rab, too, holds that Israel is immune from planetary influence, and so does R. Akiba.” There are many more such discussions throughout the Talmud and in other rabbinic sources, and it is clear that rabbinic opinion is divided.
Yet, today it is difficult to find any major rabbinic figure who will publicly decry the popular preoccupation with mazal, ayin harah (the evil eye) and their various offshoots. Once upon a time (Brachot 10b), our leaders had the guts to act against superstition. “King Chizkiyahu hid the Book of Cures and smashed the bronze serpent (of Moses’s) days, and the authorities of the day approved it.” Nowadays, sadly, they would make money out of it.
But what does mazal really mean? Is it fortune, something beyond our control — in which case, how does it differ from God?Yet, no one of any significance in Judaism, to the best of my knowledge, has ever said mazal is the same as God or divine intervention. When mazal means superstition, it is clearly against Judaism (notwithstanding that most Jews may relate superstitiously to their religion), but is also obvious that there are forces beyond our control — wars, epidemics, financial collapses — and in those cases are we not permitted to hope or pray? Or course we do, just as we pray our children should have easy lives, free from danger, disease and hardship. Hope is very different than people believing they can tap into magic and change the will of God or the nature of the universe.
Furthermore, I do believe we can “make our own luck.” By being positive, looking out for possibilities, and thinking several steps ahead, one can take better advantage of what life has to offer. This is one of the ideas behind the Talmud’s injunction to avoid bad company. One’s mood, attitude, company and friends can all impact the quality of one’s life. Avoiding bad vibes and negativity is great advice.
Similarly, some people understand aspects of the universe and the motives of others better than the ordinary person can, or can train themselves to read faces and gestures that tell them more about people than the average person can see. A doctor can usually read physical signs better than others because of his training, and a psychiatrist can read psychological signs because of hers. Both are still capable of missing something. It is our job to distinguish between learned skills and claims of supernatural powers.
Belief in random luck also has no place in an intelligent or a genuinely spiritual mind. To wish someone luck is simply a popular way of expressing one’s hopes and aspirations. To think that mazal has a power in and of itself that can be harnessed to control the uncontrollable is pure superstition. To treat it as code to unlock that which we have no control over is destructive, morally deficient and intellectually primitive. The notion that there are irrational spells or mystical incantations that can guarantee protection is as delusionary as fool’s gold. And most of us are indeed fools.
Maimonides, the great rationalist, in his Laws of Idolatry said:
Know, my masters, that it is not proper for a man to accept as trustworthy anything other than one of these three things. The first is a thing for which there is a clear proof deriving from man’s reasoning — such as arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. The second is a thing that a man perceives through one of the five senses — such as when he knows with certainty that this is red and this is black and the like through the sight of his eye; or as when he tastes that this is bitter and this is sweet; or as when he feels that this is hot and this is cold; or as when he hears that this sound is clear and this sound is indistinct; or as when he smells that this is a pleasing smell and this is a displeasing smell and the like. The third is a thing that a man receives from the prophets or from the righteous. Every reasonable man ought to distinguish in his mind and thought all the things that he accepts as trustworthy, and say: “This I accept as trustworthy because of tradition, and this because of sense-perception, and this on grounds of reason.” Anyone who accepts as trustworthy anything that is not of these three species, of him it is said: “The simple believes everything” (Prov. 14:15).
Maimonides said that all references in the Talmud to spirits and metaphysical control over human affairs was simply a reflection of popular delusion. The masses believed in it, so the rabbis spoke in a language with which the populace was familiar.
I realize there are many people who need the “security” of magic, fortune, astrology and luck. Often life is so awful to us that we cannot cope. We need comfort. It is false comfort and lies that I deplore. I accept human frailty, because I am frail. But I am offended when I hear people say that it is a requirement of religion or even an essential part of it.