The Influence of Astrology

This Shabbat, the daf yomi finishes mesekhet Shabbat, which we have been learning for the last 5 months.  I haven’t posted in a good long while, but thought I would use this opportunity of finishing Shabbat to make this post.  Hopefully, more to come in the future!

Today’s daf (Shabbat 156) had an extended discussion about the influence of astrology on people’s character, based on the day and time when a person was born.  Of the many rabbis quoted, not one of them said that astrology did not exert an influence, although a most of the Sages did say: אין מזל לישראל, that for Jews this influence can be overcome.  Certainly, lessons can be drawn from this discussion about a person overcoming the circumstances of his or her birth and directing potentially harmful character traits to productive ends.  But what to do regarding this widespread belief in astrology?

Well, Rambam has an answer.  In his Letter on Astrology, Rambam vigorously dismisses all such beliefs as false and foolish.  In the last paragraph, Rambam turns to the question of the Talmud.  What to do about the fact that rabbis of the Talmud believed in this?  Rambam’s answer is that either: (1) only one rabbi believed this, and he was in error and did not realize that astrology was false, or (2) Perhaps the passages were meant more as a metaphor or to convey some hidden meaning, or (3) they were asserted with an eye towards the needs of the time.  What is fascinating is that these three reasons parallel 3 moves that Rambam makes elsewhere.

The first move is to ascribe this position to a minority voice in the Talmud, even when it is the majority (or unanimous) voice.  Rambam does the same thing when stating that “The Sages have said that there is no difference between this world and Messianic Times except for suffering the subjugation of the nations.”  (Laws of Kings 12:2).  If fact, though, it is not “the Sages” who say this, for in the Talmud (Berakhot 34b and parallels) this is only the position of Shmuel, whereas all the other Sages disagree.

The second move, to say that these statements were meant as metaphors, is similar to how Rambam in the Guide deals with many passages in the Torah which do not conform to a rationalistic approach.

Finally, the suggestion that this was stated with an eye to the times seems to echo his statement in the Guide (3:28) that there are two types of beliefs: true beliefs and necessary beliefs.  Necessary beliefs are those which are not necessarily factually true but nevertheless conducive to improving the social order.  Perhaps Rambam is saying that the Sages did not believe in astrology, but they worked with that belief to help guide the people to a more constructive path.  This would fit very nicely with the Gemara’s emphasis that Jews can overcome astrological influences by directing their character traits, doing mitzvot and through proper education and upbringing.  Certainly still a relevant message for us today!


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Shabbat 13b – “Blessed is God Who Killed him”

The Gemara on daf 13, records a story about a woman whose husband learned much Mishna and Torah, and attended to Torah scholars, and yet died “in half his days.”  This distraught women:

took his tefillin and carried them about in the synagogues and schoolhouses and complained to them, “It is written in the Torah, for that is thy life, and the length of thy days: my husband, who read Bible, learned Mishnah, and served scholars much, why did he die in middle age?” and no man could answer her.

Then Eliyahu came to visit her, and asked her about their practices during the time when she was a niddah.  Her response revealed that they were lax about some of the required separations during the latter part of her niddah period.   Hearing this, Rabbi Akiva responded: “Blessed be the Omnipresent for slaying him, for he misrepresented (or “did not respect”) the Torah[‘s teaching regarding this law].”

Now, there is much to discuss here in terms of the niddah observances that this couple practiced and why they distinguished between two stages of niddah.  We will leave that for a future post.  For now, I would like to share a discussion by the members of my daf yomi shiur regarding Eliyahu’s response.  Was this not a cruel thing to say to this grieving widow, “Blessed is God for having killed him”, they asked.  This question led to some very insightful approaches to the story.  Here is what they wrote:

Rivka Haut:

While I think the story of the woman seeking a religious explanation for her husband’s untimely death is an awful story, for many reasons, there may be a  positive lesson in it.

Neither the dead husband nor the wife are named. They were probably not “important” people. We are told that the husband studied  with different rabbis, not a specific one. He was not a scholar but a seeker after knowledge. The wife, too, after his death, brought his tefillin around to various shuls and various batei midrash. She now did the rounds, becoming  herself a seeker after knowledge.

Why did she carry his tefillin with her? Perhaps the now unused tefillin symbolized for her the essence of his death – his daily devotion to God ceased by his death.

How did the rabbis she asked, citing a biblical text, respond to her desperate question? The text tells us that “not a single adam”  responded to her.

One could say that they didn’t have an answer. One could  also speculate, supported by the text, that they ignored her.

Along comes Eliyahu, the teller of the story. He repairs the rabbinic indifference by visiting her, and by hearing her out. He hears “the entire event.” He pays attention to her  and allows her to unburden her heart.

By questioning her about the marriage relationship, he elicits an image of a loving marriage: they ate and drank together, and slept together even when not permitted to have sex. Clearly a close bond existed between this couple. And they kept the halakhic strictures. Except that they were lenient in one aspect.

Eliyahu probes her until he discovers this one sin. Thus he supplies her with an answer to her heartfelt question, and adds his opinion that God acted justly.

Whether we like his explanation or not, I think the important element here is that Eliyahu himself appeared to this forgotten widow, took time to listen to her, and offer her an answer to her burning question.   He  “fixed”  the rabbis inability to answer, or their apathy and lack of response to her. He may have restored to her faith in God.


 Micahel Wachsman:

Interesting perspective, but is a harsh answer such as the one he supplied – Blessed be G-d that He killed your husband! – better than apathy or lack of a response?

Not only that, but this was a man who “learned and a read a lot”, served all the great Sages, and was basically being accused of not respecting the Torah, thereby undermining everything this man was trying to accomplish in life.

 Would such an answer restore one’s faith in G-d?

 It might have shattered her entire understanding of her husband’s religious quest.

How many people have been comforted by all these misguided attempts to justify the recent horrors and catastrophes of history, whether man made or not, many often made by great sages? That’s probably why nobody dared give her an answer.

 Not a single “adam” could respond because ultimately we truly have no idea on how to answer questions like tzadik v’ra lo, which is why Eliyahu –  not of the temporal world, perhaps closer to an angel than an adam, had to provide an answer. His answer, it seems, was closer to rasha v’ra lo.

 We don’t know her reaction since one was not given, but we can only speculate.

 I’m not sure such an approach would comfort me; if anything it might move me the other way. Perhaps gentle words and just listening would have been better, at least for her, though I think this story is cited for the unequivocal message to the reader that one must adhere to all the strictures of the rabbis, whether we understand them or not, for otherwise catastrophic things will happen, and even all our learning will not protect us; in fact we might have been going down the wrong road our entire lives and not have even known it. A basic verse in the Torah might have eluded us.


Rachel Yehuda:

Rivka’s analysis is more consistent with models of clinical treatment for trauma and bereavement where the biggest concept is listening and validating loss, or as Rivka put it, hearing her our and allowing her to unburden her heart.  Ignoring someone in pain is probably the worst course of action, but you would be surprised at how common it is for not a single “adam” to respond when others experience loss. Sometimes we avoid people who grieve because we don’t know what we are going to say to them (we don’t know the answer).  However, most of the time, when a trauma survivor asks “why did this happen?” it is a rhetorical question to which the person is not expecting a factual answer.  They are expressing grief in the form of a question so as to get the “answer” in the form of a human response of support.  If the question is an expression of grief that requires sensitivity and consolation, providing an answer as Eliyahu is not comforting, just as Michael says.  But sometimes the question is not rhetorical, but existential.  If after listening and providing support the griever is still requesting some kind of religious answer from a rabbi, it may indeed be comforting for them to be given some sort of a reason — particularly if it relates to something that they did do wrong that could be fixed for next time.   One of the most difficult things to overcome about being traumatized is the sense of helplessness and lack of control.  Guilt is a common reaction to trauma because the idea that the trauma survivor is somehow responsible for what occurred makes them feel in control.  Some people who seek religious counsel following adversity are therefore comforted by the knowledge that an error was committed, and that the tragedy could have been prevented because it makes them feel they live in a more ordered world with rules.  They can accept having violated the rules and living with the consequences, and the hope that better adherence might result in better future outcomes.  Like Michael, I wold not be comforted by this, but in my experience, many people feel better with the idea that bad things happen for a reason than because they live in a world whose rules they cannot understand.


Rivka Haut:

I share much of Michael’s perspective and I agree with Rachel  that Eliyahu’s response doesn’t satisfy me either. But I think the important point is that Eliyahu listened to her and responded, whereas the religious authorities she approached were silent.

The story reports that the widow shlepped her husband’s tefillin around. To her they symbolized his devotion to God. Eliyahu’s questions to her elicit the information that he was a devoted husband as well. So Eliyahu shows her that  both husband and wife were lacking in complete devotion to God because of their (very minor) sin.  As Rachel pointed out, attributing a reason for  a tragedy can be comforting.

It would be great to hear additional thoughts that others may have on this issue.  Please join the conversation!

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