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!