Ask the Rabbi:
Q. Some people think the star signs are indicators of human character. What is your view?
A. Some Jews take the stars seriously and believe in horoscopes, but normative Judaism can’t take seriously the idea that the combination of the stars and one’s date, day and hour of birth influence one’s identity and character.
Sisera is said to have been affected by “the stars in their courses” (Judges 5:20), though the reference is probably to heavenly bodies that govern the winds and rains.
The prophet Jeremiah was adamant that Jews should not attach themselves to “the signs of the skies” (Jer. 10:2).
Isaiah says that God does not support the “imposters and diviners” but frustrates their designs (Isa. 44:24-25).
Middle Eastern people like the Babylonians and Egyptians, seeing that they had clear night skies, observed the movements of the heavenly phenomena.
A 3rd century rabbi (Samuel) is said to have known the pathways of heaven as well as he knew the streets of his own city.
- Some sages thought God gave the patriarchs astrological charts with which to work out the fate of human beings, including their number of children and how much money they would have. In parts of the Talmud (but not all) the signs of the zodiac were considered influential in one’s destiny.
The greeting “Mazal Tov” came into use, not as a congratulatory formula but as an acknowledgment that one was blessed with good fortune.
- However, Maimonides and other great rationalists brushed aside any thought of horoscopes or one’s life by the stars and insisted that what weighed was the combination of the will of God and the exercise of human energy and effort.
The Code of Jewish Law (the Shulchan Aruch) says, “One should not consult astrologers or cast lots to ascertain or determine the future” (Yoreh De’ah 179:1).
When people began to study astronomy scientifically, the superstitious fantasies of astrology became a mere source of amusement. There are still people who go in for fortune telling and primitive financial and personal advice, but there is nothing scientific about it.
PARAGRAPHING IN THE TORAH
Q. Why is there sometimes a short space between paragraphs in the Torah and sometimes a longer space, with the next paragraph starting a new line?
A. The Hebrew words for the two kinds of spacing are “parashah s’tumah” (“a closed paragraph”), where there is a short space before the next paragraph begins later in the same line, and “parashah p’tuchah” (“an open paragraph”), where the next paragraph begins on a new line.
The difference between them usually depends on whether a completely new unit of thought or story is about to commence.
The word “s’tumah” comes from a root that means to stop up.
In the Mishnah “s’tam” is used for a law which is not ascribed to an individual sage; “s’tam yayin” is wine whose history is not clear; “s’tam” in modern Hebrew indicates “without rhyme or reason”.