Astronomy and Astrology in Jewish sources

  • A statement in the Tosefta (Kiddushin 5:17) holds that the blessing bestowed on Abraham is the gift of astrology. Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah states that the rulers of some non-Jewish nations were experts in astrology, and that King Solomon too had expertise in this realm. (7:23 no. 1)
  • According to this source, the biblical Patriarch Abraham bore upon his breast an astrological tablet on which the fate of every man might be read. Thus, kings are said to have congregated before his door in order to seek advice.
  • Sotah 12b, the Talmud says of conventional astrologers that “They gaze and know not at what they gaze at, they ponder and know not what they ponder.”
  • Otzar HaGeonim 113, concludes that astrology has some reality, in that the stars give a person certain inclinations; however each person has the ability to overcome their own inclinations, and thus maintains free will.
  • Jews were sometimes looked upon as heirs and successors of the Chaldeans. Their supposed power over destiny on occasion filled the multitudes with awe and fear
  • Abraham ibn Ezra was a follower of astrology, which he calls “a sublime science.” Besides translating another Jewish philosopher Mashallah‘s astrological work Questions and another work of this author on the eclipse of the moon from the Arabic into Hebrew, he wrote Nativity, Sentences of the Constellations, Reshit Hokhmah (Beginning of Wisdom), Book of the World, a treatise on the Planets, a treatise on the Luminaries, and a horoscope. He often refers to astrology in his Bible commentaries. To him heaven with its constellations is “the book of life,” in which man’s destiny is written, and against which there is recourse to God as “the Almighty,” who overrules all these influences. These remarks may be found in his commentary to Psalms 69:29, Genesis 17:9, and to Exodus 6:3, 33:21.) In the book Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra: Studies in the Writings of a Twelfth-Century Jewish Polymath (Harvard, 1993, ISBN 0-674-74554-X), the author of a chapter dealing with Ibn Ezra’s astrological views (“Some Astrological Themes in the Thought of Abraham Ibn Ezra”) states that: “The gist of the Jewish attitude toward astrology as formulated by Ibn Ezra has usually been understood—in general, correctly—as follows. The deity has delegated to the stars the governance of the sublunar world. Israel [Jews], however, enjoys a special status, which is manifest most decisively in its possession of the Torah. As long as a Jew is engaged in the study and observance of the Torah, he is linked to a spiritual realm which is itself superior to the stars. In this way a Jew may liberate himself from the decrees of the stars” (p. 49).
  • In the Tur, an early code of Jewish law, the author brings forth the views of Nahmanides and Maimonides, and concurs with Nahmanides (Yoreh Deah 179). A later code of Jewish law, the Shulkhan Arukh avoids contention by stressing the common point: One may not consult an astrologer; the act is forbidden.
  • In Derekh Hashem Section II, chapter 7, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto discusses the influence of stars on humanity and events on earth. There he gives two reasons for the existence of stars and planets. The first is that stars and planets maintain the existence of all physical things on earth, acting as the means by which spiritual forces are transmitted to physical entities. The second is that events on earth are also initiated through planetary and stellar activity. Luzzatto states that each earthly phenomenon is assigned to a specific star, which controls it. Quoting the Talmudic dictum in Sanhedrin 156a – “for Israel, there is no mazal (“luck”, literally “planet” or “constellation”)”, he also states that higher powers (i.e. God or angels) may overcome the influences of this system, and that they typically do so for Jews.
  • Luzzatto notes that the laws and rules governing this system of astrological influence are extremely complex, and not easily ascertainable through direct observation; thus astrologers are rarely able to predict the future accurately or clearly. The accuracy of their predictions is further reduced by the aforementioned propensity of Divine providence to intervene and override the system. This, Luzzatto states, explains the use of the word me’asher (“something”) in Isaiah 47:13 (“Now let the astrologers, stargazers and fortunetellers stand up and tell you something about what will come upon you”); in Luzzatto’s view, this means they can tell you something about the future, but not everything.
  • Among the sciences that Johanan ben Zakkai mastered was a knowledge of the solstices and the calendar; i.e., the ability to compute the course of the sun and the moon (Suk. 28a). Later writers declare that “to him who can compute the course of the sun and the revolution of the planets and neglects to do so, may be applied the words of the prophet (Isa. v. 12), ‘They regard not the work of the Lord, neither consider the operation of his hands.'” To pay attention to the course of the sun and to the revolution of the planets is a religious injunction; for such is the import of the words (Deut. iv. 6), “This is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations” (Shab. 75a).
  • The Talmud identified the twelve constellations of the zodiac with the twelve months of the Hebrew calendar. The correspondence of the constellations with their names in Hebrew and the months is as follows:

Aries – Ṭaleh – Nisan
Taurus
– Shor – IyarGemini – Teomim – SivanCancer – Sarṭon – TammuzLeo – Ari – AvVirgo – Betulah – ElulLibra – Moznayim – TishreiScorpio – ‘Aḳrab – CheshvanSagittarius – Ḳasshat – KislevCapricorn – Gedi – TevetAquarius – D’li – ShevatPisces – Dagim – Adar

  • The sun has 365 windows through which it emerges; 182 in the east, 182 in the west, and 1 in the middle, the place of its first entrance.
  • The names of the seven planets are:

Shabbetai, Saturn
Ẓedeḳ, Jupiter
Maadim, Mars
Ḥammah, the Sun
Kokebet, Nogah or Kokab-Nogah, Venus
Kokab, Mercury
Lebanah, the Moon

  • Samuel said: “I know all the paths of heaven, but nothing of the nature of the comet.”
  • Abraham ibn Ezra translated Al-Mattani‘s Canons of the Khwarizmi Tables, and in his introduction tells a remarkable story of a Jew in India who helped Jacob ben Tarik to translate the Indian astronomical tables according to the Indian cycle of 432,000 years.

Sources:

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