כ״ו באדר ה׳תשע״ג (March 8, 2013)

Shabbat 156a-b: Astrology in the Talmud

On today’s daf the Gemara turns its attention to the question of astrology and the influence of the stars on people.

Astrology, which was considered to be a serious science over the course of many generations, was highly developed in Babylonia. Nevertheless, the Talmud discusses astrology relatively infrequently and when it does, the discussion is on the level of folklore, lacking development or complexity. This is apparently because most of maintained that the constellations do not control the Jewish people. Some of the qualities ascribed here to various astrological signs are related to the visible qualities of the stars themselves, like the qualities attributed to the sun and the moon. Those born under the sign of Venus are ascribed certain qualities because the luminaries were hung on that day. This may be explained because the conclusion of Shabbat is the time associated with Venus, and it is also the time when, according to the Rabbis, fire was discovered by people. Mercury is described as the sun’s scribe because even the early astrologers were aware that it was the closest planet to the sun. Saturn is generally regarded as a sign related to misfortune, even though it is ascribed a different meaning here. Jupiter is considered a sign of fortune and righteousness. Mars was considered to be a sign of war and murder, because of its red color and because of its association with the Roman god Mars.

Do the stars truly affect us?
The Gemara relates:

It was stated that Rabbi Ḥanina says: A constellation makes one wise and a constellation makes one wealthy, and there is a constellation for the Jewish people that influences them. Rabbi Yoḥanan said: There is no constellation for the Jewish people that influences them. The Jewish people are not subject to the influence of astrology. And Rabbi Yoḥanan follows his own reasoning, as Rabbi Yoḥanan said: From where is it derived that there is no constellation for the Jewish people? As it is stated: “Thus said the Lord: Learn not the way of the nations, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the nations are dismayed at them” (Yirmiyahu 10:2). The nations will be dismayed by them, but not the Jewish people.

Many commentaries discussed Rabbi Ḥanina’s opinion and concluded that he does not mean to say that everything is determined by one’s constellation. He himself stated: Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except for fear of Heaven; i.e., the choice between good and evil remains in the purview of human beings.

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