Do Jews believe in astrology? May I read the weekly horoscope in the newspaper? Is adapting activities to match a horoscope forecast permitted? Is there anything to worry about if the horoscope predicts something negative? Why did Rabbi Akiva pay attention to the necromancer who predicted his daughter’s death on her wedding day, and why did he let her marry? Why was Rav Nachman’s mother concerned that her son would become a thief and what did she do to prevent it? Is astrology a real science? We wish each other “mazal tov” on every joyous occasion, while at the same time the Gemoro states that “Yisroel haas no mazal”. The following article will sort things out.
In this week’s parasha we read: “You shall not act on the basis of omens or lucky hours” (Vayikra 19:26). Later in the same parasha we are warned: “And the person who turns to Ov or Yid’oni, to stray after them I will set My attention upon that person, and I will cut him off from amidst his people” (Vayikra 20:6), and an explanation: “You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am sending away from before you, for they committed all these [sins], and I was disgusted with them” (Vayikra 20:23). At the end of the parasha this topic arises again: “And a man or a woman who has [the sorcery of] Ov or Yid’oni shall surely be put to death; they shall pelt them with stones; their blood is upon themselves” (Vayikra 20:27). If the Torah had to spend so much space warning against using necromancers, witchcraft, and sorcery, they were apparently not only commonly practiced, but in some way efficient as well (which is not to say about astrology today).
The Torah lists four different prohibitions in this context:
- The prohibition of Nichush – deciding to do or refrain from doing something based on signs and omens, for example: turning back because a black cat passed; not using a broken mirror, etc.
- The prohibition of Meonen – deciding that a certain time is a bad time or lucky one, such as not doing business on Friday, the 13th of the month.
- The prohibition of Ov –using a cadaver’s bone for calling upon spirits of the deceased for the purpose of acquiring information.
- The prohibition of Yidoni – the same as the Ov, but this sorcerer utilizes an animal bone instead of a human bone.
To fully understand these prohibitions we must examine the second time these prohibitions appear, in the book of Devarim: “When you have come to the land the Lord, your G-d, is giving you, you shall not learn to do like the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who passes his son or daughter through fire, a soothsayer, a diviner of [auspicious] times, one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, a pithom sorcerer, a yidonei sorcerer, or a necromancer. For whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord, and because of these abominations, the Lord, your G-d is driving them out from before you. Be wholehearted with the Lord, your G-d” (Devarim 18:9-13).
The Canaanites who inhabited Eretz Yisroel engaged in these abominations – they sacrificed their sons to the Molech and engaged in all forms of fortune telling. For the Jewish nation, using unholy methods to predict the future, is inappropriate and forbidden. G-d wants His nation to be dependent and connected only to Him and only under His sovereignty, not try to predict and change the future, in a way that, so to speak – circumvents G-d.
Is reading a horoscope included in the above-mentioned prohibitions?
The Gemara (Pesachim 113b) forbids asking kaldayim about the future under the obligation to “Be wholehearted with the Lord, your G-d” (Devarim 18:13). The Rishonim are undecided as to what the meaning of kaldayim is. Rashi explains it refers to sorcerers using the Ov – a pithom sorcerer, while the rest of the Rishonim (Aruch, Rashbam, Tosefos, Ramban, and others) maintain that kaldayim are astrologers who predict the future based on the stars and constellations. The Rashbam expounds further: the mitzva of “Be wholehearted with the Lord, your G-d” obligates us to have faith in G-d that everything that transpires in our life is directly from Him, and will ultimately bring good, both for the world at large and ourselves in particular.
The Rishonim ask on Rashi that the word kaldayim cannot connote the Ov prohibition since that prohibition already appears explicitly in the psukim. However, the Ramban answers that according to Rashi the Torah’s prohibition only forbids asking the Ov directly, while the Gemara adds an additional prohibition – endeavoring to find out an Ov prediction, even after it was asked. This prohibition falls under the mitzva of “Be wholehearted with the Lord, your G-d”.
The Or Hachayim (Chefetz Hashem Shabbos 156b) notes that even Rashi in a different place (Shabbos 156B) understands that the word kaldai refers to astrologers and not to a pithom sorcerer. He explains the reason Rashi gives different interpretations. Rashi explains kaldayim in Pesachim as Ov sorcerers because he maintains that there is no prohibition in asking astrologers. However, in Shabbos where the kaldaim gave unsolicited predictions, a behavior of astrologers and not witches, Rashi explains the word kaldai in the Gemara Shabbos as referring to astrologers.
The Meiri (Pesachim 113b) explains why Chazal permit using some incantations (for removing fish bones stuck in the throat, for example) while prohibiting horoscopes and sorcerers: horoscopes and sorcerers could potentially lead one to serving idols or other forces, while incantations do not have this potential.
The Gemara (Shabbos 156b) describes a story that connects Rabbi Akiva with astrology: A soothsayer informed Rabbi Akiva that his daughter would die of a snakebite on her wedding day. Nothing happened. The morning after her wedding, she went to take a barrette she had placed in a crack in the wall the night before, and found a stabbed snake attached to it. Her father asked her if she had any idea why it happened. She explained that yesterday, when everyone was busy with the wedding, a poor man came to the door for charity, and no one was available to help him. She gave him her own portion of food. Rabbi Akiva told her, “You have done a good deed” and applied the pasuk “And charity saves from death” (Mishlei 10:2) to his daughter.
The Gemara tells of another incident where an astrologer’s forecast was taken seriously: Rav Nachman’s mother was told her son would be a thief. The concerned mother ensured his head would always be covered and taught him to keep it that way and pray to Hashem to change his mazal for the better. Rav Nachman did not know why his mother was so concerned, until one day he found himself standing under a date palm that belonged to someone else and when for one split second his head-covering fell off, he was suddenly overtaken with a strong urge to steal, climbing up the palm to pick dates with his teeth.
Why were Rabbi Akiva and Rav Nachman’s mother concerned with these forecasts? Isn’t believing astrologers forbidden under the mitzva of “Be wholehearted with the Lord, your G-d” (Ramban Respona 283; Ritva, Shabbos 156b)?
Apparently, only actively investigating a horoscope is prohibited, as one must conduct himself faithfully and rely upon Hashem. Only in case of an unsolicited prediction should one take heed. And how? The first thing one must reinforce his belief that as Jews we are above all forecasts and predictions, a supernatural nation. Even if something that seems negative is supposed to happen, by means of prayer and virtuous deeds, the future can be changed. This is why Rabbi Akiva and Rav Nachman’s mother were concerned – if a bad prediction is brought to their attention, it is a heaven-sent sign charging them to invest efforts in prayer and virtuous deeds in order to change it. And just as their actions were crowned with success, so too anyone who hears a negative prediction. The Ramban adds a caveat though: one who learns that a certain profession or investment will be unsuccessful according to his mazal cannot rely upon miracles to go on with it.
The Rambam (Avoda Zara 11:8-9) however disagrees with this opinion and rules that any consideration of astrological predictions is included in the prohibition of Onen.
Avraham Avinu was told by astrologers that he would not bear children. Nevertheless, Hashem told him “Go out of your forecast — there is no mazal to Yisroel.”
The Gemara (Nedarim 32a) explains this concept with a pasuk: “With a kind one, You show Yourself kind, with a sincere man, You show Yourself sincere” (Tehilim 18:26). One who is walks faithfully and depends on Hashem, Hashem returns to him in kind, and everything turns out for the best.
The Maharsha (Nedarim 32a) explains how this works: when one perfects his middos like Avraham Avinu, he is essentially recreating the world, and as such – he can overcome the natural order of the world as it is expressed in the mazal.
The Shulchan Aruch (YD 179:1) rules that looking into the weekly horoscope is forbidden. The Rama explains that the prohibition comes under the obligation to “Be wholehearted with the Lord, your G-d”, not the prohibitions of Onen and witchcraft.
Astrology in general is a very inexact science, even by the ancients who practiced it widely and understood it much more than we do today. People who follow horoscopes will always find where it came true and thus reasons to believe it in the future while in truth, anyone can write contemporary horoscopes. While this craft was known during Gemara times, today it is largely unknown and misunderstood, and forecasts have nothing to do with reality.
This understanding, compounded with the Forer Effect Theory (when all individuals believe that personality descriptions apply specifically to them at a 4.2 accuracy rate out of 5, despite the fact that the description is actually filled with information that applies to everyone) clearly shows why horoscopes, fortune telling, personality tests and other forms of predictions can all be found as true. Think for example about the following statements: “You have a great deal of energy when handling problems that you face in your life. However, you are not yet aware of your capacity. I recommend you give some time to discover this side of yourself and you will see what I mean.” Or: “You tend to be critical of yourself; security is one of your major goals in life, and at times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision.”
Investigating what necromancers, fortune tellers, and astrologers say about our future is forbidden, but finding out about the past is not. Therefore, one is permitted to find out what the personality is of the people born under various zodiac signs.
When one happens to hear his forecast — whether purposely or by chance — one can be concerned of a negative or positive forecast and see it as a G-d sent message to pray and trust in Him. One should not change his activities based on the forecast, and should only add prayer and virtuous deeds, which are always recommended. Although Rabbi Akiva was concerned for his daughter, he did nothing beyond praying and performing virtuous deeds to change it: he did not prevent her from marrying.
By ignoring horoscopes we allow our mazal to change, as it did for Avrohom Aveinu, when necessary.