Astrology in Medieval Judaism

In the Middle Ages, Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, and others debated the legitimacy of astrology.


Reprinted
with permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from
The Encyclopedia of Judaism, edited by Jacob Neusner,
Alan Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green.

In the Middle Ages, especially in the
orbit of Islam, Jews increasingly practiced astrology. A thorough knowledge of
this art is evidenced in the Zohar and Sefer
Raziel
, and astrology is referred to frequently in medieval liturgical poetry,
including the works of poets such as Kalir and Ibn Gabirol.

Well
known Jewish astrologers of the ninth century were Jacob ibn Turik, whom Ibn
Ezra says brought the astrological tables of the Hindus to Baghdad. Of the same
period, some astrological works remain extant of Sahl ben Bishr al-Israeli,
also known as Rabban al-Tabari ("the rabbi of Tabarisran").

Biblical Commentaries & Astrology

In
this period, the works of Islamic astrologers were translated by Jews into
Hebrew. Ibn Ezra himself was an avid follower of astrology, which he referred
to as a sublime science. He even translated into Hebrew the astrological work
of Mashallah, the court astrologer of Almansur and Marnun, and he authored
important works on the constellations and planets.

Referring
to astrology in his biblical commentaries, Ibn Ezra understood the heavens to
represent the Book of Life in which people’s fate is written. Still, in accordance
with the inherited talmudic perspective, he believed that this fate could be
overruled by God, to whom humans accordingly have recourse in their quest to
reshape their own destiny.

A
similar approach appears in the commentary to Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah of Abraham b. David of Posquieries (Rabad). While asserting the
influence of the stars upon human destiny, he also avers that faith in God can overcome
this influence.

Maimonides,
by contrast, alone among the major rabbinic authorities of this period, opposed
astrology and declared it explicitly forbidden by Lev. 19:26, "You shall not practice augury or
witchcraft." Maimonides viewed astrology as a dangerous superstition,
bordering on idolatry that was "a disease on a science."

Mazal Tov!

The
last important Jewish astrologer was David Gans (in Germany, 1541-1613). Alongside
his work on Jewish and general history (Zemah David), he wrote a work on
cosmography (Gebulat ha-Erez), an astronomical
treatise (Magen David), and
a number of mathematical works. His Nehmad ve-Naim, which deals with astronomy and
mathematical geography, contains a historical survey of the development of
these subjects around the world.

The
modern world and the emergence of science has largely brought an end to astronomy
and the other magical practices known in talmudic times. One minor throw-back
to that period is the contemporary use of the Hebrew phrase "Mazal
Tov," literally "A good constellation," to mean "Good luck!"
Similarly, following the approach of the Shulhan
Arukh
(Yoreh Deah 179, 2), some
Jews continue to reject certain days of the week or month for weddings or other
ventures.


Discover More

Abraham Ibn Ezra

A master Torah commentator who foreshadowed biblical criticism

What Maimonides Means to Me

Beyond just his great volume of work, inspiration from the life of the

Jewish Education in Muslim Lands

In Muslim countries, Jewish boys learned the whole range of Jewish and secular subjects.