Astrology in Rabbinic Literature

The rabbis of the Talmud may have disapproved of astrology, but they did believe in a direct correlation between what occurs on earth and in heaven.

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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.

Knowledge of and interest in the science of astrology entered talmudic Judaism not through the Hebrew Bible--which rejects this science--but through Greco-Roman culture.

This is clear from the fact that the common talmudic term for an astrologer uses not the designations found at Isaiah 47:13 ("those who divide the heavens," "those who gaze at the stars") or in the book of Daniel ("predictors") but terms originating in the Greco-Roman world itself: astralog ("astrologer") in the land of Israel, and Caldei ("Chaldeans") in Babylonia. These individuals are practitioners of a science referred to as astralogia, that is, the Greek term "astrology."

As in the case of the magic that the rabbis conceded non-Jews are in fact able to perform, so rabbinic texts are clear that a direct correlation does exist between what occurs on earth and in heaven. Even so, the talmudic rabbis overwhelmingly disapproved of the art of astrology.

They held, on the one hand, that under the direct protection of God the Israelite nation is not subject to the stars. And they argued, on the other, that even though astrologers can accurately predict the future, since they do not comprehend the manifold ways in which their predictions might be fulfilled, the knowledge is as likely to get their clients into trouble as it is to save them.

Implications of Earthly Actions

The basic notion of the correlation between heavenly and earthly events, along with the claim that Israel is not subject to that correlation, is made in the following passage from Tosefta Sukkah 2:5-6:

"On account of four sorts of deeds are the lights (of the heaven) eclipsed: Because of counterfeiters, perjurers, people who raise small cattle, and people who cut down good trees. And because of four sorts of deeds are Israelite householders handed over to the government: Because of holding on to writs of indebtedness that have already been paid, because of lending on interest, because of pledging funds to charity but not paying up, and because of having the power to protest and not protesting (wrong doing)."

Actions on earth have consequences in heaven. This is viewed as parallel to the more common Israelite theodicy, which holds that Israelites' sinfulness is punished through the increased power of the gentile nations among whom the people of Israel dwell.

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Dr. Alan J. Avery-Peck

Alan J. Avery-Peck is the Kraft-Hiatt Professor in Judaic Studies and Chair at Holy Cross University and a prolific author. Dr. Avery-Peck's primary research interest is Judaism in the first six centuries C.E., with particular attention to the literature of Rabbinic Judaism.

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