Berakhot 59

Rearranging the stars.

Today’s daf opens with a journey to the stars. The rabbis are speculating on the divine manipulations of the constellations Ursa Major (ayish) and Pleiades (kimah) and their consequences for life on earth.

The Gemara teaches:

When the Holy One, Blessed be He, sought to bring a flood into the world, He took two stars from Pleiades and brought the flood upon the world. And afterward, when He wished to fill the void, He took two stars from Ursa Major and filled the void with them. 

Why, the rabbis ask, did God not simply return the stars taken from Pleiades? Because “the prosecutor may not become the defender” — in other words, that which caused harm cannot rescue from harm. Since the stars from Pleiades caused the flood, it can’t be the stars from Pleidas that end it. (This is also the reason we do not use a cow’s horn for a shofar, since it is associated with the golden calf and thus cannot signal our salvation).

This teaching is one of several on today’s daf in which the rabbis weave together a cosmos consisting of biblical texts, observations of natural phenomena, and assessments of human conduct. When humans misbehave, God may respond by rearranging the stars, unleashing misfortune on earth. When the people of Israel suffer, God weeps two tears into the ocean, leading to an earthquake felt throughout the world. These fantastic claims are “proven” by biblical exegesis. This mythological worldview establishes a deep connection between human conduct and divine response.

We may read such rabbinic legends as quaint, just like myths from other ancient cultures that sought to explain phenomena now well understood by scientific inquiry. However, this ancient perspective has much to offer modern people, and may be a corrective to the arrogance and myopia that have characterized the modern human attitude toward nature. We have stopped up rivers, burned forests, split atoms, polluted lands, and changed the chemistry of our atmosphere and waters — all with little concern for the consequences. We are only belatedly realizing that human conduct can have global effects, just as the ancients believed.

The rabbis extend this point further in the second part of today’s daf. We are taught that when seeing a mighty river, one says the blessing: “Blessed is the maker of creation.” But what if the river has been bridged or diverted? The rabbis disagree on what to do. One opinion says the blessing is recited only when viewing the river in its natural state. Another opinion says one can recite the blessing even from a bridge.

The rabbis recognized both the distinct value of the world as made by God and the fact that humans affect the nature of the world and even the cosmos — and not only through obvious interventions like the diversion of rivers and the building of bridges. Human conduct affects the moral fabric of the world too, causing the creator to rearrange the stars and reshape the earth.

In other words, humans are part of nature. It is impossible to filter out their impact. But by paying close attention to the indirect consequences of our conduct, we may come to take greater responsibility for the direct ones too — and ultimately find new ways to introduce blessing to the world.

Read all of Berakhot 59 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 2, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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