Shabbat 156

Is it Jewish to wish someone “mazel tov”?

What could be more Jewish than saying, “Mazel tov”? Well, the Talmud has an answer to that question. Let me explain.

The word “mazel” literally means “constellation,” and it refers specifically to the twelve constellations ancients understood to influence one’s fate during the months of the year. Astrology, which attempts to understand celestial influence on human affairs, was a highly respected field in the era of the Talmud. Though we may not mean it literally, when we say, “Mazel tov” (i.e., “a good constellation!”), we are expressing a wish that the stars will be auspicious — and not ill-fated.

On today’s page, we find examples of rabbinic astrology, including authorities who describe how the day of the week on which one is born impacts one’s life. For example, we learn that someone born on Wednesday — the day on which God created the sun, moon and stars — will grow up to be wise and enlightened. Other rabbis describe the specific influence that the celestial bodies exert on one’s fate at particular hours on particular days of the week.

Yet, again and again, the text argues back that, as influential as the stars and planetary spheres may seem to be, ultimately, we can alter our own fate. A recurring textual refrain expresses this idea: there is no constellation for the Jewish people. The stars may influence, but they do not determine our fate. How is that? What can we do to overcome their power?

The answer is: by performing acts of piety; in particular, by being kind and compassionate.This happens, for example, with Rabbi Akiva’s daughter on her wedding day:

Rabbi Akiva had a daughter, and Chaldean astrologers told him that on the same day that she enters the wedding canopy, a snake will bite her and she will die. She was very worried about this. On her wedding day, she took the ornamental pin from her hair and stuck it into a hole in the wall for safekeeping, and it happened that it entered directly into the eye of the snake. In the morning, when she took the pin, the snake was pulled and came out with it. 

Her father Rabbi Akiva said to her: What did you do to merit being saved from the snake? 

She told him: In the evening a poor person came and knocked on the door, and everyone was preoccupied with the feast and nobody heard him. I stood and took the portion that you had given me and gave it to him. 

Rabbi Akiva said to her: You performed a mitzvah.

What begins on today’s page as a philosophical discussion about how the celestial spheres influence the Jewish people turns into a reminder of the importance of acts of lovingkindness and other expressions of piety. Yet, clearly old beliefs retain their hold over us. Though few of us today believe that the planets, stars and constellations actually determine our fate, did that ever stop any of us from crying out “Mazel tov!” at a simcha?

Read all of Shabbat 156 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on August 9, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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