Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
Some time ago my brother Nissim wrote me regarding the Torah’s view of astrology. We discussed the matter, and after reviewing many sources, I wish to share our findings, and my thoughts.
I know that you may search and find sayings of some individual sages in the Talmud and Midrashim whose words appear to maintain that at the moment of a man’s birth, the stars will cause such and such to happen to him. Do not regard this as a difficulty, for it is not fitting for a man to abandon the prevailing law and raise once again the counterarguments and replies (that preceded its enactment). Similarly it is not proper to abandon matters of reason that have already been verified by proofs, shake loose of them, and depend on the words of a single one of the sages from whom possibly the matter was hidden.
–Maimonides, “Letter to the Community of Marseille”
Maimonides teaches that reason must be the ultimate guide of our thoughts and actions. Once we know something to be true based on reason and proof, any opposition, even from the Sages, must be of no consequence. Maimonides was guided by his understanding of the universe; there are fixed laws of nature and Divine providence. Our acceptance of theories have but a single arbiter: “proof”. Once we see a proof for something, all other views are of no regard, for proof means that man has uncovered conclusive reasoning for how the universe operates. And any view opposing that which has been demonstrated, must be false.
The method displayed by many individuals defending a Sage or Rabbi is self-contradictory, as seen in this example: Ruben accepts Rabbi A on a philosophical issue. Then, Ruben reads that Rabbi B opposes Rabbi A. What shall Ruben do? He already claimed support for Rabbi A, based on his reputation. Now when he learns that Rabbi B opposed it, how does Ruben decide which is truth? For two opposing views cannot both be correct: either one is wrong, or both are wrong. But both cannot be correct if they oppose each other. Relying on reputation alone, Ruben is at a stalemate.
Many times, it is confidence alone that people lack—not proofs—and therefore they cannot say, “I think Rabbi B is more sensible. Sometimes this stems from false humility, and sometimes, from the lack of independent thought and the inability to cleave to truth, over reputations. Maimonides teaches that this path cannot be followed, for the clear reason proved in Ruben’s stalemate. Man must use reason to determine truth: this is precisely why God granted “each” of us intelligence. We are not to simply follow the leader.
When approaching the area of astrology, we are faced with this dilemma: great reputations oppose each other. Do we follow Maimonides, or Ramban and the Ramchal? Actually, this is not how a thinker frames his question. For a true thinker seeking truth, cares nothing about reputations: he is concerned only with what is reasonable. The thinker is not deciding between Ramban and Maimonides. He divorces the theories from the personalities, judging theories on their own merit. We are certain that our Baalei HaMesora—Masters of Torah Transmission—always followed Maimonides’ principle of following truth, over any other consideration:
It is not proper for a man to accept as trustworthy anything other than one of these three things: 1) clear proof deriving from man’s reasoning; 2) what is perceived through one of the five senses; 3) what is received from the prophets or from the righteous. Every reasonable man ought to distinguish in his mind and thought all the things that he accepts as trustworthy, and say: “This I accept as trustworthy because of [Torah] tradition, and this because of sense-perception, and this on grounds of reason.” Anyone who accepts as trustworthy anything that is not of these three categories, of him it is said: “The simple believes everything” (Prov. 14:15). Maimonides, “Letter to the Community of Marseille”
Maimonides teaches that our acceptance of truths must be limited to one of these three methods; reason, sense perception, or Torah tradition. Based on the third, let us review some Torah verses addressing astrology. We will then answer other quotes, which on the surface, seem to contradict our findings.
In Miketz (Gen.41:8) Pharaoh has two dreams: in one dream, seven lean cows swallow seven healthy cows. In the second, seven lean ears of corn swallow seven healthy ears. In both dreams, no display of ingestion could be discerned. Pharaoh was deeply bothered by his dreams, but “he could find no interpreter” (Ibid).
Typically, Pharaoh would accept his astrologers’ theories. However, in this case, as Pharaoh was distraught, his regular acceptance of astrological theories did not suffice to settle his mind. Here, when he was personally involved, he dismissed the baseless quality of his astrologers’ explanations. This teaches that there were no incontrovertible proofs in the words of his astrologers.
On verse 41:8, Rashi states that his Egyptian astrologers suggested the dreams to mean that Pharaoh will bear seven daughters, and that he will bury seven daughters. However, this never occurred. We learn that these astrologers were lying, and had no knowledge based on their astrology. Why did they speak up when they knew they were lying about foreknowledge? The answer is because they desired to retain their posts as Pharaoh’s ministers: honor and fame is a great lure. Surely, his astrologers were consulted in the past, and as back then, they would suggest meanings, otherwise, they had no use to Pharaoh. Why would Pharaoh retain them? Because they could not be proven wrong; they might claim, “You will yet have those daughters and you will yet bury them.” The astrologers were wise enough not to paint themselves into a corner. Pharaoh may have retained their posts for the additional reason that he needed to consult with mystics, and perhaps, sometimes, these astrologers guessed correctly. They clearly received their position based on some performance…be their prior successes based on mere intuition, or coincidence. But foreknowledge is clearly dismissed, as seen in this example of the seven daughters theory.
Why did Pharaoh accept Joseph’s dream interpretations? It appears from Joseph’s method of explanation, that at a certain point even before completing his interpretation, Joseph was convinced he conveyed to Pharaoh a convincing explanation. At that point midstream in his interpretation, Joseph exclaims, “This is the thing that I told Pharaoh: what God plans to do, He has shown to Pharaoh” (Exod. 41:28). Joseph could have said this, only if he was certain that he already proved the true meaning, and that this was Divine. Thus, he tells Pharaoh, in other words, “Are you now convinced? This proves your dreams are divine!”
With the words, “The dreams of Pharaoh are one”—which Joseph repeats–Joseph was convinced in his interpretation, and that he also proved to Pharaoh his interpretation was correct. Telling Pharaoh twice, “The dreams of Pharaoh are one,” Joseph deviated from the arbitrary methods of the astrologers: Joseph emphasized the dream's “design”–duplication–not merely offering an alternative explanation of the “content.” With his explanation of the repeating “design,” Joseph distinguished his interpretation from that of the astrologers. Thereby, Pharaoh was convinced that Joseph was correct. Ibn Ezra (41:32) states that the dreams’ duplication—in a single night—meant that God’s plan was imminent as well. So the dreams’ duplication in general proved that the dreams were divine, and the fact that the two dreams occurred in a single night proved that God’s plan was imminent.
In Exodus 2:3, Moses’ mother could “no longer hide him.” After a premature birth to Moses, just six months pregnant, Moses’ mother Yocheved was only able to hide him from the Egyptian, genocidal decree for three months. Why? Because according to Rashi, the Egyptians calculated when nine months would arrive after Yocheved and her husband reunited, expecting them to bear a child only after that time. This proves that the Egyptians’ astrology was false: they continued killing infants fearing the birth of the Jews’ savior…even after Moses was born! But since Moses—the savior—was already born, why did they continue their murders? They must have felt the messiah was “yet” to be born. But they were mistaken, for Moses was already alive for three full months. Again, they failed at discerning a matter through astrology.
In Exodus 1:16 Rashi explained why Pharaoh decreed the death of the males, “for the astrologers saw that a savior was to be born to the Jews.” But this is common sense: any oppressed people possess the probability of an uprising. Here, claims of astrological knowledge are unnecessary: psychology explains this quite easily. In Exodus 1:22 Rashi states, “On the day Moses was born, Pharaoh’s astrologers told him, ‘today the savior has been born, but we know no whether he is Egyptian or Jew.’” The words “On the day Moses was born…” are misleading, for one might think that Rashi was convinced that the astrologers knew the exact day that Moses was born. However, as Rabbi Israel Chait taught, this was not the first time the astrologers told Pharaoh a savior was born…they may have said this on numerous occasions, exposing their ignorance.
Saadia Gaon remarks that Egypt’s magic was sleight of hand, and nothing more. (“The Book of Beliefs & Opinions”, pg. 153) This also explains why the Egyptian astrologers could duplicate Moses’ first two signs of blood and frogs: these objects can be manipulated with adequate, tactile dexterity. Saadia Gaon states the astrologers deceived others, using dies to mimic blood, and spilling chemicals into the Nile causing the frogs to flee to dry ground. Through their deception, the astrologers simulated Moses’ two plagues. However, the astrologers could not manipulate the third plague of lice. Lice are too small for the hand to adequately manipulate. Thus, the Egyptians attested, “This is the finger of God.” They admitted their lack of control, but did so in a way where they were not to blame, for “God is superior.”
Supposed astrological powers or knowledge are repeatedly refuted. No proof for astrological theories presents itself in any of these cases. And astrological claims have yet to be validated today.
Refutation in Prophets
But the most glaring refutation of astrology, is God’s very words:
So says God, ‘To the ways of the nations do not learn, and from the signs of heaven, do not fear, for the nations fear them. For the statutes of the nations are futile, for a tree from the forest they cut, the work of an artisan with an adze. With silver and gold they adorn it; with nails and pegs they strengthen it so it does not disconnect. They are like a sculpted palm tree and they cannot speak, they are carried about for they cannot walk: do not fear them, for they cannot harm and they also cannot do good” (Jeremiah 10:1-5).
God clearly teaches man that the nations live in foolishness, that stars or heavenly signs (occurrences) are nothing to fear, and idols are manmade. Man has no reason to attribute powers to his sculpted creations. They cannot speak or walk as man, yet man attributes more powers to these idols, than to himself. Herein is man’s distortion: man is greater and can walk and talk, yet he assumes these inanimate blocks of wood—that required human construction—possess greater powers than man. God exposes the corruption of thought harbored by these nations, and He groups therein the practice of fearing heavenly phenomena. It is no coincidence that God groups heavenly signs together with idolatry in His ridicule. God says both; heavenly phenomena and idolatry are equally futile. Would it then be sensible to claim that the stars and astrology are not for Jews to follow, but for gentiles it is permissible, or that it even works? But God plainly states, “For the statutes of the nations are futile.” This applies to the object or practice, and it matters none if the followers are gentile or Jews. God states openly “for they cannot harm and they also cannot do good.” These are God’s own words. This satisfies the third of Maimonides’ three categories for determining truth “Torah traditions”: traditions must be true.
Maimonides’ second category of truths is sense perception, that is, all that we perceive is accurate and truth. And we have no perception or proof of the stars affecting our free will or granting us unique character traits. Just the opposite is the case: our free will is “free” and uncontrolled by anything, but our will alone. Heavenly phenomena do not affect man.
Maimonides first rule is that when something is proven, we care nothing about what we might find, even in the words of the Sages, as he says, “Similarly it is not proper to abandon matters of reason that have already been verified by proofs, shake loose of them, and depend on the words of a single one of the sages from whom possibly the matter was hidden.”
Maimonides teaches that the very fact God gave us commands must be predicated on our ability to comply. We are free to follow God or oppose Him, and therefore, stars and zodiacs contribute nothing to our own choices, for which we are justly rewarded or punished. “For all His ways are judgment” (Deut. 32:4). “Whose eyes are open upon all the ways of the sons of men, to give every one according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings” (Jer. 32:19).
Talmud: Astrology or Psychology?
The Talmud (Sabbath 156a) suggests that depending on the day or hour of one’s birth, he will possess a certain personality. Sounds like astrology! Can we answer this in light of what we have stated to this point? But before we answer that, why is the entire discussion in the Talmud concerning one’s “birth?” Why is this moment significant? Conversely, King Solomon said, “Better is the day of one’s death than the day of his birth” (Eccl. 7:1). Why does the Talmud elevate birth, when King Solomon elevated death? Ibn Ezra answers this question: “At birth, we know not yet what will be come of this child; he might turn out good or evil. But at death, he has already earned his good name” (Ibid). Thus, even Ibn Ezra of whom it is said endorsed astrology, did not ascribe to fate, and here commits to his view that at birth, nothing is known. Death is better; for it is only then that we can determine through historical proof, whether an individual is good or evil.
So how then does the Talmud state that if one is born on Sunday, he will be either totally good, or totally evil? Rashi states that since Sunday is the “lead” day of the week, one who is born on Sunday will also be a leader, in either the good life, or the evil life. This explanation removes any need for astrological theories, and uses proven, psychological principles to explain why such a person will lead: he identifies with that “lead” day of the week, which itself would be insignificant, had it not harkened back to God’s six days of creation. So man is not directed by some unknown, astrological “power,” but functions many times based on his emotions: specifically, his emotion of identification.
Since man’s ego tends to endorse “his” existence with great value, he invests his very first day on Earth with unparalleled significance: “my birthday has meaning” he feels. Thus, he looks at what other significant events occurred on that day, to bolster his self worth. He realizes God’s creation is great, and parallels himself to God’s creation by viewing the day of his birth on par with that day of the week in Creation. He then latches on to that day’s significance (the “lead” day in our case) and then creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Talmud continues with additional examples:
He who is born on the second day of the week will be bad-tempered. What is the reason? Because the waters were divided thereon.” (Division or disunity is caused by bad temper, Rashi) so will he be estranged from other people through his temper). He who is born on the third day of the week will be wealthy and unchaste. What is the reason? Because herbs were created thereon. (Herbs multiply very rapidly and also continually intermingle with other herbs.) He who is born on the fourth day of the week will be wise and of a retentive memory. What is the reason? Because the luminaries were suspended [thereon].”
In all these cases, man identifies with the day of his birth, and this identification is what propels him to mimic the nature of that day. The heavenly phenomena play absolutely no role in determining his fate. We also learn, “All is in the hand of heaven, except for the fear of heaven.” Man is solely responsible for his actions. This Talmudic portion can be explained reasonably, and with no need to resort to astrological views. It educates man on his insecurities, and his means to inflate his worth. In truth, King Solomon is correct: one’s birthday is insignificant. But it is also true that man is partial to himself, and ignores truths when they counter his ego.
This Talmudic portion concludes with five additional cases where individuals were not subject to planetary influence, but received their good lot based on merit. It is worth noting that two of those cases deal with serpents, which might allude to those cases being metaphorical, discussing man’s instincts (serpent), not real events. But even taken literally, we find two opposing Talmudic views debating if astrology offers any true knowledge. On this, Maimonides wrote as we quoted, that we do not abandon what is proven, even if opposed by a sage.
Astrology Equated to Idolatry: Human Insecurity
Jeremiah 10 warns us against attributing any significance to heavenly signs or idolatry, and God groups the two crimes together, since they are related. In fact, Maimonides teaches that it is precisely man’s flawed attribution of greatness to the stars, from which idolatry was born. Idolatry is actually referred to as “Avodas Kochavim,” star worship. Maimonides elaborates on this in his first laws of his Mishneh Torah, Laws of Star Worship (idolatry).
To those who cleave to a belief in astrology, you must realize that you cannot claim a belief in something, if you cannot explain it. A Rabbi once defined idolatry as “claiming a causal relationship for unrelated things.” He meant to say that idolatry has no basis in reason or what we perceive, so that we should accept it. Astrology is no different: if you cannot explain it, it must not be accepted, as our lives are to be guided by reason. Even if one were to say astrology is a force of nature, but he does not know what it is, it is worthless to say, “I agree with it.” That is a lie. To suggest astrology refers to “heavenly powers which guide human affairs” is a nonsensical statement, if one cannot prove those powers exists, or how they might govern.
Regardless of which Rabbi held astrology to be truth or falsehood, I ask: “Why, without an argument reasonable to your mind, do you accept a premise…just because others do?” Astrology is not an area of Jewish “law,” so there is no ruling, “psak.” Therefore, feel not obligated to agree with one view over another. And be honest: if there are two opposing views, one must be wrong. And if you cannot reasonably prove your view, your view may be the incorrect one. Certainly, if the opposing view is explained rationally, as Maimonides has done, and as we read in the Torah and know from experience, that man has freewill, why should you not abandon your view in place of what makes sense?
You must also know that if any of the Rabbis were shown that his view was false, he would abandon it. We witness this devotion to truth throughout the Talmud. Honesty and truth are at the core of every Torah scholar. Not a single one remained in his view once disproved, realizing it violated reason, science, or Torah.
You must also be sensitive to your feelings of insecurity, to which astrology caters. Assuming there are “powers out there guiding me” is quite comforting, and relieves one of his responsibilities. He can easily blame all is shortcomings on his horoscope. But remember that the Torah prohibits horoscopists. Horoscopes satisfy the very same insecurities which idols were created to address. This is why God groups idolatry with heavenly signs in Jeremiah: they share the same origin of human insecurity.
Living in line with truth means we examine all facets of our lives, which are primarily psychological in nature. If you ignore self-assessment and reflection, you will never see your flaws, and never repent, which God desires for our own good.
We are not born with all of the answers…far from it. But with honesty, we can arrive at an ever-growing attachment to truth, where we spend less time defending our predisposed, unexamined notions, and more time defenselessly seeking what is real and true.
Ibn Ezra on Leviticus 19:31 says the following:
Those with empty brains say, “Were it not that fortune tellers and magicians were true, the Torah would not prohibit them.’” But I (Ibn Ezra) say just the opposite of their words, because the Torah doesn’t prohibit that which is true, but it prohibits that which is false. And the proof is the prohibition on idols and statues.
Based on this Ibn Ezra, as the Torah prohibits fortunetellers and horoscopists, they must be equally false practices, affording man lies, and not truth.
Again, as Maimonides wrote, simply because one Rabbi accepted astrology, this is no basis for you to accept it, especially when you do not fathom what he did, or understand his words, or possess reason to accept it. First and foremost, you must know what God said to be true, starting with Jeremiah, and throughout the Tanach…this must be your measuring rod. But do not seek to defend a cherished view, if your mind tells you it violates God’s Torah.
The Rabbis state, “All is in the hand of heaven, except the fear of heaven” (Brachos 33b). This means that one’s wealth, health, personalities, children and all matters aside from free will are decided by God. Whatever God’s means are for determining our personalities or world events, God does so with wisdom, whether we know how He does this or not: “All His ways are just.” The One who gave such a perfect system of wisdom, i.e., the Torah, surely works with wisdom. The One who created and governs the universe with intelligent laws, is consistent. Therefore, it is a denial of God’s methods of wisdom to follow reputations or popular notions, instead of theories, certainly, when you are bereft of any understanding. God does not wish that man lies, and accept a view, unless man understands that view. Whether on a specific issue a Rabbi was right or wrong, this is not our concern to prove, for all men err. What our Rabbis teach is that we engage our minds alone for determining truth. If some view is contrary to reason, we are wise to reject it. Judaism’s teachers unanimously agree: our “methods” of decision making are crucial, not who we follow. This may sound odd, but provided we use our intellects granted by God, we are not to blame for accepting something God knows is false. The principle “Lo bashamayim hi”, “It is not in heaven”, teaches that our objective is not to make sure we know what God knows, but that we arrive at decisions to the best of our abilities. “Aylu v’aylu, divray Elohim chaim”, “These and these, the words of God live”, means that regardless of “these views or those views” (opposing rulings) both are nonetheless attempts to arrive at truth, and that is what is praiseworthy, “Divray Elohim chaim.” Of course, when two views oppose each other, one must be wrong, but that is not in man’s hands at all times. This last quote means to praise all those who honestly engage their minds in the pursuit of truth, regardless of their outcome.
We know quite little about how God governs the world. And just as we admit that point, we must be consistent and admit when we do not understand any other matter. And it makes no difference if a Rabbi claims to understand it. For if we do not understand a given matter, we have no grounds to agree with that view, whether right or wrong. “Agree” means we apprehend a matter, and understand it as consistent with how the world operates. Our allegiance to a theory must be, as Maimonides taught, based on proof, perception, or Torah Traditions.