Written in the Stars (Or Not)
To overcome fated lives, the Talmud’s rabbis argued, perform virtuous acts according to Torah
To give this idea a Jewish twist, he deduced the characteristic of each day from what is said about it in the Creation story in Genesis. A person born on Sunday will be either “completely for the best or completely for the worst,” because on the first day God created both light and darkness. A Monday person is argumentative, because on the second day God separated the waters above from the waters below, introducing the principle of division and contention into the world. Tuesday people are promiscuous, like the plants created on that day; Wednesday people are enlightened, since the stars were created on that day; Thursday people are kind, because the fifth day God created the fish and fowl, who do not work for their sustenance but live by God’s kindness alone. Friday people are seekers of mitzvot, since Friday is the day devoted to preparing for Shabbat.
As for one born on Shabbat itself, the Talmud offers her both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, being born on Shabbat means being “a person of great sanctity,” since it is the holiest day. On the other hand, as we have seen earlier in Tractate Shabbat, a baby born on Shabbat requires the holy day to be violated in various ways. This is permitted for the sake of preserving life, but it is nevertheless a violation, for which the child will pay by dying on Shabbat. “One who was born on Shabbat will die on Shabbat, because they desecrated the great day of Shabbat on his behalf.”
After this list of fatal natal days, Rabbi Chanina proposes a different astrological system, one that seems totally pagan, having no relationship to Genesis. For Chanina, everything depends on which planet was in the ascendant at the hour of one’s birth. (The Koren edition helpfully supplies a chart to determine which planet reigns over each hour of each day.) If you were born, say, at noon on Tuesday, you’re in luck—your planet is Jupiter, whose Hebrew name is tzedek, and so you will be a just person, a tzadkan. If, on the other hand, you were born at 3 a.m. on Wednesday, your planet is Mars, and you “will be one who spills blood”—either a criminal or a ritual slaughterer or even a mohel.
To us, this kind of fatalistic thinking seems utterly contrary to the spirit of ethical monotheism. If the kind of person you are depends on when you were born, what becomes of the idea of free choice, or of reward and punishment? Rabbi Chanina evidently had no problem with all this: “A constellation makes one wise and a constellation makes one wealthy,” he said, adding that “there is a constellation for the Jewish people.” Even collective Jewish fate, it seems, is governed by the stars.
But to this Rabbi Yochanan strongly objected: “There is no constellation for the Jewish people.” He cited a verse from Jeremiah: “Thus saith the Lord: Learn not the way of the nations, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven.” And the Talmud goes on to give exemplary cases of Jews who escaped what seemed to be their predetermined fates. One day, Shmuel and a Gentile sage named Ablet were sitting together, and they saw people going to the lake. “Ablet said to Shmuel: This person will go and he will not return, because a snake will bite him and he will die.” Shmuel, however, responded, “If he is a Jew, he will go and come back.”
When the man indeed returned in one piece, Ablet opened his pack, and inside it he found a snake cut into two pieces. The man, evidently a Jew, had managed to elude his fate—but what explained his narrow escape? The man explained that he had performed a mitzvah: “Today there was one of us who did not have bread, and when it came time to gather the bread, he was embarrassed because he did not have any to give. I said to the others: I will go and take the bread. When I came to the person who did not have bread, I rendered myself as one who was taking from him so that he should not be embarrassed.” For the mitzvah of sparing a poor man embarrassment, this Jew was rescued from the snake.
This is not exactly how we might want the Talmud to deal with the question of fate. After all, the story does not deny that men have fates, that mazal rules over us. It only says that a Jew is able to nullify his mazal by performing virtuous acts. There may be a constellation for the Jewish people, but it comes with an escape clause: life according to Torah. At the end of a long, sometimes arduous journey through Tractate Shabbat, here is a rare but striking example of how God rewards those who obey his many commandments.
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