General Topics



I was reading the Roman historian Suetonius (around 69-122 CE) on the twelve Roman Caesars, and I came across this, “Tiberius abolished foreign cults in Rome particularly the Egyptian and Jewish, forcing all those who embraced superstitions to burn their religious vestments and other accessories.” 

 I couldn’t help but laugh. Rome was the most superstitious of cultures and Suetonius himself admits how much they all relied on omens, signs, auguries, auspices, and oracles. Tiberius of all emperors was disgustingly immoral, corrupt, and venal. Perhaps he meant by superstition anything that didn’t agree with him. But then I thought, maybe he was right. Most Jews today seem to be excessively superstitious, relying on signs, symbols, charms, and miracle workers to solve their problems, cure their illnesses and guarantee long life and good fortune. 

We recently celebrated Purim, an old Persian (and Aramaic) word for a lottery. And it is true it was Haman who used it, not Mordechai. But the Talmud says that because of Purim the whole month of Adar is a good month for the Jews and Av is a bad one and we should try to do business in Adar and fix litigation in that month rather than of Av because that was when the Temples were destroyed. Isn’t this superstition?

There are traces of auguries and lotteries in the Bible. On Yom Kipur “And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats. One lot for the Lord, and the other lot for Azazel” (Leviticus 16: 8). The process of dividing the Land of Israel by tribe was based on a lottery (Numbers 26: 56), in avenging the rape of the concubine in Gibeah (Judges 20), and the distribution of jobs in the Temple by King David (I Chronicles 25: 8) and think of Jephthah and his daughter. 

You might have thought such devices would have disappeared by now. The late, great Sephardi spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was strongly opposed to buying lottery tickets. On the other hand, the late Ashkenazi chief rabbi Avraham Shapira allowed it since the Jewish community was already so accustomed to buying lottery tickets, he was worried people would ignore a ban and thereby sin knowingly.

So, what about mazal? We use it all the time. Mazal Tov! Usually, it is translated as luck. But it is used only once in the Bible to mean the planets (2Kings 23:5). By the time of the Talmud, the word came to mean astrology and there is a debate as to whether mazal if it does mean astrology has any relevance whatsoever (TB Shabbat 156a). The dominant opinion( though not exclusive) is that astrology does not have any place in Judaism at all. And the same goes for such terms as segula, a charm, or siman, a sign or a kameah, an amulet. Not to mention red ribbons that are magic in almost every religion. All reminiscent of ancient auspices such as flocks of birds, black cats, tea leaves, and witchcraft all of which some rabbis thought might help the credulous. They all dominated the pre-scientific, medieval mind and have enjoyed a massive resurgence in recent years.  

But really mazal  is just another way of saying simply “ This is how the universe works, there are things we can control and things we cannot and we hope that you will not encounter any setbacks.” It symbolizes Divine involvement in the world on every level, even plants. We are not asking God to change nature for us. We are invoking God directly, in the hope that things will work out the way we want them to. We are not relying on magic.

 The Torah is quite clear “Do not do as the Egyptians or the Canaanites” (Leviticus 18:3) and then “…do not practice divination nor soothsaying” (Leviticus 19:26). It then reinforces the prohibition. “Let none of you use divination, a soothsayer, an enchanter, or a sorcerer (Deuteronomy 18:10).”  The Talmud forbids astrology (Pesahim 113b) and Maimonides insists that it is forbidden to practice divination or ask counsel of a soothsayer and says that Jews should not believe the predictions of charlatans (Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 11) but rely directly on God. 

Judaism preaches self-reliance and direct contact with God. Yet we keep on hearing of miraculous rabbis and magic spells that guarantee long life, success in business, and marriage.  Whole industries have started raking in millions for mass-produced promises available by mail, like prescriptions for drugs, and blessings are given without any personal contact, often from rabbis long gone, if only you give money and recite some formula. 

We only hear of the successful blessings, palm readings, cures, and predictions but never the far greater number which has failed. But that doesn’t stop us from trying. Many argue that these things give people hope and comfort and even encourage them to fight harder for success or even to heal.  Perhaps that explains rabbis turning a blind eye to superstition (or making a fortune out of them). They are just recognizing human frailty and making use of the placebo effect. If it helps it can’t be harmful. And I can’t deny it.  It is Just that it does not sit right with me when religion is misused.

The Talmud (Moed Katan 28a) says that only three things depend on mazal, forces beyond our control. How long we live, how our children grow up, and how much money we make! To which we might add our genes and good fortune too. And may we make the right decisions and not live where genocidal maniacs may decide to bomb us to pieces. 

When it comes to religious experience, I side with the mystics. But when it comes to practice, I am a rationalist. I tell people who are worried about such things as curses, evil eyes, and bad Karma to transfer it all to me personally and I will be happy to do them a favor and relieve them of such nonsense. So that if I am not around tomorrow, you will know that I was wrong. But if I am still here, I might just be right!