Friday, July 10, 2020

What's Your Sign?

Tomorrow is my birthday, July 11, and this got me thinking about whether the proper way for one to determine his astrological sign is to use his birthday based on the solar calendar, or if he should use the lunar month in which he was born. For me there would not be a difference because July 11 is Cancer and my Hebrew birthday, 6 Tammuz, also is in the month of Sartan (Cancer). However, because the start and end of the Hebrew months do not always occur on the same dates of the solar calendar, for some people the solar calendar would produce one sign for them and the Hebrew calendar another.

The standard way to refer to the astrological signs in Jewish literature has been to assign a sign to each month. Thus, Nissan is T'leh (Aries), Iyar is Shor (Taurus), etc. Using these references, one would have assumed that the Jewish system of astrological signs is not dependent on the solar calendar and that one would disregard his "English birthday" and only use his Hebrew birthday to determine his sign.

The reason why this might not be the case is because it is plausible that when Chazal mention that Nissan is T'leh, they only meant that on average the majority of Nissan is T'leh, but they really agree that the astrological signs are based on the solar calendar. Before you stop reading and wonder why I would make such an assertion, let me explain why this actually seems to be the way many Rishonim understand the system.

Rashi and the R. Avraham ibn Ezra both seem to suggest that the Jewish astrological system is really based on the solar calendar. When describing why each month has its specific sign, Rashi clearly mentions that it is based on the sun's position relative to the stars in the sky. (See Rashi Rosh Hashanah 11b; also see Rashi Rosh Hashanah 11a and Tosefos Rosh Hashanah 2b that mention that sometimes when Chazal refer to a month they are really referring to the corresponding solar month. ) This is a clear reference to the solar calendar as the lunar months would have no bearing on the sun's position in the sky. (Of course, axial precession has caused the apparent position of the stars to shift but that is a discussion for a different post.) The ibn Ezra's books on astrology, Reishis Chachmah and Sefer Hata'amim, also clearly indicate that the system is predicated on the solar calendar. If this is the case then it would seem that the proper way to determine one's astrological sign would be to take one's "English birthday" and not their Hebrew birthday.

Although the above seems to express the opinions of Rashi and the ibn Ezra, it is certainly not unanimously agreed upon by all Rishonim. When commenting on the passage from Beshalach that discusses the war with Amalek, the Chizkuni mentions that people born in the month of Adar II have no astrological sign whatsoever. There are only twelve signs and they have been "used up" by the time you get to the thirteenth month of the year!!! This explanation makes it very clear that the Chizkuni understands the astrological signs of Jewish people to be dependent on the Hebrew months and not the solar calendar.

Thus, it seems that there are two opinions as to how to determine one's astrological sign. As I mentioned above, for me the two systems yield the same result. However, for some people they may not really know which is their birth sign as there is a debate amongst the Rishonim as to how to determine it.

Friday, February 7, 2020

The Gemara's Aliens or Others' Ignorance?

Breaking news this week was that NASA successfully landed its rover, Curiosity, on Mars. This was a tremendous accomplishment and truly is a testament to the advancements that science has made over the past decades! One of the goals of Curiosity is to see if there are leftover materials on Mars that would indicate whether life ever existed on our neighboring planet. Because of the renewed interest in this topic I decided to repost the following.

 I have no idea whether or not life exists on other planets and, as the joke goes, sometimes I wonder if intelligent life even exists here on Earth (it's a joke!). People ask me this all the time and for reasons unbeknownst to me they think that whether life does or does not exist elsewhere has some sort of deep theological issues associated with it. I am not sure why, either possibility does not seem to create any dilema or even a different understanding of the Torah in my opinion. Nevertheless, this discovery has made the news and reminded me of this post.

I have heard the following pasuk, and its associated Gemara, cited so many times, as a proof from Chazal that aliens exist, that I felt it an appropriate post (Shoftim 5:23),

"ארור מרוז אמר מלאך ה ארו ארור ישביה"

“Cursed is Meroz said the angel of HASHEM, cursed are its inhabitants, etc.”

The Jewish nation had just decimated the superpower of the world’s leading army. Sisera, Yavin’s most skilled general, and his army were annihilated. Devorah and Barak then proceeded to laud Hashem’s praises. In the midst of their song, they give thanks and credit to those that helped in the war effort and they admonish those that chose not to come and help. Meroz was one of those that chose not to help.

Meroz is not a common name or place in Tanach and, therefore, the Meforshim come to help the reader understand what Meroz is. The vast majority state that it was a city that was in close proximity to the battlefield. The Gemara, itself (Moed Katan 16a), offers two explanations as to what Meroz was.

The first explanation is that Meroz was a leading individual of a nearby area. As such, he had military influence and could have brought his army to help. The second opinion is that Meroz is a star.

The Gemara then cites from an earlier verse that stated that even the stars of the heavens did battle with Sisera.

Based on this, many have assumed that if Meroz is a star, and Devorah cursed its inhabitants, then, obviously, Chazal were under the impression that intelligent life exists in other parts of the universe. I have even heard many state that the striking similarity in sound between Meroz and Mars makes it likely that there used to be (or is) life on that planet. However, this would seem to be an error since midrashic sources refer to Mars as Ma'adim and it is unreasonable to assume that it would just be referred to as a non-descript star.

Unfortunately, this all seems to be based on a little bit of ignorance when it comes to how Chazal, and Rishonim, refer to astrological influences. Every area of the world is considered to be under the influence of part of the sky. The influence is called the ruling party and the people of the land are called its inhabitants (See Ibn Ezra's Reishis Chachma and Sefer HaTa'amim). It seems much more likely, that the Gemara was referring to this extremely familiar concept than to space aliens which are not a common talmudic theme.

The proof to this is the first statement of the Gemara. That opinion felt that Meroz was an important individual. Obviously, the inhabitants of this individual would be those living under his rule. Unless, of course, one wants to go so far as to suggest that this is proof of a parasitic species of warriors that inhabit their leaders.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Korban Pesach in the Sky

I have been told in the past that I am probably the only person who finds Divrei Torah on Parshas Bo that are about astronomy and have nothing to do with the mitzvah of Kiddush HaChodesh. (For example, did you ever wonder which star Paaraoh was referencing when he said, "Ra'ah is against you ...," or did you recognize that the verse that says that no dogs barked at the Jews is also discussing an astronomical event that was significant to the Egyptian people of that time? These ideas are discussed at length in my new book, The Secrets of the Stars, available here.) In order to hold my unique title I would like to share a few thoughts about a fascinating comment by the Rokeach regarding the Korbon Pesach.

The pasuk informs us that the Pesach had to be a male ovine creature, but that it could be either a sheep or a goat. (Shemos 12:5) The Rokeach teaches that these two choices symbolized the astronomical events that occured on that miraculous night in Egypt.

Every month the sun appears to be in a different place in the sky relative to the background stars. In fact, every month it has moved from being juxtaposed in front of one constellation and then appears to be occupying another. For example, in the month of Nisan it is in the constellation T'leh (Aries, the Ram), but in the month Iyar it has moved to the constellation Shor (Taurus, the Ox). Since when the sun is visible it is daytime, this means that the constellation that the sun is occupying will be rising with the sun. This is considered to be the mazal of the month. (Rashi Berachos 11b; these positions have shifted since ancient times and no longer does the sun occupy these positions in these specific months) In the month of Nisan, the one of the Pesach years ago, the mazal that rose at sunrise, and was therefore perceived to be in control, was that of T'leh. Additionally, says the Rokeach, if one takes the numerical value of the Hebrew word T'leh and that for blood, "Dam", he will find that they are equal. (Rokeach Shemos 12:5)

The Rokeach continues to describe more about the celestial happenings and symbolism of that night. Every two hours another mazal appears to be rising from the east as the sun (and background stars) makes its way across the sky from east to west. On the night of the Pesach of Egypt the constellation that was rising from the east at nightfall was Moznayim (Libra, the Scales). At midnight, the time that Hashem exacted judgment on the Egyptians and killed their firstborns, the mazal rising from the east was G'di (Capricorn[us], the Goat). Thus, we find that T'leh and G'di were in positions of power during this plague and we therefore serve Hashem by offering these two animals, sheep and goats in His service. Additionally, blood (the numerical equivalent of T'leh as stated above) symbolizes the planet Mars and that is a representation of death and blood and it was at this time that death and murder was happening in Egypt.(Ibid.)

Perhaps, there is more symbolism than just what was stated above. Besides the T'leh, G'di, and Mars being expressed; it would seem that Moznayim, the Scales, were also displaying something very important. Just like the mazal that rises at daybreak is considered to have influence, so too, the one that rises in the evening is considered to exert some force. The mazal of Moznayim is symbolic of the scales of judgment and this evening certainly was one of judgment. (Midrash Tanchuma Haazinu 1)

Even more is that there are seven ancient planets: the sun, moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Of these they can be split into two categories, the sun and moon in one and the other five planets in the other. Each of these entities is considered to rule over one (or two) of the 12 mazalos of the zodiac. Twelve obviously does not divide by seven evenly, so the method is not to give every planet an equal amount of mazalos to rule over. The sun and moon are each given one and the rest of the planets have two a piece. Mars has T'leh (Aries) as one of its mazalos. (Ibn Ezra Reishis Chachma 2) So, in addition to T'leh being powerful, its ruler (and planet whose symbolic expression of blood has an equivalent numerical value to itself) was also finding its expression.

Also of interest is where Mars was positioned that fateful night. Mars was to be found in the constellation D'li (Aquarius, the Water Bearer). D'li is the mazal of Klal Yisrael. (Ibn Ezra Shemos 31:18) The Rokeach teaches us that when the destructive deathly force of that night, the Mashchis, saw the blood of the Pesach on the doorposts he was confused and believed that death had struck those houses and he therefore turned away. (Rokeach Shemos 12:5) Mars and its death were prepared to strike even Klal Yisrael, in whose constellation Mars was occupying, but through the Dam, blood, of the mitzvah were saved