Utilizing Spiritual Realities (Segulot) – Part 4 – Mazel

Part 3

While the gemara discusses whether or not there is mazel (astrological influence) for the Jewish people, it seems clear to all of the classical sources (besides the Rambam who viewed it as nonsense) that mazel is a spiritual reality which definitely does affect the Jewish people, along with the entire creation. The discussion in the gemara involves how great the impact of mazel is specifically on the Jewish people, both individually and communally, and how much they can overcome this influence.

Bereshit Rabba (10:6) says this clearly – 

There is not a single plant or blade of grass that does not have a mazel that strikes it and says – “grow.” 

The Zohar said similarly – 

Everything is influenced by the mazel (i.e., constellations).

The Zohar (Shemot 171b) explained – 

There is a ruler appointed over all of the stars and constellations. Every single blade of grass has its own star and constellation that rules over it. And each star has its own ruler who also serves before Hashem. Ultimately, every star serves the world by supervising one object in the world. 

The Zohar explained further –

When the Torah was given, the people of Israel were chosen to be the portion of Hashem, with their souls bound to Him. They went out of the sphere of influence of the mazel and into the sphere of influence of the upper levels of sanctity – on condition that they would learn Torah and keep the mitzvot.

In terms of the impact that mazel has upon us, Rava said (Gemara Mo’ed Katan 28a) – 

[Length of] life, [number of] children, and wealth do not depend [only] on merit, but rather, on mazel. He supported this with the story of Rabbah and Rav Chisda who were both completely righteous sages, as we see from the fact that both of their prayers for rain were answered. Yet they seem to have had very different mazel. Rav Chisda lived 92 years, while Rabbah lived only until 40. Rav Chisda’s household had 60 weddings, while Rabba’s household suffered 60 deaths. Rav Chisda’s household had enough fine flour bread even for the dogs, while Rabba’s household struggled to find enough lowly barley bread for people. 

The Gemara (Shabbat 156a) addressed the roots of mazel –

It was written in R. Yehoshua ben Levi’s notebook that the day of the week we are born will affect us: Yom Rishon – Extremely good or extremely bad; Yom Sheini – angry or irritable; Yom Shlishi – wealthy and promiscuous, Yom Revi’i – wise and shining; Yom Chamishi – kind and giving; Yom Shishi – hard-working; Shabbat – great and holy person. 

  1. Chanina, however, taught – One’s mazel does not depend on which day he was born, but rather, the hour he was born (i.e., which of the seven planets was dominant then)… [As an example,] one that is born during the hour of Mars will be a spiller of blood… [with the choice to be] a blood letter or a thief, a shochet (ritual slaughterer) or a mohel (performing circumcisions). 
  2. Chanina held – “yeish mazel l’Yisrael – there is mazel in Israel,” while others held – “ein mazel l’Yisrael – there is no mazel in Israel.” 

However, all three stories the gemara (Shabbat 156b) uses to show – “ein mazel l’Yisrael” simply show that certain actions, like a great level of tzedaka or instilling a great yirat Shamayim [fear of Heaven] from a young age, can overcome a negative mazel.

Rabeinu Bachye wrote – 

According to what is known, G-d fixed in the Heavens the paths of the stars and gave them the power to influence that which is beneath them. Therefore, these stars have either constructive or destructive influence in this world, and everything seems to be dependent on the specific influence of mazel. Our Sages did not deny or reject this notion and, in fact, some of them were expert astrologers… Even though Hashem gave mazel this power over the lower realms, it is not absolute power, since Hashem retains control over the stars. Hashem has the power to bring low the mighty and to elevate the lowly. He can sustain that which was decreed by the stars, or increase or decrease their influence.

Rabeinu Bachye –

When the Rabbis teach – Ein mazel l’Yisrael (Israel is not governed by mazel), the explanation is that the Jewish people are not governed by mazel, but every individual Jew is. The Rabbis would never have contradicted the great and esteemed science of astrology.

The Ran (Derashot HaRan #8) qualified how mazel impacts us – 

When it comes to mitzvot and transgressions, mazel only gives an orientation, it doesn’t force one’s behavior… While Rebbe Chanina and Rebbe Yochanan argue over whether mazel affects Yisrael, both of them agree that mazel does affect intelligence and wealth, but not mitzvot and transgressions. [In other words,] mazel affects the physical, not the spiritual… The Rabbis argue whether mitzvot can protect one from the harm of mazel, but agree that this world is run through mazel.

The Ran (Sanhedrin 65b) explained further – 

Authentic astrology is real, and mazel will impact our nature unless we work to overcome it. As the Gemara Shabbat (156a) says – the time when we are born will affect our traits. We can use this information to try to overcome anything negative from the mazel… The Ramban said that the only prohibition is to make an inquiry, but one is permitted to guard oneself against harm [i.e., from the mazel if one happens to find out what it says], and this seems correct. The Rambam, however, forbids all of this as divination, which is difficult to understand. 

The Nimukei Yosef (Sanhedrin 16b DH Tanu) wrote – 

The understanding that people have about the arrangements of the stars and their influences is not nichush (sorcery) but rather a great wisdom. Hashem arranged to run the world this way [through the constellations] from the very beginning of creation. Therefore, every chassid (pious individual) should daven to nullify the decree of the mazel from himself. Everything comes from Hashem and He has the ability to change it as He desires. 

The Meiri (Shabbat 156) wrote – 

We follow the gemara which tells us that Jews are generally not controlled by mazel, and disregard the opinion that says Jews are controlled by mazel… This means that we are confident that reward and punishment, based on the actions that we ourselves choose, [ultimately] determine everything, and not mazel… If, for example, one is born under the constellation of Mars, and is a blood spiller by nature, he will still have full freedom of choice, with nothing pushing him to transgress. Through the guidelines of the religion, one can control his nature, as opposed to simply following after one’s inborn inclinations. Through effort and struggle one can fulfill the purpose of the Torah by overcoming his nature.

The great majority of the Sages followed the Ramban’s opinion (Devarim 18:9) concerning the spiritual reality of mazel –

In terms of sorcery…Hashem placed power over the earth and everything on it in the stars and constellations…as has been proven empirically in the science of astrology. And over these stars and constellations, Hashem further placed angels and celestial ministers in control, who are the life force of those stars… However, it was among G-d’s mighty wonders that He incorporated within the power of these supernal controllers certain possibilities of change and capabilities to alter the control exerted by that which is beneath them… And this is the secret behind the sorcery and their power, which the Sages said – “they contravene the celestial legion” (Chulin 7b). This means that they are contrary to the ordinary powers [of the universe], and they are contrary to the legion [of stars and constellations] in one particular aspect. It is, therefore, logical that the Torah should prohibit them so that the world may be left to carry on its ordinary conduct and natural state, which is the desire of the Creator… All this is not an abomination among the nations; on the contrary, it is considered a mark of wisdom for them. In fact, the medrash tells us that Shlomo HaMelech learned this among his many fields of wisdom. It was the acts of sorcery [not astrology] which are an abomination before Him… The Jews are beyond the influence of the constellations… Their situation improves as they improve their deeds or increase their bonding to Hashem through prayer and learning Torah.

Ibn Ezra (Shemot 20:1) wrote – 

G-d rules over the nations of the world through the structure of the mazel, whether for good or bad. While, according to the system of the mazel, the Jews should have continued to be slaves, through G-d’s love of the forefathers, His power created a different reality from the mazel. G-d thereby removed the Jews from the control of mazel to make them His inheritance. Our Sages, therefore, said that Israel has no mazel

Ibn Ezra (Shemot 33:21) then pointed out – 

The statement of our Sages (Shabbat 156a) that there is no mazel for Israel, is only true if they observe the Torah. If they don’t follow the Torah, however, then mazel will control them as we see… This has occurred for both the nation and the individual. 

The Maharal (Shabbat 156a) addressed the concept of “Ein mazel l’Yisrael” – 

This means that it is possible to affect the impact of mazel through the merit of mitzvot. This change of the mazel can occur even without prayer; a mitzvah itself can affect the impact of the mazel. But prayer can [also] certainly change the mazel, since G-d can do whatever He wants in heaven and earth. 

While “Ein mazel l’Yisrael” is referring to the overall Jewish community, even individual Jews can affect the impact of their mazel through mitzvot. The Jewish people are not affected by mazel because of their elevated reality, and individual Jews can attain that [elevation] through their mitzvot. This doesn’t mean that mazel has no affect on Jews. Everything [in existence actually] depends on the influence of the mazel… 

However, “Ein mazel l’Yisrael” means that mazel never controls everything like with the other nations. The principle is that Jews can transcend the influence of mazel when they are on their true spiritual level, and not limited by their transgressions… Similarly, individual Jews can rise above the influence of mazel through doing mitzvot.

The Maharal (Shabbat 156a) clarified – 

There is no prohibition of seeking out an astrologer or relying on various simanim (signs) for a mitzvah. Otherwise, this would be a violation of tamim ti’yeh (being complete with G-d). 

The Meshech Chochma (Devarim 4:19) wrote – 

It is well known that the the nations are governed through the intermediary of mazel… This is not true for the Jewish nation. They are directed exclusively through hashgacha pratit (personal [Divine] supervision), and not mazel.

And, finally, the Chafetz Chaim (Sheim Olam 1:3) clarified – 

Hashem appointed a mazel above everything, as we say – There is no blade of grass below which does not have a mazel above it. This mazel is the source of its sustenance and what allows it to grow. However, we should never think that Hashem removed His hashgacha (supervision) and allowed the mazel to control it as an independent power. That is [certainly] not true. G-d Himself is the only power in the Heaven above and on the earth below… The mazel is merely the agent to do G-d’s will, and Hashem will alter the mazel whenever He wants, as we know with the leaving [of the Jewish people] from Egypt. 

In some cases, however, it seems that it is simply not possible to overcome the mazel

The Gemara Ta’anit 25a tells the story of Rebbe Elazar ben Pedat who was exceedingly poor. One time he let some blood (a practice done for health) but had nothing to eat afterwards. He became weak and passed out, and later recounted what had happened in his dream or vision.

Rebbe Elazar asked Hashem – How long will my difficulties continue in this world?

Hashem answered him – Would you like me to recreate the world from the beginning? [If so,] then perhaps you would be born [with positive mazel] for income.

Since this would only have possibly helped his situation, and he had already lived the majority of his life, Rebbe Elazar declined the offer [to recreate the world]. Hashem then showed him the enormous s’char (benefit) that awaited him in Olam Haba.

Rav Dessler, in the name of the Radak, pointed out that the word mazel comes from the shoresh (root) of nazel (flow), and is expressing a flow from above to below. It refers to the tools and environment that one is given to fulfill their role in this world. From the words of Tosfot it appears that there is really no machlokut (argument) – in some cases the mazel can not be changed, and in some it can be changed through a great zechut (merit). We need to understand what it is which determines whether the mazel can be changed or not.

Sometimes one’s poverty or wealth is merely a tool to fulfilling one’s role in the world, and then it would be possible for it to change. 

But sometimes, how one deals with poverty or wealth is the actual task [of one’s life], and then it can not be changed at all.

In a case where some aspect of one’s life is not central to their role in the world and it would, therefore, be possible for it to change, that is where a change in one’s place or one’s name could contribute to a change in one’s mazel. That is [what is expressed by] the popular expression – “Meshaneh makom, meshaneh mazel – Change [your] place, change [your] mazel.” And this is also the basis of the custom brought by the Rema in Yoreh Deyah 335:10 to change the name of one that is very ill – “since a shinui sheim (change in name) can tear up the gazar din (decree) of a person.”

Rav Dessler explained further – 

Whatever is required for one to obtain his portion in Olam Haba has been given to him – both the means and whatever assistance is required is precisely provided… This is also the subject of mazel… In other words, the mazel is selected before birth to provide the person with the necessary means for his service of G-d.

A person has the ability to change his mazel, as we say – shinui makom shinui mazel (change [your] place, change [your] mazel)… When he changes his mazel, his means of serving G-d also changes. Thus a person can expand or build upon what he has through mazel so that he will [be able to obtain] a greater portion in Olam Haba.

The sefer Hishtadliyot Ruchniyot (Perek Vav – Shinui HaMazel) sums up the topic of mazel by explaining – 

The foundation of our emunah is that whatever happens to a person is dependent on his actions. However, we also find that everyone has a certain mazel.

While the whole topic of mazel is quite complicated, Tosfot (Mo’ed Katan 28a dh – ela) concludes that mazel does, in fact, impact us. And there are some situations where we are [actually] unable to change our mazel. Other times, however, we are able to change our mazel through a great zechut. And it may be that this is specifically what the different arguments are all about – [not whether there is mazel which affects us, but rather] to what degree we are able to change our mazel.

Parts 5 and 6

More articles on this and related topics can be found on the Jewish Clarity web site.