Chaim Ingram
Chaim Ingram

Acute angles: Should Jews believe in good or back luck?

Rabbi.  I read that in Adar it’s good to schedule a court case with a Gentile because it’s a lucky month!  Surely Jews aren’t superstitious in that way?  I thought the Torah didn’t believe in lucky times.  (Lev. 19:26).  Yours in confusion, Jared W.

Dear Rabbi. Why do we say Mazal Tov at a wedding or other celebration? Doesn’t it mean “good luck”? or “lucky star”? I thought we Jews didn’t believe in good and bad luck.  Doesn’t G-D run the world?  Can you explain? Thanks.  Sharon Gats.

Dear Jared and dear Sharon,

Since we are still in Adar, it’s a good time (as opposed to a lucky time!) to deal with these related and very cogent questions.

The Talmud does indeed say, rather strangely (Taanit 29b), that a Jew who has a lawsuit with a Gentile is advised to avoid him during Av de-rei mazalei when the mazal is bad and make himself available to him during Adar de-varei mazalei when the mazal is good.

On the other hand, in Shabbat 156a, after a long discussion on the effect of the stellar constellations and the day and hour of one’s birth on temperament, character and destiny, the great Rabbi Yochanan declares ein mazal le-Yisrael, the celestial signs have no bearing on the destiny of the nation of Israel!  Rabbi Abba, known in the Gemara simply as Rav, agrees, expounding Genesis 1:5 — “And He took him (Abraham) outside and said ‘gaze heaven-ward and evaluate the stars if you are able’” — as evidence that the destiny of the special nation Abraham was to found is far above and beyond any astrological permutations.

In Kiddushin 39b, there is a different but related argument over whether there is Divine consequence for an individual’s actions in this world or whether it is only in olam ha-ba, the World-to-Come, where just reward and punishment is meted out. The upshot of this latter, predominant, view is that on this earth G-D normally allows the world to pursue its natural course.  This would imply that everyone, whether Jew or Gentile, is subject to sometimes benign and sometimes bedevilled fortune or ‘good and bad luck’. And the heavenly forces of nature, the constellations, are G-D’s shlikhim, His agents for dispensing these sweet or bitter droplets unpredictably. This is mazal.

So, Sharon, by saying mazal tov to a bride, a groom, a bar or bat mitsva celebrant or the parents/grandparents of a new baby, we are offering both an observation and a blessing!  “G-D has authorised His heavenly agents to bestow good upon you. May it always be so!”

What we are certainly not permitted to do is to seek good omens or believe in lucky times or lucky places as having some sort of automatic power or hold. This is the prohibition of lo te’oneinu (Lev 19:26) which you, Jared, cite.

Adar is a month when many good things happened to the Jews in addition to Purim. (See Day By Day In Jewish History by Abraham Bloch.) We therefore hope it will always be so!   But some tragic occurrences happened in this month too. Moses was born in Adar — but he also died in Adar.  A former congregant of mine in Leicester used to tell me he hated Adar because all his yahrzeits fell in that month.

Conversely, in Av, particularly in the early part of the month and especially on Tisha b’Av many many tragedies occurred throughout history apart from those documented in the Mishna (Ta’anit 4:6). On the other hand some good things happened too.  The Talmud documents several happy events that transpired on 15th Av (Ta’anit 30-31). Many beautiful, bonny Jewish babies have been born in the first nine days of Av including my own daughter!  So what does the Gemara really mean that we should avoid lawsuits in Av because the mzazal is bad and pursue them in Adar when the mazal is good?

I shall tell you how I interpret these statements and hopefully it will give you a new understanding. The Talmud is speaking from a psychological perspective as it often does. In Adar, all other things being equal, we are in an upbeat mood in anticipation of and in the wake of Purim while in Av our mood tends to be heavy due to Tisha b’Av.

When we are upbeat, we operate better. When we are low, we don’t function as well.  Consonant with how mazal has impacted over the millennia so differently upon Av and upon Adar, our mood is similarly impacted. And therefore our performance is likely to be similarly affected. So it makes utter sense to seek to perform critical assignments during Adar and to avoid them during Av!  But – and this is a big but — if we are forced into litigation or to sit an important examination in Av we shouldn’t say “this is an unlucky month and I’m bound to fail”. That is certainly un-Jewish and un-Torahdig!

Finally, this insight of Rav Elchanan Wasserman (1874-1941) forms a fitting coda to all we have said.   He cites the response of R’ Shlomo ibn Aderet known as Rashba (1235-1310) who explains that the consequences laid out in the Torah apply to the nation as a whole and not necessarily to each individual Jew.  Our nation is not judged in olam ha-ba but in this world. Therefore, as a nation, ein mazal le-Yisrael, we Jews are above all considerations of serendipitous stellar influence. However as individuals our main reward waits for us in the World-to-Come. Therefore in this world, G-D allows his stellar agents, i.e. the forces of mazal, to determine what befalls us.

So by all means wish your friends mazal tov and get wished in return. But don’t believe in the autonomous power of mazal. Believe in the power of G-D to direct your destiny however and through whichever agency He sees fit!                                      https://rabbi-ingram.com/

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.
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