On magical thinking (Daf Yomi Shabbos 156)

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“There is no constellation for the Jewish people.”

When I was a young girl growing up in South Jersey, I used the money I saved from my allowance to buy books on astrology. I felt trapped in the body and life of a child in the suburbs of New Jersey and was desperate to look ahead and gain insight into what my adult life might look like. I taught myself how to read astrological charts and I was able at ten years old to read the charts of my friends and family. This was the 1970s and at least from my perspective at the time astrology had the cache of an actual scientific discipline. I was convinced that my future was predetermined, and I just needed to know how to read the planets in order to gain insight into what lay ahead.

Today the Talmud introduces us to a type of astrology based on the days of the week and then takes it all back through declaring that one’s life is determined by actions in the here and now. We are first told that those that are born on a Sunday, which is the day I was born in a year I will not reveal, “will be a person and there will not be one in him.” I am in good company because Rav Ashi was born on this day and became the head of a yeshiva. But Dimi bar Kakutz was also born on this day and he became the head of a gang of thieves. And thus, it is determined that one born on this day is either “completely for the best or completely for the worst” because it is the day that “both light and darkness were created on the first day of Creation.”

One who was born on Monday, which is perhaps the hardest day of the week for those who work traditional hours, will be short-tempered because it is the second day of Creation when the upper and lower waters were divided. One born on Tuesday will rich and promiscuous because it is the day vegetation was created. One born on Wednesday will be wise and enlightened because it is when the heavenly lights were strung across the heavens.

One born on Thursday will be known for acts of kindness because it is the day fish and fowl were created and they gain their sustenance from above and one born on Friday will be a seeker, as most of the activity on Friday involves preparation for Shabbat. And finally, one who is born on Saturday, the Shabbat, will be a person of great sanctity.

Rabbi Ḥanina said that it is not the day of the week that determines one’s nature, but rather the planet that is ascendant at the hour one is born. One who is born under the influence of the Sun will be radiant, and one who is born under the influence of Venus will be both rich and promiscuous. One who is born under the influence of Mercury will be enlightened and one born under the influence of the Moon will be a man who is ignored.  One born under the influence of Jupiter will be a just person and one born under the influence of Mars will spill blood.

Rabbi Yoḥanan dismisses what must have seemed like magical thinking to a learned scholar and says “there is no constellation for the Jewish people that influences them. The Jewish people are not subject to the influence of astrology.” The man of science, Shmuel, also concluded that there is no constellation for the Jewish people and instead witnessed an episode when he was sitting with the scholar Ablet who predicted a certain person will be bitten by a snake and die. This person appeared before Shmuel and Ablet unharmed with the remains of a snake in his bag. He relates how he offered another person who had nothing to eat some bread and did so in a way that spared the unfortunate soul embarrassment. Shmuel proclaims that because of this act of generosity and sensitivity toward another, the man was saved not just from “an unusual death but even from death itself.”

Rabbi Akiva tells a story about his daughter who received an ominous warning that she would be stricken down by a snake on her wedding day. Although she was worried about her safety and preoccupied with the details of her special day, she offered an unfortunate person who stood in the doorway where she was preparing for her wedding some food. At the same time, she removed an ornamental pin from her hair and stuck it in the wall for safekeeping. When she removed the pin the next day from a peg in the wall, out came a dead snake that had been poked directly in the eye with the hair pin. Her father, the great Rabbi Akiva, says her life was saved through her act of charity.

Along with age, comes wisdom for many of us, and an understanding that magical thinking will only get us so far in life. And if there is some predetermined destiny that has been decided upon our birth, it is only in the broadest possible sense – perhaps just an outline for how we will live our life. But the details, are all determined by our day to day actions, the decisions we make and the openness of our hearts. The hard lesson of life is that there are no shortcuts and in the end, we create our own destiny through hard work, steadfastness and determination.


About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at https://brokentabletsfrompennycagan.me
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