What does ‘Mazal Tov’ mean?
Have you ever felt pangs of guilt over the theological inconsistency of wishing someone “Mazal Tov.” After all, it sounds a bit like you are denying that God runs the world. The word “Mazal” comes from the word “mazalot,” the planets – the belief in astrology, the zodiac, living by a daily horoscope – you get the idea. Furthermore, the Talmud declares “רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן אָמַר: אֵין מַזָּל לְיִשְׂרָאֵל” – “Rabbi Yochanan said that Jews are not bound by Mazal.” (Talmud Shabbat 156a)
Adam and Chava’s abrupt loss of “Mazal”
We are now going to define the term and relieve your guilt. This discussion is found, of all places, in a commentary to Midrash Rabbah on Parshat Bereishis. One of the leading commentaries to the Midrash, the Yoffeh Toar, defines “Mazal” based on a comparison of three episodes in the Torah. In all three, the same root word “בּוֹשׁשׁ” is found. He asserts that the word “בּוֹשׁשׁ” is related to the Hebrew word שש – six – because in all 3 cases, someone’s “Mazal” ran out by the 6th hour.
Parshat Bereishis describes how Adam & Chava were naked “but were not ashamed” וְלֹא יִתְבּוֹשָׁשׁוּ, (Bereishis 2:25). This serene reality only lasted until Chava was on the earth for 6 hours. After that they ate from the Tree of Knowledge and were banished. Their “Mazal” was to live forever in Gan Eden. Their sin changed all that.
After receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai the “Mazal” of the Jewish People was to enter the Land of Israel and remain on their exalted spiritual level. Unfortunately some people got impatient because Moshe was late in returning from Mount Sinai “וַיַּרְא הָעָם כִּי בשֵׁשׁ משֶׁה “and the nation saw that Moshe is delayed” (Shemot, 32:1). After waiting six hours they fashioned and worshiped the Golden Calf. Their “Mazal” was shattered.
Lastly, the mother of the Canaanite general, Sisera, was anxiously awaiting her son’s triumphant return from his war with the Jews. מַדּוּעַ בּשֵׁשׁ רִכְבּוֹ לָבוֹא, “ (Shoftim 5:25) ”Why is his chariot delayed in arriving?” Sisera had the “Mazal’ to be a powerful, victorious warrior. Fighting against the Jews put an end to his winning streak and his “Mazal.” After six hours his mother realized that her son was never to return and she broke down crying. We blow 100 sounds of the shofar to correspond to the 100 cries of Sisera’s mother (Tosofot on Talmud Rosh Hashanah 33b)
The default system of “Mazal”
The Yoffeh Toar therefore defines “Mazal” as a “מערכת” – a system which God
incorporated in the world that He created. It is built on the assumption that events will generally flow in a predictable pattern. When you wish “Mazal Tov” to a young couple you’re expressing your desire that just as they started their married life at a joyful wedding, their “Mazal” should continue and their lives should follow along this joyful path. As we mentioned with the three episodes in the Torah, “Mazal” keeps flowing until something interrupts the flow. That is usually a moral failing which severely affects the trajectory of life.
According to the Yoffeh Toar “Mazal” is manifested in three major areas of life: your health, your financial situation and whether you tend to have good or bad things happen to you.
“Mazal” can be more powerful than the angel of death
Midrash Rabbah brings a story of a man who asked everyone celebrating his son’s Brit (Circumcision) to drink from his specially aged wine. He then declared that he trusts in God that he will be able to offer everyone wine at his son’s wedding feast as well. Everyone responded:
כְּשֵׁם שֶׁהִכְנַסְתּוֹ לַבְּרִית כָּךְ תַּכְנִיסֵהוּ לְתוֹרָה וּלְחֻפָּה “Just as you entered him into the Brit (covenant), so may you enter him into Torah and the wedding canopy.*” Rabbi Shimon the son of Chalifta witnessed this and then went on the road by himself late at night to make his way home. He saw the angel of death on the road but he looked so different that Rabbi Shimon asked “Who are you?” The angel of death explained why he looked so out of sorts. It seems that the baby who was just circumcised was destined to die in 30 days. However, everything changed when the father publicly declared that, with God’s help, they would all be celebrating his son’s wedding together, and everyone affirmed his blessing. Now the angel of death no longer had permission to take the baby’s life (Midrash Rabbah Kohelet 3:2, Devorim Rabbah 9:1). It seems that the baby’s “Mazal” changed and even the angel of death could not interfere with the baby’s new “Mazal.”
So there you have it. “Mazal Tov” is not heretical to say, in fact you are tapping into a system that God built into the world. When Rabbi Yochanan stated in the Talmud that אֵין מַזָּל לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, “The Jewish People are not bound by “Mazal” he meant exactly that. Our fate is not circumscribed by “Mazal.” Although we are subject to “Mazal,” we can rise above it through the merit of our deeds, prayer and repentance.
* This is where we derive the custom to declare at a (Circumcision) brit:
כּשׁם שׁנִּכנס לבּרית כּן יִכּנֵס לתוָֹרה וּלחפּה וּלמֲעשׂים טוֹבים “Just as he was brought into the Brit (covenant), so may he enter [a life of Torah, marriage, and good deeds.”