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Balak 5768-2008

“The ‘Mazal Tov’ Conundrum”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Balak, Balaam, the prophet to the nations, offers a series of four prophecies. The first three prophecies prove to be blessings of the People of Israel, frustrating Balak’s attempt to have Balaam curse the Jewish people. In his final prophecy, Balaam offers his vision of the future of Israel, Moab, and the neighboring nations.

It is in his second prophecy that Balaam speaks of the unique G-d of Israel, explaining to Balak that he cannot expect the G-d of the Hebrews to be influenced like other gods. The Jewish G-d is not a mortal who is deceitful or may change his mind. And since G-d has instructed Balaam to bless the Jewish people, there is no choice but to bless them. G-d, says Balaam, perceives no iniquity or perversity in Israel.

Our sages tell us that both Balaam and Balak were accomplished sorcerers, hoping to use their talents to defeat the Jewish people. By explaining to Balak that the awesome display of power that G-d used to redeem Israel was not a magical power but the true power of G-d, Balaam was, in effect, telling Balak that his efforts to defeat Israel through sorcery would be of no avail.

Balaam then boldly declares (Numbers 23:23): “Kee lo na’chash b’Ya’akov, v’lo keh’sem b’Yisrael,” For there is no divination in Jacob and no sorcery in Israel! Magic, sorcery and witchcraft have no place in Judaism and will have no effect whatsoever on the people of Israel.

This anti-sorcery theme repeats itself frequently in the Torah. Deuteronomy 18:10-12 clearly states, “There shall not be found among you any man that…uses divination, a soothsayer, or an enchanter, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or one that consults a ghost or a familiar spirit, or a necromancer. For whosoever does these things is an abomination unto the L-rd…” The Torah reiterates this theme in Leviticus 19:31, Leviticus 20:6 and again in Deuteronomy 18:11, warning the people not to turn to the sorcery of the o’vot and yid’o'neem, who purportedly foretell the future. In Exodus 22:17, we are told that a sorceress or witch (m’cha’shay’fah) shall not be permitted to live. The Torah’s very strong stand against any witchcraft or sorcery is absolute, or so it seems.

Despite the Torah’s forceful stance against any sort of magic, allusions to magic are rife in Jewish tradition. Especially common is the term “Mazal Tov,” which generally is taken to mean “good luck.” The literal meaning of the term “Mazal Tov,” however, is “May you have a good orbit,” a statement that is directly related to those who believe in astrology and who maintain that astrological orbits impact on one’s personal destiny.

The Talmud states in Tractate Mo’ed Katan 28: “Survival of children and procuring food depends on ‘mazal’.” In Shabbat 56b we are taught that there is a ‘mazal‘ responsible for wisdom and for wealth, as well as a daily mazal and a mazal for the hour in which a person is born. In fact, the Zohar (mystical reflections on Torah) 50:134 states, “Ha’kohl ta’luy b’mazal, a’fee’loo sefer Torah sheh’b'hay’chal,” Everything is dependent upon mazal, even a Torah scroll in the Ark.

Despite the many references in the Talmud regarding the impact of mazal, the rabbis of the Talmud took a very strong stand against the influence of mazal. The rabbis boldly declared in Shabbat 56b, “Ayn mazal l’Yisrael,” that the Jewish people are not at all subject to the influence of the positions of the spheres in their orbits, and that they are under the direct dominion of G-d alone! The rabbis in Chulin 7b state: “No man can bend a finger below the heavens unless it was decreed from above.”

Apparently, in the time of the famed Jewish historian Josephus (Flavius Josephus, 37 CE-c. 100 CE), a dispute arose between the three dominant groups of Jews who had adopted strongly divergent philosophical views. The Saducees refused to accept that human fate was at all influenced by G-d. The Essenes believed that it was impossible for a person to negate the influence of the spheres, subscribing to a fatalistic philosophy that whatever was decreed upon a person at birth must inevitably happen. The Perushim, the Pharisees, rejected both views and strongly believed in G-d’s direct intervention. According to this belief, G-d is directly involved in every human life, giving each person the freedom of will to change his/her life’s paths.

Apparently the belief in the influence of the orbits and astrology was so great and widespread in Josephus’ days among the masses of Israel that it even penetrated into beliefs held by the scholars of the Talmud. These beliefs became so popular that, try as they would, the rabbis could not eliminate them entirely. Of course, a Judaism that subscribes to the belief in freedom of will and G-d’s involvement in people’s lives, cannot really subscribe to any influence of mazal (see Tosafot, Nidah 16b, viz. Hakol).

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) provides a definitive statement regarding sorcery for Jews of all ages and eras. In his commentary to the verse in Deuteronomy 18:13, “Ta’meem teeh’yeh eem Ha’shem E’lo’ke’cha,” You shall be wholehearted with the L-rd your G-d, Rashi states: “Walk with Him in wholeheartedness, look ahead to Him (trust in what He has in store for you) and do not delve into the future. But rather, whatever comes upon you, accept with wholeheartedness, and then you will be with Him and of His portion.”

Despite this good advice, almost 1000 years later Jews continue to use the ubiquitous expression “Mazal Tov.” It is pronounced when a child is born, and it even appears on most ketubot, marriage contracts, at Jewish marriage ceremonies.

It has to be one of the most baffling conundrums of Jewish life.

May you be blessed.