Shabbos 75 Is Astrology kosher?

This daf is filled with so many important principles of shabbos, and touches on מלאכה שאינה צריכה לגופא, דבר שאין מתכוין, מתעסק, פסיק רישיה דניחא ליה the definition of מכה בפטיש and SO much else.

 I decided to follow one of the diversions the Gemora takes, in its signature fashion, and discuss the fascinating topic of מחשב תקופות ומזלות, calculating the periods of the year and the constellations. 

We start with the statement of Bar Kapra that anyone who is able to calculate the periods of the year and the constellations, תקופות ומזלות , and does not do so, is the subject of the verse “they never looked at the actions of Hashem and never saw his handiwork”  ( Yeshayahu  5).

In context, the Navi is criticizing the way the people at the time focused on materialism, wining and dining, but failed to focus on the actions and wonders of Hashem.

Many a derosho can be said about this verse and exactly what it means , but Bar Kapra is interpreting it to refer to the fact that they never studied about the wonders of the cosmos,  which he seems to see  as the greatest example of the glory of Hashem’s works and creation .

The Gemara then brings the ruling of Rabbi Yochanan that it is  a mitzva to perform these calculations , and that this is ” for it is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations ” referred to in the Torah ( Devarim 4/6.) 

The understanding is that whereas the other nations might not appreciate the Jewish people through other aspects of the Torah, these complex laws and calculations were something that would clearly impress them as well, and lead to Kiddush Hashem.

What exactly is this wisdom referring to?

Rashi seems to understand that this does not refer to calculations of the calendar per se, but to astrological calculations based on the zodiac which were able to predict future events, such as whether it would be a rainy year.

Rashi seems to have believed, or at least believed that Chazal believed, that the alignment of the constellations has a causative effect on the world , and that calculating and predicting these effects is not a superstitious  forbidden practise that belongs to the pagan world , but is actually a real wisdom included in Torah.

He explains that when the other nations see how much better we are at predicting these things(seemingly  through a Torah prism), they will be truly impressed.

This view, however, seems to be extremely problematic given the biblical prohibition of לא תעוננו (Vayikra 19/26;Devarim 18/1)  which Chazal (Sanhedrin 65b) understood to prohibit  calculating auspicious times. 

While it seems clear from here that Rashi doesn’t believe that this prohibition applies to calculating them using the Torah based tools of astrology, and also believes that this IS very effective , we all know that Rambam is NOT of this view .

The Rambam clearly says (A.Z. that the prohibition includes astrology and also clearly says that there is absolutely no causative power in such things. (see hilchos avoda zara 11/8-9 his famous epistle on Astrology, as well as the Moreh.) 

As such, the Rambam must understand this Gemara as talking about something completely different.

Indeed, with today’s scientific knowledge, it is hard to imagine that the nations of the world would admire us for believing in the zodiac.

As predicted, the Rambam (Yesodei haTorah 3) describes this wisdom as understanding the movement of the various spheres, in other words, the science of astronomy, which of course forms the basis of our calendar. 

This for Rambam is the ultimate form of appreciation of Hashem’s works , when one understands the complexity and sheer scale of creation at an astronomical scale , and our superior knowledge in this regard is truly a Kiddush Hashem in the eyes of the nations .

We see how a very important mitzva on this daf is understood in two completely opposite ways by two Rishonim with different approaches – according to Rashi, it is the study of the zodiac and fate, something which according to Rambam is both forbidden and utter nonsense, whereas according to Rambam, it is the science of Astronomy, something that many in the frum  world today might find equally trivial! 

Of course, it is tempting in our modern and scientific word to embrace the view of Rambam and his school and reject the view of Rashi and others.

However, we are constantly learning so much about the world, and with the advent of quantum physics, and of course the “butterfly theory, where the furthest away item or event can have immense causative power , it is not impossible that certain aspects of astrology that Rashi and Chazal seem to have recognized might be found to indeed be part of the science of creation, and not mere science fiction.

I certainly tend towards Rambam here, and it seems clear that we need to apply at least the rule of ספק דאורייתא לחומרא   but am not completely writing off that possibility. 

As usual, much more to discuss, and many more sources to examine, but that is it for today.

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