Shabbos 156 Astrology, Mazal, and acceptable risk-taking

In an earlier post (Shabbos 129,) I promised to find an opportunity to deal with a fascinating sugya on that daf that I was not able to cover at the time.

The grand finale of Shabbos is here, and with it, on the penultimate daf, the opportunity has come to revisit the question of mazal and astrology, as well as its relevance to risk-taking.

First, lets go back to 129b, where The Gemara rules that for astrological reasons, it is dangerous to let blood on a Tuesday, and one should thus avoid it.

This is because “Mars” is dominant during even hours of the day, and the combination of the dangers of זוגות (pairs- see Pesachim 109b) and Mars makes it a particularly dangerous time for doing so.

The Gemara points out that it is equally dangerous on a Friday, but notes that seeing as it has become the norm for people to do so, it is not forbidden, and we apply the verse שומר פתאים השם”“ -Hashem protects the foolish.” )Tehillim 116/7)

Rashi explains that people are under pressure to let blood before shabbos, seeing as the large fish eaten on shabbos helps to replenish one’s blood supply, and they thus accepted the risk, which made it permitted.

This “leniency” has been applied by various later authorities to permitted engaging in activities with some level of risk, if the population of a whole has voted with their feet that the need for the activity outweighs the risk, and rely on the fact that Hashem will or at least might protect them.

In truth, it is clear from the everyday life described in the Mishna and Gemara that people took calculated risks in their day to day life, particularly while pursuing their livelihoods, and going to study Torah or perform other mitzvos, and with the exception of situations of clear and definite danger, this was barely criticized.

We find that workers said Shema while working up in trees or building platforms )Brachos 16a), and do not see any suggestion that they should not take the risk of working in such risky positions in the first place.

Although travel in general, and going out to sea in particular, was fraught with dangers, to the point that one said a prayer for a safe journey and sometimes said a special blessing of thanks (הגומל) when returning, we do not see any prohibitions against doing so.

Yet using our case of the bloodletting as a precedent is extremely problematic, as it assumes that danger or assumed danger based on astrological factors is equivalent to physically observable danger.

While it is true that even “rationalists” such as Meiri (Shabbos 129b) seem to have believed that certain effects of the stars alignment were not supernatural at all but simply a part of nature, it would be almost impossible to entertain such a suggestion in light of today’s scientific knowledge.

Even if we assume that Chazal, or some Chazal truly believed in the power of the stars, and even if we ourselves followed that belief to the extent that Chazal seem to have permitted doing so, it is clear from the Gemara that the concern regarding blood-letting had to do with the general concern of things that go in זוגות (pairs,) and Chazal were very clear that in times where people were not concerned about them, their effect was also negligible (see Pesachim 110b.)

It therefore stands to reason that if דשו בו רבים (the people have ignored the concern,) the danger is simply not there anymore, and one can then rely on Hashem’s protection (why the term “fools” would then relevant, does admittedly required some explanation.)

However, with physically observable dangers, simply ignoring them does not make them go away at all- the risk remains the same.

As such, although for the others reasons mentioned above, it is clear that society-drawn lines in acceptable risk-taking certainly are a factor, it seems less clear that this particular case where the principle of דשו בו is mentioned could serve as any real proof for the existence of this line and where it be drawn

Despite the above, this sugya and its idea of כוין דדשו בו רבים, שומר פתיים ה seems to have become the gold standard for evaluating what risks are acceptable as part of daily life, and those of us who prefer to see the entire idea as metaphorical, in the line of Rambam’s usual methodology with such things, could perhaps simply relate to the entire precedent as metaphorical for publically accepted risk.

Our daf begins its long discussion on the subject of “mazal” with the views of two Amoraim, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi and Rabbi Chanina, who both hold that the time that a person is born plays a major impact on their personality and their future.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi held that the day of the week on which a person was borne was the critical factor, whereas Rabbi Chanina held that it was the star/planet dominant at the time of birth that was significant.

One often-quoted example of the later, that has its origins here, is the idea that someone born under מאדים (Mars -the red planet) will be predisposed to spilling blood (note the reference to red or blood in its name.)

Rav Ashi comments that such a person could either be blood-letter, a thief (according to Rashi, a robber who kills people), a butcher, or a moheil.

Even if we follow a literal reading of this passage, It seems to follow from this comment that although Rabbi Chanina believes that a person’s personality is predetermined by his “mazal,” what he does with his personality traits is not preordained, and he may choose to use them for good or for bad. (I have taken the liberty of assuming that this is Rav Ashi’s intention, though it is also possible that Rav Ashi is not suggesting that a person has a choice in the matter, but simply that these are all possible things that a person’s fate might lead him to become if he was borne under this “mazal.”

The Gemara narrates how the leading Amora of his time, Rabbah, had objected to this claim of Rabbi Chanina, pointing out that he was borne under the mazal of “mars” and was certainly not a spiller of blood.

His student, Abaya, retorted that Rabbah himself had also punished and killed before.

The simple meaning of this is that it is a reference to Rabbah’s role as a judge, which we know from a recent daf (Shabbos 153) was known to have been particular uncompromising, to the point that the people of his home-town Pumbedita “hated” him.

Although there was no capital or corporal punishment in Rabbah’s time, and his main authority was in monetary matters and verbal rebuke (the later being stressed by Rashi over there,) it is possible that he made use of the permission given to the courts to hand out exceptional capital or corporal sentences when deemed necessary for the stability of society, a rule formulated (Sanhedrin 46a) as ב”ד מכין ועונשין שלא מן התורה .

Another possibility is that this refers to the case (Megila 7b) where Rabbah, while making a Purim feast together with Rabbi Zeira, attempted to follow the reported dictum לאבסומי בפוריא(to drink wine on Purim to the point of inability to distinguish between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai.”)

The Gemara related how he became inebriated, and in his stupor, slaughtered Rabbi Zeira, his co-host.

The Rabbis prayed for mercy and Rabbi Zeira survived (or came back to life, depending how the story is interpreted), but the lesson was learnt the next year by Rabbi Zeira, who declined Rabbah’s invitation to feast together once more.

If this is what Abaya was referring to, it could be that even if a person is able through his sheer greatness to completely control his predetermined personality to the point that it does not impact at all on his actions, it remains dormant and asserts itself at times when the person is under the influence.

It might be possible for those who reject there being any truth in astrology (the Rambam being the prime example) to interpret this entire sugya symbolically, and say that all reference to the stars or days of the week are simply metaphors for a person’s innate personality traits, which people cannot totally change, but can certainly direct towards good or bad.

However, the precise wording of the statements, and the continuation of the sugya, which brings various stories to illustrate the power of astrology and of tzedakah to change it, does seem to show that Chazal did indeed believe in it, even if they held it was forbidden to base one’s actions on it.

The Gemara brings the statement of Rabbi Chanina, that “mazal causes wisdom, mazal wealth, and יש מזל לישראל (there is Mazal for Israel.)

In contrast, Rabbi Yochanan rules in contrast that there is no “mazal” for Israel, a position that Rav Shmuel, and even Rabbi Akiva himself are then shown to have accepted.

The view of Rabbi Yochanan that “there is no mazal for Israel “could initially be understood in various ways:

i. The Jewish people simply do not believe in the power of astrology at all.

ii. The idea of Mazal does apply to people in general, but the Jewish people are completely unaffected by it.

iii. Although everyone can be affected by Mazal, the Jewish people are able to change their mazal through repentance and good deeds, such as giving צדקה (charity.)

The stories brought from Rav, Shmuel, and Rabbi Akiva respectively to illustrate and support the view of Rabbi Yochanan are both examples of cases where a Jewish person’s “astrology” predicted something, yet it did not come to pass.

Rav interprets the passuk ויוצא אותו החוצה (and he took him outside) to mean that Hashem took Avraham Avinu out of the limits of his astrological fate, which involved remaining childless, by realigning the stars so that they should let him have a child.

By deriving from this statement that Rav agrees with Rabbi Yochanan’s rule of אין מזל לישראל, the Gemara indicates that Rabbi Yochanan accepts the power of the stars, believes that even Jews are technically subject to it,

yet holds that when they deserve it, Hashem intervenes and changes their “mazal” in their favor.

The next story, involves the leading Amora Shmuel sitting next to a lake with Avleit, identified by Rashi as a non-Jewish wise-man and astrologer.

Some people headed into the lake, and Avleit predicted based on the stars, that a specific one of them would not return, but would be attacked by a snake and die.

Shmuel commented that if the man was Jewish, he would return safely.

The man indeed returned as Shmuel predicted, and they found a snake inside his bag, cut into two!

Shmuel asked him what he done to merit this miracle this, and replied by describing an act of chesed he had done.

Shmuel went out and used this case to apply the passuk וצדקה תציל ממות – “charity saves from death.” )Mishlei 10/2;11/4)

It seems clear from this story that Shmuel also believed that Jews were also subject to the power of the stars, but they could bypass this power through their good deeds!

A look at the final story, the famous case of Rabbi Akiva’s daughter on her wedding day, seems to reveal the same conclusion. As such, it seems clear why Rashi chose this rather limited way of explaining the idea of אין מזל לישראל.

Putting all the modern scientific evidence against the entire concept of the star’s power aside for a moment, the biggest issue with this belief comes from our own classical sources.

The Torah) Devarim 18/1) warns us against superstitious beliefs and practices, including מעונן , which is identified among others things (Sanhedrin 65b) as believing that certain times are good for certain things, something that sounds a lot like astrology.

Those who take a more literal view of our sugya need to address this prohibition, and show somehow that astrology is different, perhaps because it is a part of nature itself and not supernatural, an idea entertained at least for a short time by the Meiri (Shabbos 129b.)

Those who take this prohibition at face value and hold that it refers to astrology might differentiate between believing in the power of the stars, which is legitimate, and basing one’s actions on what they predict, which is not. They could hold that because a Jew is able to change his mazal through his actions, he needs to do exactly that rather than follow what his mazal says blindly.

This view is extremely problematic, seeing as a person has no way of knowing whether his deeds will be good enough to merit this intervention, and it is forbidden in any case to rely on miracles- after all, even Yaakov Avinu was afraid of Esav, according to Chazal (Brachos 4a) because he feared that his sins would stop him from meriting the divine protection promised to him.

How could one then rely on Hashem’s intervention and perform an action against his astrologer’s advice?

Alternatively, one could assume that the halachic sugyas that deal with the prohibition against astrology are the עיקר שמעתתא (main sugyos) and the largely aggadic sugyos that seem to assume the truth of astrology to be secondary, either viewing them as completely non authoritative or interpreting them symbolically in a way that they do not contradict the Torah’s disdain for such beliefs.

The former would be controversial, to say the least, and the later would require a great degree of creativity.

I should also be noted that the earlier sugya on daf 129b seems far from aggadic and seems to involve a halachik discussion as do some other sugyos on the subject.

Whereas Rashi on our daf and the Ramban (Devarim 18/9-12) clearly seem to accept the legitimacy of astrology in some way, taking the more narrow interpretation of Rabbi Yochanan’s dictum, a reading of the Rambam’s views on the subject (A.Z. 11/9 for example) will reveal that he takes the approach of completely negating any truth in astrology.

Identifying which approach he takes to dealing with all these sugyos that assume its truth, takes us out of the scope of this post!

These posts are intended to raise issues and stimulate further research and discussion on contemporary topics related to the daf. They are not intended as psak halacha.

Shabbos 154-155 Tzaar Baalei Chayim, foie gras and dogs

In a previous sugya (Shabbos 128), we discussed the ruling of Rav Yehuda in the name of Rav that one is allowed to throw cushions down the steep edge of a stream on shabbos in order that an animal stuck inside can climb out, even though it is ruining the cushions, thus transgressing the rabbinical prohibition against making a כלי (useful item) unfit for its normal use.

The Gemara explained that this is because he holds that preventing cruelty to animals is a biblical requirement which overrides this rabbinical prohibition.

On Daf 154, The Gemara discusses ways of offloading muktza items from a donkey on shabbos, and amongst various opinions, brings the rather extreme story of Rabban Gamliel, whose donkey was loaded with honey containers.

Seeing as the permitted method mentioned in the Mishna of loosening the ropes and allowing the honey jars to fall on their own would have resulted in them breaking, he chose to wait until after shabbos.

By the time shabbos was over, the donkey had died from the strain of the load.

The Gemara asks why he did not simply put cushions one on top of another to absorb the blow so they did not break, and answers that this would have involved the above- mentioned rabbinical prohibition of ruining the cushions.

It then asks why he didn’t do so on the basis of preventing cruelty to animals, seeing as it was clear the animal was suffering, and answered that Rabban Gamliel was of the view that preventing cruelty to animals is only a rabbinical requirement and does not push off even rabbinical laws of shabbos.

We see that the idea that preventing cruelty to animals is a biblical requirement, something we took for granted in a previous sugya, is really subject to debate amongst the Tannaim, and none other than Rabban Gamliel himself, disagrees.

Although Rav, as the first of the Amoraim, was sometimes treated like a Tannaic sage and able to argue with other Tannaim (see for example Kesubos 8a,) it would be tidier to find a Tana that clearly holds that preventing cruelty to animals is indeed a biblical requirement.

Such a Tana has already been found on Daf 117a, where the Gemara attributes this view to Rabbi Yehoshua, at least as a strong probability.

The main discussion, however, can be found at the end of “Elu Metzius” (Bava Metzia 32b) regarding the obligation to help offloading the donkey of one’s neighbor.

There, Rava rules authoritatively that both Tannaim who discuss the matter, Rabbi Shimon AND the Chachamim, agree that צער בעלי חיים (preventing cruelty to animals) is indeed a biblical requirement.

Despite the above, when it comes to trapping and slaughtering animals for food, the Torah has clearly given permission to do so, and this overrides the requirement of preventing cruelty to animals.

The generally accepted opinion amongst later authorities, is that this applies to other genuine human needs as well – after all using animal’s for their hides was a regular and accepted practise to the point that tanning is even one of the forbidden melachot on shabbos.

Nevertheless, certain particularly cruel actions, such as plucking feathers from living birds for use as quills, though not forbidden, have been condemned as being unnecessarily cruel, and strongly discouraged (See Rema E.H 5/14)

It is also important to that this dispensation might well be limited to essential human needs, and not recreational pleasures. One later authority who specifically limits this allowance to “essential needs” is the Aruch haShulchan (E.H. 5).

Hunting, even fishing, for sport, are not essential human needs, and do not match the precedent set by the Torah by default.

As such, they also might be forbidden due to the biblically requirement to prevent suffering from animals, and even later authorities such as the Noda Bayehuda (Volume II Y.D. 1) who argue that they do not fit into the biblical law, condemn “hunting with rifles” as cruel behaviour not fitting for the Jewish people.

One of the more controversial questions in contemporary kashrus relates to the force-feeding applied to geese in order to enlarge their livers for the production of foie-grass, a French delicacy prepared from such livers.

Another relates to the force-feeding of young calves with surplus liquids and insufficient solid foods in order to fatten them quickly for slaughter and give the flesh the white look that is typical of “white-veal,” also a delicacy.

Are such luxurious items really in the category of essential human needs that justify such excess cruelty, assuming the truth of claims that they indeed suffer excessively from this (a debate I do not have enough information to address right now?)

The Mishna on our daf (Shabbos 154) refers to various force-feeding methods applied to camels, calves, and fowl, and other than issues relating to shabbos law does not seem to consider them a violation of tzaar baalei Chaim.

It requires further study to assess precisely what methods are being referred to, and what the need for them was, but if the calves were indeed being force-fed for early slaughter, there could possibly be some precedent here for considering qualitatively tastier delicacies such as veal being enough of a need to allow this excess cruelty.

In practice, Rav Moshe Feinstein (E.H. 4/92) banned production and consumption of white veal in his day, based on his view that the white color of the veal are not considered legitimate needs to cause such cruelty, and neither is the profit of the people who produce it- a careful study of this teshuva is required in order to see precisely where he draws the line.

In contrast, goose-liver has been a very popular product amongst Jews for centuries and the main issues raised with it at various times appear to have been kashrus based and not due to concern for the animal’s welfare.

This could be because unlike white-veal, the foie gras is not just aesthetically more pleasing, but also has its own superior flavor and texture which is considered more of a need than simple aesthetic factors, or it could be because the level of cruelty was not viewed by halachik authorities as being on the same level.

Or possibly, it is because this was the main source of kosher fat available for Jews in Europe for most of history, and it was thus considered a truly essential product.

Either way, unless there is truth in the claims of those who say that recent improvements in legislation have lowered the distress level into the normal acceptable limits, or that the geese do not really suffering from this feeding, it seems pretty clear that in today’s time where we have many sources of fat and such a huge variety of both basic and luxury food-products, the tzaar baalei chayim factor should be considered- it should certainly be included in the general condemnation of excessively cruel behavior even for legitimate needs, which we have brought examples of.

Could the same argument perhaps be made against eating meat in today’s times and wearing clothes from animals slaughtered for that purpose, given that there are so many alternative sources of protein and general nutrition, as well as clothing? Probably not, but that is for a different discussion.

One more related idea I would like to discuss from our daf is the question of how we relate to dogs.

There is much condemnation (Shabbos 63a) of people who raise and keep “bad dogs” due to the fear they cast on poor people coming to ask for charity, and (see sugya in Bava Kama 83a ) due to the harm and fear they cause to pregnant women, and people who raise dogs are even compared to those who raise pigs.

Yet on our daf, we are told that unlike pigs, whose welfare we are not responsible for (due to the prohibition of raising pigs, as per Rashi, and because they have plenty to eat) we are responsible for the welfare of dogs and may thus feed them on shabbos.

This responsibility seems from our daf to extend to stray dogs too, who are considered to suffer the epitome of poverty (לית דעניא ככלבא) and should be fed by us, albeit in the fields and not in town, in order not to encourage them to keep coming back and bothering people.

There is much to discuss about the seemingly different views in Chazal that relate to raising and keeping dogs, as well as the practical halacha, but we will leave that for another occasion, Hashem willing.

These posts are intended to raise issues and stimulate further research and discussion on contemporary topics related to the daf. They are not intended as psak halacha.

Shabbos 128 Tzaar Baalei Chayim (preventing cruelty to animals)

The Gemara on 128b brings the ruling of Rav Yehuda in the name of Rav that states that if an animal fell into a trench/stream with water in it on shabbos and is not able to get out, one may stack/throw cushions one on top of another to allow it to climb out.
It questions this ruling from a Beraisa which states that in such a case, one should bring it פרנסה (sustenance- presumably food,water etc.) where it is, which implies that using cushions to help it out is forbidden.
The Gemara concludes that when it is possible to take care of its needs where it is, one should indeed do so, but if this is not possible, one is permitted to help it out using the cushions.
It then challenges this “leniency” on the basis that the cushions will be ruined, and there is a rabbinical prohibition against מבטל כלי מהיכנו ,ruining an instrument in a way that it will no longer be fit for its purpose on Shabbos.
Finally, it concludes that seeing as “tzaar baalei chayim” (avoid suffering to animals) is a biblical commandment and ruining a vessel is a rabbinical prohibition, the biblical concept of tzaar Baalei chayim pushed aside the rabbinic concern of ruining a vessel.
At first glance, this sugya seems to be establishing a rule that should perhaps even be obvious- the biblical requirement to prevent distress to animals pushes aside rabbinical prohibitions.
However, a look at the flow of the sugya reveals that this is far from obvious.
Firstly, if there was such a blanket rule, why was it necessary to allow this specifically in this case?
Secondly, if this is indeed true, why is this only permitted if it is impossible to take care of the animal while it is in the trench? Surely the animal still gets a degree of distress by not being able to get out, and one should be able to override the rabbinical prohibition simply to stop this distress, not just to give it food and water?
As such, one is almost forced to deduce from this sugya that there is no blanket permission to transgress any rabbinic prohibition to avoid distress to animals, AND that not every form of distress is equal.
The prohibition of making a vessel unusable is indeed pushed aside for this reason, and it is possible that other rabbinical prohibitions of similar nature or status are as well, but that is about all we can get from here.
In addition, it seems that the level of distress required to activate this “pushing aside” must be rather significant, at the level of hunger or thirst, and not just emotional distress or frustration.
If this legalistic analysis is indeed correct, it seems to be rather counter intuitive on an ethical and logical level, and some further explanation is in place.
Although it can argued that concern for the welfare of animals should be axiomatic to human nature and perhaps be in the category of simply דרץ ארץ קדמה לתורה, (basic decency precedes Torah,) there are a number of places in the Torah where concern for animals is evident explicitly as well, despite the fact that using animals for human needs and divine sacrifice was clearly sanctioned.
From the very beginning, we see that man is charged with working the garden of Eden and looking after it and its inhabitants (Bereishis 2/15.)
During the period of the flood, Noah was given responsibility not only for saving his family and anyone who would repent (there were none,), but also representatives of every living species (Bereishis 7/2.)
The Torah commands us to avoid eating blood of any animal, see as it contains the essence of its life-force (Devarim 12/23.)
Virtually all our leaders acted at least in their early years as shepherds, and the Midrash attributes this to the need for our leaders to be people who are merciful and concerned for all creatures )Shmos Rabbah 2/2 )
We are commanded to give the carcass of a טריפה (animal unfit for consumption due to injury) to the dogs, and the Gemara stresses how dogs are to be treated with extra compassion due to the difficulty they face in finding food (Shabbos 155b.)
One of the most poignant examples of the disdain that the Torah treats cruelty to animals must surely be the episode of the wicked heathen prophet Bil’am and his donkey (Bamidbar 22)
The exchange of words between him and his donkey leaves little place for doubt that the Torah’s harshest judgement of Bil’am, besides for his hatred of the Jewish people, is the utter callousness that he shows towards his loyal ass.
One is forbidden to kill an ox and its child on the same day (Vayikra 22/28), and is required to send away the mother bird before taking its young (Devarim 22/7), and although the reasons for these commandments are somewhat more controversial , it certainly appears at face value that they are connected to the need to have mercy even when performing cruel tasks needed for one’s own sustenance (See Ramban Devarim 22/6 , and his reference to the Rambam in the Moreh(3/48))
The Gemara (Bava Metzia 85a) tells us how Rabbi Yehuda haNasi himself, the great redactor of the Mishna, was walking on his way and a calf came and pleaded for him to save him from being taken to the slaughter.
Instead of helping him, or perhaps thinking that he was, he instructed the calf to go willingly to the slaughter, as this is what it was created for (to feed man.)
As a result of this callous response, the Gemara relates that extreme suffering was decreed on him.
This suffering only ended when he had repented and showed that he had changed his ways.
His maid was clearing out some weasels from the house and he told her to let them be, seeing as “His mercy is on all his creatures.”
Presumably Rebbe had learnt the lesson that it is man’s role to follow in the ways of Hashem and to be merciful like he is even in a situation when the law is not on the side of the supplicant.
Even if the calf was technically serving its purpose, he should have acted mercifully and saved it, or at a minimum, spoken to it in a more empathetic way.
Yet the most official halachik source for an obligation to not only refrain from actions that cause distress to animals but to actively strain oneself to prevent it, seems to be the commandment to help offload a donkey.
The Gemara (Bava Metzia 32b) explains the overreaching scope of this requirement as being a proof that צער בעלי חיים דאורייתא (avoiding distress to animals is a biblical requirement.)
We see clearly from this, that the biblical requirement to prevent suffering to animals is not limited to taking care of their food and water, but also to the distress felt by a loaded donkey.
Returning to our sugya and the animal in the stream, perhaps one needs to conclude that the case we are dealing with assumes that the animal is not in particular distress where it is, and that the main distress it faces is lack of food.
On a hot day in the African bush, one often sees animals enjoying time in the water, and so long as the water is not too deep for it to stand, it might not endure significant distress if it waits there till after shabbos, so longer as it has food.
If however, the animal is in significant stress just by virtue of being stuck in the trench, it seems logical that helping it out with cushions would also be permitted, and that if this is not sufficient, any other rabbinical prohibition could also be pushed aside in order to help it out.
In practise, there is much debate about when “tzaar baalei chayim” pushes off other halachik concerns, we have only come to open the discussion.
These posts are intended to raise issues and stimulate further research and discussion on contemporary topics related to the daf. They are not intended as psak halacha.