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 149 Gambling in Halacha and opening function-halls during the Corona Crisis

The Mishna at the bottom of 148b tells us that it is permitted to cast lots with one’s family members on Shabbos to see who gets which portion, which will presumably prevent fighting over them.

I happen to be particularly sensitive to my children fighting over food portions, and am rather strict in insisting they avoid doing so, after all is it really fitting for thankfully relatively well-off children to be fighting with each other over who gets the thicker piece of salmon when so many people are hungry?

It is appropriate behaviour for frum children in the first place, even if they are relatively poor?

Yet this seems to be an old problem amongst kids and Chazal took a realistic view to dealing with it- rather than ignoring the problem or tackling it head on, they suggested a simple fair solution.

However, despite the lofty goal of keeping peace in the home, the Mishna attaches a key condition- one may not intentionally make one portion larger than the other and draw lots on the larger portion- one has to at least attempt to make the portions equal.

The Gemara rules that drawing lots on different sized portions is forbidden even during the week because of קוביא (gambling.)

The Mishna (Sanhedrin 24b) includes a gambler in the list of people who are unfit to be witnesses.

Rabbi Yehuda comments that this is only the case when the gambler has no other trade/profession other than gambling.

It is not immediately clear whether Rabbi Yehuda and the Chachamim disagree on this point, or whether Rabbi Yehuda is simply clarifying the position of the Chachamim.

The Gemara asks what issue the Mishna has with a gambler, and 2 opinions are given:

  1. Rami bar Chama explains that gambling is a form of אסמכתא (a transaction based on incorrect assumptions) which are not valid.

He seems to argue that when a person gambles, he is convinced psychologically that he will win, and it is on that basis that he agrees to the terms of the bet/lottery.

Although this might seem far-fetched, this is particularly common with habitual gamblers whose addiction keeps pushing them to try “one more time.”

When he fails to win, the transaction is invalid, and the winner is considered a form of thief if he takes the money.

Rav Sheishes disputes this ruling and holds that such a transaction is not a valid example of אסמכתא seeing as the gambler is still fully aware that he might lose and chooses to take the chance.

He explains that the reason the gambler is not fit to testify is not because he has committed a form of theft, even at a rabbinical level, but because he isn’t עוסק בישובו של עולם (he does not busy himself with “settling” the world.)

This fits in with Rabbi Yehuda’s view in the Mishna that only a gambler who has no other profession is unfit to be a witness.

According to this view, while gambling might not be a prohibited act as such, it is a non- constructive profession that does not help build society in a positive way.

A person who does not engage in a constructive profession is simply not a trust-worthy witness, perhaps because he does not take people’s needs and property rights seriously enough.

There is much to analyze and debate, both in the text of the Gemara and in the Rishonim, regarding the scope of both אסמכתא and ישובו של עולם , as well as the reason and nature for the gambler’s disqualification as a witness, but we will focus for now on what appears to be the most simple interpretation of the debate:

According to Rami bar Chama, and the Chachamim of the Mishna according to his view, anyone who gambles is unfit to be a witness as he is a form of thief.

According to Rav Sheshet, and Rabbi Yehuda in the Mishna, only a professional gambler with no other profession is unfit to be a witness- in contrast, the casual gambler has done nothing wrong and is certainly fit to act as a witness.

Back to our sugya in Shabbos, it seems that our Gemara holds like Rami bar Chama that gambling is indeed forbidden even if one has another profession.

As it is usual in case of a debate in one sugya where the סתמא דגמרא (undisputed assumption or ruing) in another sugya supports one side , it thus seems appropriate to rule like Rami bar Chama and forbid even casual gambling, as well as disqualify the casual gambler from being a witness, until he has repented and stopped gambling.

Furthermore, a different Mishna (Rosh haShana 22a) gives a similar list of people who are invalid as witnesses, and does not record the lenient view of Rabbi Yehuda- the Gemara there understands that they are all forms of rabbinical theft, which seems to support the view of Rami bar Chama as well.

This is indeed the way the Rambam (Gezeila veaveida 6/10, Mechira 21/3) appears to rule (though compare Eidus 10/4 and Shabbos 23/17) and the Shulchan Aruch (C.M gezeila 370/1-3) is also generally understood to take this view.

However, based on the continuation of the sugya in Sanhedrin, it is clear that some Amoraim are of the view that Rabbi Yehuda and the Chachamim agree that casual gambling does not disqualify one from testifying, and even though Rami bar Chama disagrees, there is some logic in following those Amoraim who do not see the Tannaim of the Mishna as arguing, particularly as both Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi take that view.

This is the way that the Tur and the Rema rule, essentially making normative Ashkenazi halacha more tolerant of casual gambling- interestingly enough, the Rif also takes this lenient view, and it is somewhat surprising that the Shulchan Aruch rules like what is really an ambiguous Rambam against a clear Rif and Tur.

However, there is another way to reconcile the sugya in Shabbos that forbids casual gambling with the view of Rav Sheishes in Sanhedrin who says that it is not considered אסמכתא and does not disqualify one from being a witness.

We could suggest that even Rav Sheishes agrees that casual gambling is rabbinically forbidden. However, he holds that it is not enough of a sin to disqualify one from being a witness.

Instead of rejecting the prohibition of casual gambling completely, Rav Sheishes’ statement would then simply be interpreted as pointing out that it does not qualify as אסמכתא on a biblical level.

He could thus still hold that only a professional gambler with no other profession is included in the Mishna’s disqualification, without permitting casual gambling.

If we learn like this, our sugya in shabbos could also work according to Rav Sheishes- casting lots on different sized portions is indeed a form of gambling and rabbinical theft and thus forbidden even during the week, but might still not be something that would disqualify one from serving as a witness.

This approach would make it easier to rule leniently like Rav Sheishes and only disqualify professional gamblers as witnesses, but would at the same time be taking a stricter form of Rav Sheishes’ view and concluding that even he agrees that casual gambling is forbidden, shutting the door on permitting casual gambling.

Could this possibly be the real view of the Rambam, some other Rishonim, or even the Shulchan Aruch?

It certainly would help reconcile the above-quoted view of the Rambam that gambling is forbidden as a rabbinical form of theft with his words elsewhere which say that only the professional gambler is unfit to be a witness.

This is indeed close to the approach of the Vilna Gaon, who actually deletes the phrase כל כי האי גוונא לאו אסמכתא הוא from the sugya in Sanhedrin and seems to understands that Rav Sheishes agrees that it is indeed a rabbinic form of theft, just not enough to disqualify one as a witness.

In practise:

Most contemporary Sephardi authorities forbid all forms of gambling including lotteries and consider them a form of theft.

Most mainstream Ashkenazi authorities, while discouraging gambling, do not forbid it out-right on a casual basis.

All authorities agree that someone whose sole profession is gambling is unfit to be a witness.

Mussar:

The idea that the professional gambler is unfit as a witness because he is not engaged in constructive pursuits, is understood in various ways in the Rishonim, and a more complete analysis of the subject obviously requires a through study of all these views.

Yet I cannot help but be bothered by the idea that the modern-day wealthy philanthropist who owns many casinos, employs huge numbers of people, keeps the laws of the land with everything on the books, and supports countless charitable causes, including many Torah institutions, could be invalid as a witness if this is the main way he made/makes his money.

Can he truly be regarded as someone who does not respect other people’s money, and is likely to lie under oath, when he clearly does so much good for society as well?

Without ruling on this issue, given that this does in fact appear to be the default law, there appears to be a powerful message behind this halacha- not only does the end not justify the means, the means doesn’t even justify the means!

A profession which does so much damage to society as a whole and ruins countless lives cannot be justified simply because it creates work for many other people, or because so many of the proceeds go to charity.

Although it is questionable whether this concept could be extended on a halachik level to other areas of business that do more harm than good to society, such as cigarette manufacture and sales, and possibly even alcohol, at an ethical level there is certainly a comparison.

Just like it is clear, or at least has been till recently, that people who sell dangerous drugs are not to be praised just because they create employment for others who work for them, or give some of the proceeds to charity, anyone engaged in industries that are mainly harmful to the public should be very aware of the serious ethical and probably halachik issues they face.

Current Affairs and food for thought:

During the current Corona Crisis in Israel, one of the justifications for allowing high-risk businesses such as function-halls to reopen, is the fact that they employ many people and help support the economy.

If these events are essentially endangering society’s well-being, are these arguments not irrelevant , and should we not say that people who open such businesses at this dangerous time are at least on an ethical level, not involved in constructively building the world?