Monday, October 22, 2012

"Mazal Tov"--What Does It Really Mean?

When Jews wish to congratulate other people, they usually exclaim in Hebrew “Mazal Tov.” I am glad we do not dwell on the literal meaning of these words, because if we did, most of us would not say them at all. But words change meaning, and “Mazal Tov” is one of them.

Literally, “Mazal Tov” signifies “good fortune.” In Hebrew, “Tov” means “good” and “mazal” (pl. mazalot; from the Akkadian mazaztu or mazazu) is an astrological expression, referring to the heavenly constellations or the stars in the zodiac, which presumably have influence on human beings and, in fact, determine their destiny. So, when we wish others “Mazal Tov,” we are hoping that the stars will be favorable to them.

Traditional Jewish texts reflect an ambivalent attitude regarding astrology. Many Biblical texts consider it of foreign origin. Thus, for instance, some prophets scoff at “star-gazers” (cf. Isa. 47: 13; Jer. 10:2) among the nations, and biblical law prohibits the practice of divination and soothsaying (Lev. 19: 26; cf. Deut. 18: 10) among the Israelites. But the practice must have been extensive in ancient Israel, even in the holy temple, for in the 7th cent. BCE, King Josiah of Judah suppressed the priests who made offerings “to the sun, moon and constellations (mazalot)” (II K 23: 5).  On the other hand, Job states that it is God who sets the stars (here called mazarot in 38: 32) in their courses.

Post biblical literature knows of astrology but presents a mix bag. While the Book of Enoch (2nd cent. BCE) considers it a sin (8: 3), the Jewish historian Josephus tells us that it was very popular among Jews (Wars, 6: 288f). The Talmud, too, is ambivalent about the subject. Though the majority of the Rabbis argued that God established the constellations (see, BT Ber. 32b) and that each human being is under the influence of the planets ( BT Shab. 53b), Rabbi Johanan maintained that “Israel is immune to planetary influence” (BT Shab. 156a).

During the medieval times, most Jewish philosophers supported astrology, but Moses Maimonides (12/3th cent.) considered it a superstition (Yad, Avodah Zarah, 11: 8-9). Another Jewish philosopher, Hasdai Crescas (14/15th cent.), too, argued that it is impossible to attribute a decisive character to the dictates of the star configurations (Or Adonai 4: 4). On the other hand, the Zohar, the main texts of the Kabbalah, took astrology for granted. In the glorious days of Spanish Jewry, a number of Jewish scholars wrote books on astrology, and defended its practice.

Today, a number of people begin their day by checking their horoscope, and make important decisions based on these predictions. To me, this is pure superstition and borders on idolatry. However, I am not willing to give up the practice of wishing someone “Mazal Tov,” because of its past meaning. Presently, for most people, this expression is devoid of its original intent, and simply means, “May it be well with you.” I can drink to that.

So, Mazal Tov, to all of you.
Rifat Sonsino
Oct. 2012

PS. There a good article on “Astrology” in the Encyclopaedia Judaica (2007, Vol 2, pp.616-620) by Alexander Altman, which also appears in the Jewish Virtual Library.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Torah in Noah's Ark

On Sunday, October 7, Noah Gorden (TBS member and 1st grade student at the Rashi School) was Consecrated along with 80 other young learners at our Erev Simchat Torah and Consecration service. Consecration literally means to set apart as holy; to dedicate and to cause to be revered or honored. 

During the Erev Simchat Torah service we sing and dance, carry flags and march around the synagogue in honor of the Torah, our most precious possession.  The joyous celebration provides the perfect opportunity to consecrate our children, our most precious gift.  TBS and the Gorden Family were celebrating Noah's Jewish learning journey at the Rashi School. 

Our Consecration ceremony affirms and celebrates the Jewish learning journey that our children have embarked upon. On Sunday evening, each Consecrant received a certificate of Consecration, a honey stick (so that Torah may always be sweet), a $250 gift certificate to be used towards tuition at Eisner or Crane Lake Camp, and a mini Torah. Noah, like many of our Consecrants was very excited to receive his mini Torah.

As soon as Noah got home he began building an Aron Kodesh or ark for his Consecration Torah. We were so moved by his process that we asked Noah to share his thoughts behind building an ark for his Torah with you.

Noah's words: 

I am Noah and I built an ark for my baby Torah and it is very special to me. I got this idea by thinking about my Torah. My mom gave me an idea for the sides of my ark and it came out looking like a mosaic. I added the ladder because I think it is cool. Lego guys can use the ladder to get to the top. At the end I added my eternal light. My Torah is special to me because I really have been counting down the days to me getting my baby Torah. It is special because I am Jewish and the Torah belongs to the Jewish people. The end. Thank you for reading my story.

 Thank you to the Gorden Family for sharing Noah’s mini-Torah story with us.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Moses' Circumcision

Was Moses circumcised as a baby before or after he was found by the Egyptian princess or at any time during his life?

There is no clear reference to Moses’ circumcision in the Bible. We do not know when or even if he were circumcised at all. It is possible that he may have been circumcised by the Egyptians, because circumcision was practiced in ancient Egypt. But there is no mention of it anywhere.

There is only one biblical story that involves Moses and circumcision in Ex. 4: 24-26, but the text is corrupt.  We are told that Zipporah, Moses’ wife, carried out the act of circumcision on a family member on their way down to Egypt, but the text does not clearly state who was circumcised, Moses or one of their two sons, Gershom or Eliezer.

The text reads as follows (my remarks are highlighted): “At a night encampment on the way, the Lord encountered him [who is “him”? Moses or his son], and sought to kill him [Moses or his son?]. So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs [whose leg? Moses or the son’s] with it, saying, ‘You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me.’ And when He let him [Moses or the son?] alone, she added,’ A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision” (NJPS).

Given the uncertainty of the text, commentators have suggested various interpretations.

According to some Rabbis, Moses was among those few grandees of the past who were born already circumcised (e.g., Tanhuma, Noah 5; Avot de Rabbi Natan 2: 5) as an expression of human perfection. For them, the question was who was then circumcised in the Exodus text? Some Rabbis maintained that God wanted to kill Moses because he had not circumcised his second son Eliezer (Ex. Rabba 5: 8; cf. Rashi). On the other hand, a talmudic Rabbi argued that the victim was not Moses but “the child”, but the Talmud does not identify whether this “child” was Gershom or Eliezer. One Rabbi opined that Moses was punished because he was apathetic towards circumcision; another one denies it (e.g., Ned. 31b and 32a).

Modern scholars, too, are divided: Some maintain that the victim was Gershom (Fohrer), whereas others say it was Moses (Childs). The text is so corrupted that one modern critic writes that “the account here is only a truncated version of a larger, popular story that circulated orally in Israel” (Sarna).

Even though the text is unclear, it becomes evident that the passage in Exodus highlights the importance and necessity of circumcision. Zipporah, facing a deadly threat, circumcised a member of her family, and saved him.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Aug. 2012