What exactly is mazal? How does it work? Most importantly: what effect does it have on our lives and aspirations?
Lets search Talmudic literature for some clarity.
We must carefully distinguish between two very different forces, both described by Torah sources as “mazal.” One is mazal as an independent representative or guide, attached to or associated with every human being. The other is a blind, purely mechanical and natural influence (sometimes associated with astrology). Later we’ll explore the possibility of a third “mazal” force.
Despite the general prohibition against carrying objects in public places on Shabbos, the Talmud does permit certain protective amulets (קמיעות) to be worn as long as they have already been proven effective. Nevertheless, even among those known to help people, they remain forbidden as long as they aren’t proven effective on animals as well…
…But is there such a thing as an amulet that is proven for people but not for animals? Yes: perhaps a man, with his mazal, can be helped by an amulet, while an animal, that has no mazal, cannot be helped. (Shabbos 53b)
Mazal: a man’s angel who represents him. (Rashi)
It would seem that the mere existence of this representative protects a person from damage even in circumstances that could kill an animal.
Similarly, a human being’s personal mazal can protect him from violence as can be seen in Rashi’s second approach to this Talmudic passage:
Why, concerning causing damage to people, does the Torah (Ex. 21:28) use the expression “gore,” while concerning animals, it (ibid verse 35) uses “push”? About a man, who has mazal, it writes “gore,” but about an animal, that has no mazal, it writes “push.” (Bava Kama 2b)
A man who has mazal: meaning, he has the intelligence to protect himself. Alternatively, he has mazal and thus it isn’t so easy to kill him by simply being pushed with an animal’s horn, unless he is gored directly and intentionally with the horn penetrating the body. (Rashi)
Besides being somehow responsible for his safety, a man’s mazal can also represent him in the spiritual world. As an example, the Talmud tells us that the Jews, once they stood at Mt. Sinai and received the Torah, were able to shed something called “zuhama”. But what about those who converted to Judaism only later? How do we explain the absence of “zuhama” even among converts and their descendants?
Rav Acha the son of Rava said to Rav Ashi…”even though converts were not present at Mt. Sinai, their mazal was.” Shabbos (146a)
Concerning Jews one could always explain the absence of zuhama by observing that even if the bodies of those who were not yet born were not at Mt. Sinai, their souls were already bound in the bundle of the living. But one can’t say that of converts as, presumably, they are given new souls upon conversion. So it must be that their mazal was there (at Mt. Sinai). (Meharsha)
This mazal-representative can also subtly link us to spiritual events and influences that we might otherwise entirely miss:
And I, Daniel, myself saw this vision but the men with me did not see the vision, but a great fear fell upon them and they ran and hid. (Daniel 10:7)
Since the others did not see the vision, why were they frightened? Even though they didn’t see it, their mazal saw it. Ravina said, from here we can learn that a person who is frightened, even if he can’t see anything, his mazal sees. (Talmud Megila 3a)
Their mazal: each man’s minister above. (Rashi)
Mazal’s protective strength is affected by a person’s own spiritual level. The Talmud discusses the rule that a wine wholesaler is not responsible for post-sale product spoilage, then adds that…
…This is only true if the wine was transferred to the buyer’s jugs. But if it spoiled while still in the wholesaler’s jugs, the buyer can demand a refund…But this conflicts with the opinion of Rabbi Chiya bar Yosef that wine spoilage is caused by its owner’s mazal, as it says (Chabakuk 2:5) “For wine betrays an arrogant man.” (Bava Basra 98a)
The arrogance of a man who prides himself with qualities that aren’t his causes his wine to betray him: people will think it is wine but it will be found to be nothing more than vinegar, measure for measure.” (Rashi)
In other words, Rabbi Chiya bar Yosef’s position is that the nature of mazal-influence can change – for better or for worse – according to a man’s behavior and attitudes. It should be noted that Tosafos (Bava Basra 96b “ושמואל אמר”) limits this effect to reasonably predictable phenomena, but maintains that a man’s behavior cannot force his mazal to cause wholly miraculous changes in nature.
Mazal can be changed through a person’s physical circumstances. The Talmud relates a remarkable story about a messenger of the Angel of Death who accidentally “collected” the wrong woman. The angel was subsequently asked:
How are you able to keep her here rather than sending her back to earth to live out the rest of her alloted time? The Angel answered: she was holding a hot poker in her hand while cleaning out her oven and it fell on her foot and she was burned, weakening her mazal. (Chagiga 5a)
Even the level of a person’s confidence can affect the strength of his mazal:
Someone who wants to embark on a journey and wishes to know whether or not he will return, should stand in a friend’s house. If he sees his double shadow he should know that he will return. However, this isn’t so: perhaps he will be upset and weaken his mazal. (Horiyos 12a)
This isn’t so: Because sometimes, even though there is no double shadow, he might return anyway. Nevertheless one should not perform this test because perhaps he will not see the shadow and become upset and his mazal will weaken and that might cause him not to return – and if he had not performed this test his mazal might never have weakened… (Rashi)
Because the Satan accuses more vigorously at a time of danger – like on a journey – and any little thing which can upset a person can sufficiently weaken his mazal and bring about damage. (Sefer Be’er Sheva)
Mazal as a blind, mechanical force of nature (astrology)
While God may certainly intervene at will, the Rabbis seemed to observe natural forces that, if left alone, would produce predictable effects on human beings and their environment. The Talmud (Brachos 59a), for instance, notes that the great flood only began when God moved two stars from one constellation and only ended when He took two different stars from another constellation to fill the gap in the first. The implication is that the continued influence of the original stars, had they not been moved, would have ensured stable conditions.
Whether this influence is absolute or whether people – or at least Jews – can somehow escape its effects, would seem to be a debate between Rabbi Chanina (and others including Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi) and Rabbi Yochanan (along with a rather long list of like-minded sages including Rabbi Akiva) in the Talmud Shabbos (156a-156b).
It was said: Rabbi Chanina says, Mazal causes wisdom, mazal causes wealth and mazal has an (inescapable) effect on Israel. Rabbi Yochanan said, Mazal does not have an (inescapable) effect on Israel.
Mazal causes wealth: because mazal is wisdom as was said (previously) that one born under the influence of the sun will be bright and wise and thus mazal has an inescapable effect on Israel so that their prayers and charity cannot change it. (Rashi)
Mazal does not have an inescapable effect on Israel: That through prayer and merits, mazal can be changed for the good. (Rashi)
The Talmud offers no obvious resolution to this debate. And even according to Rabbi Yochanan (who taught that the effects of mazal can be avoided), there are still limits to our self-determination:
Rava said: maintaining life and acquiring children and a livelihood do not depend on a person’s merits but on his mazal…” (Moed Katan 28a)
That which the Talmud in Shabbos says “mazal does not have an inescapable effect on Israel” can be explained by saying that sometimes mazal can change…through some remarkable merit but in a case like that of Rabbi Elazer ben Padas (Talmud Taanis 25a) it might not change at all…” (Tosafos אלא במזלא)
The mazal of nature also seems bound to natural cycles (This would also seem to be as clear an indication as any other that “mazal” has no power or free choice of its own, but is purely unconscious and mechanical):
Why should one not have his blood drawn on Tuesdays? Because the constellation “maadim” is in the part of the sky dominated by “zavui.” Why should that be a factor, after all “maadim” is also in “zavui” on Fridays and we do have blood drawn then? Since so many people ignore that risk, we can apply the verse (Tehilim 116:6) “God protects fools” (Talmud Shabbos 129b)
Mazal maadim controls violence, plague and catastrophes and astrological confluences (involving maadim) invite demonic interference… (Rashi)
And not only weekly cycles…
Rav Papa said: Therefore, a Jew who faces legal proceedings involving a non-Jew should delay any court appearance until after the month of Av because his mazal is weak…” (Ta’anis 29b)
As was mentioned previously, moral debts naturally find themselves paid up on a day of moral debt. (Tosafos)
Additionally, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi associated the influence of mazal with the day of a man’s birth while Rabbi Chanina considered his birth-hour more decisive (Shabbos 156a).
Against this background let’s take a look at Rambam:
In the days of Enosh humans made a great mistake and the generation’s wise men gave foolish advice – and Enosh was among those in error. This was their error: they said since God created these stars and constellations to guide the world and He placed them in the heavens and honored them and they serve those who serve before Him, it is fit to praise and exalt and honor the stars themselves’.” (Mishna Torah Laws of Idolatry 5:1)
Rambam here possibly bases himself on passages in the Talmud like Brachos 59a (which describes the stars’ role in the onset and completion of the flood). He clearly identifies “guiding the world” as one of the stars’ functions.
However, we must be careful not to exaggerate his position. Here’s what he wrote near the end of the laws of idolatry:
And anyone who acts in response to astrology and times his activities or journeys according to times determined by those who examine the stars, receives lashes… (ibid 11:9)
In adding further context to the various prohibitions of the chapter, Rambam concludes:
And these things are all lies and falsehood which were used by early idolaters to mislead nations thereby to follow their idolatrous paths. And it isn’t appropriate for Israel – who are a wise people – to be drawn after such foolishness and to even consider that there is any benefit to these activities…And anyone who believes these things or anything like them and thinks in his heart that they are true and wise except that the Torah forbids them, is certainly ranked among the fools and idiots… (ibid 11:16)
So, while Rambam does accept that stars do exert some influence on nature, he clearly rejects any connection between them and the conduct of human society. This distinction is made much more clearly in Rambam’s letter to the rabbis of Marseilles in which, while debunking the authenticity of astrology, he outlines the position common to all “philosophers”:
The general principle which they will all espouse is that all events involving people, animals, minerals or trees are all random. But the elements and all that is lifeless in the entire (physical) world all came to be through the the power of the constellations and stars which essentially came from God.”
Rambam then writes that Torah belief differs from that of the philosophers only in that the Torah teaches that human events are not random, but the result of Divine providence. They would all agree, however, that the stars have no influence on human life.
Now this most certainly seems to fly in the face of many of the quotations from the Talmud we’ve referenced above. Rambam was well aware of this problem and addressed it towards the end of his letter to Marseilles:
Our opinion on this has always been that all astrology is false in the eyes of all men of science. And I know that it is possible you will search and find individual opinions among our rabbis, the sages of Truth of blessed memory, in the Talmud and Mishna and Midrash, that their words appear to show that the stars have such and such an influence at the moment of a man’s birth. Do not consider this a problem, for just as it isn’t appropriate to abandon practical halacha to chase after obscure challenges and responses, so too, it is not appropriate for a man to leave intelligent matters whose proofs have already been confirmed, and shake them from his sleeves to accept instead the words of one minority opinion from among the sages…for it is possible that those words which seemed to validate astrology were really only meant as a hint to some profound Torah truth.
The Third “Mazal”
Rabbi Meir, in the final Mishna of Talmud Tractate Kiddushin, teaches that a person should make every reasonable effort to find success in a trade…
…and then pray to the One to Whom belongs all wealth and to Whom belongs all property. For there is no trade in which is not found both poverty and wealth, for poverty does not come from a man’s trade and wealth does not come from a man’s trade. Rather, everything flows from a man’s merit.
Tosafos (Kiddushin 82a), while commenting on the Mishna, wrote
Rather, everything flows from a man’s merit: meaning, according to his mazal, for “children, life and livelihood do not depend on merit, but on mazal.”
But why, wondered the Tiferes Yisrael (echoing questions of the Tosafos Yom Tov), would Tosafos attribute wealth to mazal rather than merit (besides the fact that mazal and merit are quite distinct from each other): if mazal determines a man’s financial fate, then why bother praying?
To this, the Tiferes Yisrael offers a creative solution. The term used by the Mishna (זכותו) doesn’t actually mean “merit”, but rather, its more common Talmudic translation: “possession” or “rights” (example: “יש לו זכות בו”). In this case, the Mishna means to teach us that, besides prayer, our financial success or failure largely depends on the peculiar combination of circumstances into which God decreed each of us be born (that which can truly be said to be “ours”). After all, so much of a person’s success does depend on his background and social standing. So, for instance, influences like one’s inborn nature, family, environment, diet and education all play significant roles in his future chances at success.
This, of course, has nothing to do with any astrological influences (Tiferes Yisrael firmly follows Rambam’s approach), but is a direct result of God’s specific plan for each human being. And, following the lead of Tosafos, it is therefore quite reasonable to characterize it as mazal.
The Bottom Line
While it seems clear that our connection to the spiritual world is sometimes characterized by the Rabbis as “mazal”, this knowledge would seem to have few, if any, practical applications – beyond the general need to care for our own physical safety and spiritual wellbeing.
It is certainly necessary to steadfastly avoid astrological advice – whether because Torah law forbids it or, according to Rambam, because common sense should guide us away from foolishness. Either way, in our search for financial success, there would seem to be very little room in Judaism for reliance on anything besides trust in God and hard work (in that order).
And we can take comfort in the knowledge that a great many of the crucial elements which will determine our success were given to us by our all-knowing and most-kind God.