Oz Torah: Ask the Rabbi ‘Signs of the Zodiac’.


Q. I am confused in regard to Judaism and the Zodiac signs. My understanding was that “diviners, necromancers and soothsayers” were forbidden. If this is the case, why and how have the Zodiac signs been incorporated into Judaism?

A. The idea of the Zodiac, a notional belt in the heavens within which are the paths of the sun, moon and chief planets, may have been introduced by the Chaldeans about 4000 years ago.

They lived in a locality which was conducive to the observation of the heavens. They saw twelve full moons each year and speculated as to the different characteristics of the months.

credit: 123RF

The name Zodiac is derived from the Greek “zoion”, an animal (another word from this root is “zoology”), since all twelve Zodiac constellations except Libra (the scales) are represented by animal figures – bull, lion, goat, etc. The signs of the Zodiac were believed to contain portents which influenced human life.

In the Talmud, however, there is no reference to the Zodiac; Rabbi Yochanan quoted the verse,

“Learn not the way of the nations, and be not dismayed at the signs of the heaven; for the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of the peoples are empty” (Jer. 10:2-3)

and added that Israel is immune from any planetary influence (Shabbat 156a).

Nonetheless the Zodiac entered early Jewish art, e.g. on the mosaic floor of the 6th century Bet Alpha Synagogue in Israel. It is mentioned in the brief Sefer Y’tzirah (“Book of Creation”), which is known to have been in existence in the 10th century.

The Latin names for the signs of the Zodiac are given Hebrew translations, e.g. “shor” (= taurus, the bull) and “moznayim” (= libra, the scales). Each of the signs is linked up in the Pesikta Rabbati (p. 133b) with an event in Jewish history, e.g. the ram/lamb recalls the Passover sacrifice, the calf/bull recalls the golden calf and the twins represent Jacob and Esau or the two tablets of the Ten Commandments.

Diagrams of the Zodiac signs featured in marriage covenants, prayer books, etc.

The problem for Judaism is whether one should really believe that Zodiac signs affect what happens in human life. When the sages say, hakkol biy’dei shamayim – “everything is in the hands of heaven” (Ber. 33b), they meant Heaven with a capital H, i.e. God.

Maimonides tried hard to warn people against attaching superstitions to the heavenly bodies, but the popular sentiment was frequently against him, at least until modern times.


Q. When we bless our daughters on Friday night we say, “May God make you like Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah”. Why isn’t the boys’ blessing, “May God make you like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”?

A. The boys’ blessing, “God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh” is a direct Biblical quotation from Genesis 48:20.

It is the grandfather Jacob’s blessing of his grandsons (the sons of his son Joseph), praying that they will be a source of continuity and destiny even in an unfriendly environment.

There is no equivalent verse for girls so tradition constructed one, though it is suggested by Ruth 4:11 (“The Lord make the woman who has come into your house like Rachel and Leah”).

Credit: Y’simkha

Both boys and girls get an additional b’rachah, the priestly blessing (“The Lord bless you and keep you”, quoted from Numbers 6:24-26).


Q. Does Jewish law approve of having cats and dogs as pets?

A. Animals feature regularly in Biblical literature – the story of the animals on Noah’s Ark is an example – but they were regarded as mostly meant for utilitarian purposes, e.g. horses to ride on or pull a cart or chariot, oxen and donkeys to plough the ground, cows to give milk, and kosher animals, birds and fish for food.

Rarely do ancient records mention animals as pets, an exception being a pet dog in the Apocryphal story of Tobit. Isaiah 1 warns that sometimes animals show more loyalty to their owners than human beings do towards God.

The rabbis certainly knew that dogs were loyal (Hor. 13a) but they warned against having “a bad dog” in one’s house (Shab. 63a, BK 15a/b, 79b and 83a).

Maimonides has a strict view. He bans any dog at all unless it is tied up by chains (Niz’kei Mammon 5:9), though others (e.g. Tur, Choshen Mishpat 409) only prohibit bad dogs.

The authorities discuss what constitutes a bad dog. It is not only whether the animal is liable to bite and hurt a human being, but whether its bark might scare a person, especially a pregnant woman (Rashi to BK 79a).

The fear of dogs was obviously always a major issue, and some authorities limit the ownership of dogs to guard dogs which have a practical security purpose.

Antisemites like the Cossacks often used fierce dogs to intimidate and frighten the Jews. The result is that Jews with an Eastern European background are still scared of dogs to this day.

Several of my Jerusalem neighbours walk their dogs in the street, but there are other neighbours who deliberately cross the street so as to keep away from the dogs. One dog-walking neighbour passes our house regularly, and if it is Shabbat he tells me in Hebrew in a loud voice, “The dog doesn’t bite on Shabbat!”

A certain rabbi I knew used to believe that the Jerusalem dogs are the reincarnation of the souls of departed rabbis.

Rabbinic views about cats are generally more lenient, though there was a fear that a wild or uncontrolled cat might cause injury to person or property.

On the other hand, some Rabbis are said to have specially kept cats as pets in order to fulfil the ethical duty of feeding your animals before having your own meal.

Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com


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