Astrology Interpretation

Jewish Magic and Superstition
by Joshua Trachtenberg [1939]


WE POSSESS no one body of doctrine that describes so pervasive and dominant a pattern in the fabric of modern life as did the “science” of astrology in the medieval. According to one of the foremost students of the Middle Ages, Prof. Lynn Thorndike, “Astrology is the most widespread, as it is the most pseudo-scientific of any variety of the magic arts. Indeed, it has ceased to be merely one method of divination and claims to study and disclose the universal law of nature in the rule of the stars, by which every fact in nature and every occult influence in magic may be explained”; it is “the fundamental doctrine of the medieval Weltanschauung.”

Just as among Christians barely a murmur of opposition was heard, so Maimonides was the sole Jewish authority of prominence who dared raise his voice against this superstition. “Know ye, my masters,” he wrote to the congregation in Marseilles, “that all those matters that appertain to astrology in no wise constitute a true science, but are wholly folly. . . .” His was “a voice crying in the wilderness.” Menasseh b. Israel once more expressed the prevailing view when he scornfully waved aside the Maimonidean strictures with a series of citations from Jewish and non-Jewish literature. “And now, since the God-given Torah and the words of our rabbis prove the truth of this science, who can deny it?” he challenged. “In all periods there have been great astrologers among our people, and most notably in the land of Spain.”

It is true that astrology produced its foremost Jewish exponents and practitioners in the south of Europe—many a court, lay and ecclesiastical, in the Provence and Spain, boasted its Jewish astrologer; the northerners were amateurs by comparison. I have found not a single trustworthy reference to a recognized Jewish astrologer in Germany and France—an instance, perhaps, of typical northern parochialism which rigorously excluded the Jew from court attendance, or, again, a commentary on the inferior

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quality of his skill. But, however short he may have been on theory, the German Jew was by no means unacquainted with the practical utilities of the science.1 Though the literature is not as informative as one might wish, we may derive from it those general rules which were the bases of the astrological science.

The debate over the determining rôle of the stars in the life of man, broached in the Bible and heatedly argued in the pages of the Talmud, continued unabated through the succeeding centuries. The issue was hardly at all whether the stars influence men but rather just how vital and irremediable their influence is. It was generally accepted that every man has his star in heaven (often regarded as complementary to his “deputy” angel), whose history is conterminous with his own, that the special character and position of that star at his birth determine the general outline of his career, that the heavenly constellations at any given moment control earthly events and human acts, and that therefore a study of the heavens can disclose the future.

Both their tradition and the example of their neighbors inclined medieval Jews to acknowledge such doctrines as axiomatic. But the tenets of Judaism obliged them to subjoin an important qualification: the stars determine human actions, but they too are creatures of God, established by Him to perform this special function, and therefore the influence they exert is subject to His will. Repentance, prayer, piety, charity, good deeds—the religious virtues—are the instruments by means of which man can induce God to alter His decrees, and consequently to modify the fate that is “written in the stars” for him. This is the purport of a mass of medieval Jewish discussion of the subject; once granted, there was no check upon the utilization of astrology for divinatory ends. Several writers expressly excluded this science from the forbidden category of “magic,” and practically all German-Jewish writers tacitly or openly admitted its aid in guiding man’s footsteps.2

The close association that was posited between the angels and the heavenly bodies also served to foster this divinatory science. The seven archangels, in particular, were believed to play an important part in the universal order through their association with the planets and the constellations. There is some variation, in the different versions, in the angels assigned to the planets, and even the names of these angels are subject to sudden change on a single page. The five lists I have collated3 (containing some variant readings and some

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omissions) give the following result. The numerals represent the number of times a name appears on these lists.

Sun Raphael (4), Michael (2)

Moon Gabriel (4), Aniel (or Anael) (1)

Venus Aniel (4), Ḥasdiel (1)

Mercury Michael (2), Ẓadkiel (1), Barkiel (1), Ḥasdiel (1), Raphael (1)

Saturn Kafẓiel (3), Michael (1)

Jupiter Ẓadkiel (4), Barkiel (1)

Mars Samael (4), Gabriel (1)

[paragraph continues] I might have included additional lists, but they would only have raised the numerals without altering the preponderance of votes for the angels in the first column. It is interesting to compare with these results a set of these associations which entered medieval Christian thought by way of the Moslem philosopher Averroes: the Sun and Michael, the Moon and Gabriel, Venus and Anael, Mercury and Raphael, Saturn and Cassiel (Kafẓiel), Jupiter and Sachiel (Ẓadkiel), Mars and Samael. This conception probably derived from the Gnostic mysticism of the beginning of our era, which in its turn was unquestionably influenced by such ancient notions as the Babylonian seven planetary spirits, and the seven Amshaspands of Persia.

Some of the archangels also found themselves bound up with the twelve signs of the Zodiac and consequently with the months, with new ones invented or borrowed from ancient sources to make up the required number. Here, too, there is no permanency about the association; an angel may be divorced from his stellar charge without notice, and another substituted. The following is a fair sample of these alliances: Aries-Michael, Taurus-Gabriel, Gemini-Raphael, Cancer-Uriel, Leo-Guriel, Virgo-Nuriel, Libra-Yeshamiel, Sagittarius-Ayil, Capricornus-Ubaviel, etc.4 It must be remembered, also, that these names change according to the season of the year, so that there are four shifts supervising the heavenly bodies.

The usual primitive interpretation of eclipses and comets as portents of disaster is encountered. Eclipses of the moon were taken to be especially ominous for the Jewish people. Eclipses of the sun which occurred on October 26, 1147, and September 4, 1187, threw German Jewry into consternation; later it was learned that on these days the

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[paragraph continues] German Crusaders had suffered serious reverses in Palestine. In 1456 there occurred one of the periodical appearances of Halley’s comet which was noticed by almost all the Christian chroniclers of the time, and was variously interpreted as an omen of great earthquakes, of pestilence (both of which visited Southern Italy in that year), etc. Not to be outdone, Israel Isserlein, in Wiener-Neustadt, mounted a tower which stood in “the street of the Jews” and examined the comet at close range, and then portentously announced, “Its tail points toward Vienna!” “In the same year,” comments his biographer, “the ‘King of Vienna’ [Ladislaus VI Posthumous], whose father had initiated anti-Jewish persecutions, was poisoned in Prague [by George of Podiebrad], and the Hungarian king [Ladislaus Corvinus] was murdered in his capital.”5

The idea that the planets and the fixed stars rule over the affairs of the material world was an ancient dogma which had received the sanction of the foremost astronomer recognized in the Middle Ages, Ptolemy. The influence of his exposition had made itself felt in Jewish thought even before his Tetrabiblos reached Western Europe in Latin translation during the twelfth century. Eleazar of Worms, who could not have been directly acquainted with the astronomer’s work, advanced his explanation that the properties and powers of the heavenly bodies were consequent upon their composition out of one or more of the four elements, earth, air, fire, water, and their possession of one or more of the four elemental properties, hot, cold, dry and moist. But these theoretical considerations were of secondary import; the human utility of astrology occupied the major part of Jewish interest and attention.

The planets and the stars were studied with an eye to their expediency in various divinatory exercises: genethlialogy, or the casting of nativities or horoscopes; elections, or the selection of favorable hours for beginning contemplated enterprises; and the so-called judicial astrology, obtaining answers to specific questions. To these ends tables were set up delineating the fields of influence of the heavenly bodies. Saturn governed poverty, wounds, illness, death; Jupiter, life, peace, joy, wealth, honor, sovereignty; Mars, blood, the sword, evil, war, enmity, envy, destruction; Venus, grace, beauty, passion, conception, fertility; Mercury, wisdom, intelligence, learning, trades and occupations; the sun, daily activities, and sovereignty; the moon, growth and decay, good and evil. Then there were more detailed tables, giving the planets and

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stars which rule each hour of the day and night and the nativities and elections of these hours, on this order:

Second [i.e., Sunday] night

1st hour


propitious for setting out on a journey or taking a bride; one born in this hour will be handsome and wise;

2nd hour


do not approach a woman, and do not engage in trade; nativity—one will be poor, or will die in infancy;

3rd hour


propitious for every enterprise; nativity—one will be poor, will suffer misfortunes, and will die by the sword;

4th hour


good for trade and marriage; nativity—one will be a conspirator and will be killed;

and so on through the week. Nativities were also taken according to the day of the week. While this was not strictly approved astrological method, the Latin names of the days, paronyms of the planets, led to the days being credited with the virtues of the stars. Jews never adopted the week-day names in use in Europe, but for astrological purposes they accepted the planetary associations. (One writer, for instance, suggested that Friday was the favorite wedding day because it was Venus’s day.) The length of one’s life could be similarly forecast. If birth occurs in the “house” of Saturn (the heaven was divided into twelve “houses,” each presided over by a planet) the child will enjoy 57 years on earth; if in Jupiter’s “house,” 79; in Mars’s, 66; Venus’s 22; the sun’s, 77; etc.6

There was also great interest in astrological weather prediction, and many treatises were written on the subject. We have no extended Jewish discussion, but ample evidence to indicate that Jews were familiar with the method and were not averse to utilizing it. Predictions were based on observations of the sun and its relation to the constellations, on the phases of the moon, and on the physical appearance of these two bodies, the color and shape of the clouds, unusual astronomical phenomena, etc.

Certain periods were also chosen as symptomatic of the weather for the entire year. Each of the four days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot was equated with three months, so that if it rained on the

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first of these days, one could anticipate heavy showers in the months of Tishri, Ḥeshvan and Kislev. The days near the summer and winter solstices were similarly regarded as portentous; the 13th of Tamuz indicates the weather that will prevail during Tamuz, Ab, Elul and Tishri, the 14th corresponds to Ḥeshvan, Kislev, Tebet, Shebat, etc. A late tradition ascribed to Judah the Pious, which is probably authentic since it tallies with a remark in a thirteenth-century work, displays a more direct economic concern with the weather: when it rains on the 19th of Tamuz and not on the 21st, the price of foodstuffs will be high until the spring, and then will fall; if it rains on the 21st and not on the 19th, prices will be low until spring and will then rise; if it rains on both days, prices will be high all year; but if it rains on neither day, food will be abundant and cheap throughout the year.

A common method of predicting weather, among Christians, was on the basis of the twelve days following Christmas (the season of the winter solstice) . Jews adopted this practice, eliminating, of course, the reference to Christmas; one month of the year was assigned to each day from the first to the twelfth of Tebet (corresponding to the “Twelve Nights”) and the daily weather during this period was accepted as indicative of the weather during the correlated months.7

Lists of unlucky days, sometimes called “Egyptian Days,” are of rather common occurrence in medieval Latin works. Undoubtedly a relic of the ill-omened days in the ancient Egyptian calendar, they were largely determined on astrological grounds. These were preeminently days on which patients should not be bled; in some cases the warning was extended to cover any work of importance. Such lists based on tradition and astrology are to be found in medieval Jewish literature as well. Phlebotomy was regarded as a very dangerous operation when performed on the eve of a holiday, or on Hoshana Rabbah; some included the entire months of Tamuz, Ab, Elul and Shebat in the list, others only the first day of Iyar, Elul and Tebet when these fall on a Monday or Wednesday, and still others included the first of every month, and the period between Passover and Lag B’omer.

Certain days of the week were also singled out as unfavorable: Monday, Tuesday and Thursday; Sunday, Wednesday and Friday were regarded as especially opportune for blood-letting. However, if Wednesday fell on a 4th, 14th, 24th, or during the last four days of the month, it was also included among the inauspicious days. Monday and Wednesday were regarded as unlucky for new undertakings,

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and it was an accepted rule that “one does not begin anything on Monday or Wednesday”; the explanation that “on these days the stars are unpropitious” is no doubt the correct one. As Mordecai Jaffe, who offered this reason, continued, “One should not inquire concerning the astrological portents before beginning an undertaking, but when he knows that the stars are unfavorable he should not act counter to them and rely on a miracle.”

Eleazar of Worms published a list of 59 days through the year when it was “good to set out on a journey.”8 The astrological factor was also of great importance in magical pursuits. As we have seen, special days were designated as particularly favorable for writing amulets and mezuzot. Besides, the association of the angels with the planets and stars made it necessary, before invoking angels, to determine just which astrological influences were dominant. Magic leaned heavily upon astrology.

According to some, the Roman superstition which forbade marriages in May was preserved in the Jewish custom not to celebrate a wedding between Passover and Pentecost, with an exception allowed on Lag B’omer. This prohibition was judaized into a mark of mourning, and was associated with the tradition that during this period, in the second century, a great many of Akiba’s pupils were destroyed by a plague. A thirteenth-century manuscript, Sefer Asufot, explains it on the ground that during these months the Jewish communities of the Rhineland were decimated by marauding Crusaders, but the custom was introduced into Judaism long before; it is first mentioned in a Geonic responsum of the eighth or ninth century. As we noticed above, this period was also considered inopportune for blood-letting. The mourning motif was emphasized by further prohibitions against cutting the hair, paring finger-nails, wearing new clothes and working after sunset.9

The moon is universally believed to exert a most powerful influence upon terrestrial phenomena, and during the Middle Ages Christians and Jews rarely entered upon an important activity without having first observed the lunar auspices. The waxing moon advances growth and development, the waning moon promotes decay and death. Eleazar of Worms diagnosed a mental ailment as due to the contraction of the brain during the last quarters of the moon, and its expansion during the first. Again he warned that clothing soaked in water, trees that have been cut down, fruits and grains harvested while the moon is diminishing rot away very rapidly. Marriages were celebrated during a waxing moon, “not for any superstitious reason,

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but only as a good omen”! A conception that occurred during this phase of the moon was considered especially auspicious for the child; people moved into new homes in the first half of the lunar month. The day of the new moon was the most favorable for new enterprises, children were brought to school and courses of study begun on that day. A rational explanation of this last usage was offered, namely, “to give out-of-town students time to arrive,” but even its author realized that it was not very convincing, and admitted “and also because it is a good omen.” Cutting the hair or finger-nails on new moon day was frowned upon “because of the danger,” for growth should not be checked on the day which is most auspicious for it. Such beliefs were very prevalent among German Christians, and though the rabbis often forbade these practices, their disapproval had little effect on their flock.10

The pagan veneration of the new moon, which had by no means disappeared in Biblical times, has no direct connection with the ceremony of blessing the new moon which was outlined in the Talmud and is observed to this day. But certain superstitious practices have been associated with the rite, pointing to its continued occult importance in human affairs. Some of these are first mentioned in a work composed during the post-Talmudic period, the Masechet Soferim, others are medieval accretions. In the first group are the practices of skipping three times at the close of the blessing, and addressing the moon three times: “As I skip before you and do not reach you, so, if others jump before me may they not strike me,” and of then thrice bidding one’s neighbor “Peace be unto you.” The ceremony, as well as the threefold repetitions, are typical of magical acts. In the latter group are the practice of shaking one’s clothes “to cast off the spirits,” and the belief that one who has performed the full rite need not fear death during the ensuing month.

In the sixteenth century the Safed school of Kabbalists instituted the custom of fasting on the eve of the new moon (the day of the new moon was a feast day). The practice was probably in vogue at an earlier time and may be connected with a Christian usage, deplored by a fifteenth-century German writer, but observed by “many people both laity and clergy, even including masters,” who “bend the knee or bow the head at new moon or fast on that day, even though it be Sunday or Christmas when the church forbids fasting.” A halting recognition that the fast was observed because of “the shrinking of the moon” is evidence of the persistence of primitive apprehensions.11

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An interesting and obscure superstition attached to the four Tekufot, or “turnings of the sun,” that is, the solstices and equinoxes. It was believed that during these periods a mysterious precipitation poisoned all water, which should therefore not be drawn or drunk at the crucial moment. The source of this Jewish superstition is very much in the dark. The solstices in particular, when the day attains its longest and shortest duration, have captured the imagination of primitive folk, and have induced sentiments of exaltation and despair. It was believed that at these times peculiarly potent supernatural forces are at work. During the Middle Ages, among the non-Jewish peoples of Europe, the advent of Midsummer Day was greeted with great festivities and bonfires, which, among other things, were supposed to drive off certain noxious dragons which polluted the wells and springs by dropping their seed into them as they copulated in the upper atmosphere.

It has been suggested that this late belief was derived from the Jewish superstition, which was first mentioned as far back as the tenth century; Grünbaum’s contention that the Jews borrowed it from the Germans is certainly untenable. Hai Gaon, asked to explain the custom of not drinking water during the Tekufot, replied, “Although we do not know the reason, it should be meticulously observed, for not without good reason has it spread through Israel.” Apparently it was already, in the tenth century, sanctioned by long usage. Then he proceeded to offer the prevailing explanation, to the effect that during the four quarters of the year the universe is guarded by specially appointed angels, but at the Tekufot, the time of the changing of the watch, when their supervision is momentarily relaxed, the powers of evil seize the opportunity to work havoc among men by poisoning their wells. Hai Gaon also suggested a rationalistic interpretation: the custom is an expression of man’s dislike to begin a new season with so inconsequential an action as drinking water. This latter explanation was occasionally repeated during the Middle Ages, but without enthusiasm; the former was more often advanced as the true reason.12

A slight variant of this superstition is incorporated in the idea that it is blood, rather than poison, that pollutes the wells. An old legend, which made its first literary appearance in the Maḥzor Vitry (twelfth century), connects this belief with the following events: God turned the waters of Egypt into blood in the vernal equinox, and from then on at the time of the equinox a drop of blood is deposited in the waters and makes them unfit to drink; the same occurs at the summer solstice,

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when Moses smote the rock and blood flowed therefrom; at the autumnal equinox, when Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac, and blood appeared on his knife; and at the winter solstice, when Jephtha sacrificed his daughter in fulfillment of his vow.

A Kabbalistic explanation has it that Lilit’s menses are the source of these drops of blood. Still another legend is that the constellations Scorpio and Leo, or Cancer and Libra, engage in a bitter struggle at these four critical moments, and their blood taints our water. It is possible that there is some relation between this blood version of the Tekufah superstition and the medieval German belief that on Midsummer Day (St. John’s Day) drops from the bleeding corpse of John the Baptist, which at that time hovers over the earth, are to be discerned on the leaves of the Johanniskraut (Hypericum perforatum).13

Despite the reproof administered by Judah the Pious, and often repeated, that “the sincerely devout need fear no evil,” there was a widespread indisposition to make use of water drawn during the Tekufah, or which had been left uncovered at that time. Maharil wrote that though he did not dispute Judah’s dictum, “it is best not to count on miracles”! According to some, the danger was restricted to drinking water at the instant of the Tekufah, and did not apply within a city, but most people chose to play safe and accepted the broader view. Since the evil spirits were generally held responsible, it was possible to adopt certain preventive measures, which were first mentioned in Western Germany in the thirteenth century, and from there spread throughout the Jewish communities of Europe. These entailed the suspension of a piece of iron in the water, or the admixture of some salt, or the sealing of the vessel, all well-known anti-demonic devices. Thus ensured against contamination, the water could be imbibed without fear or danger.14

The notion that death would befall anyone who killed a goose during an undetermined brief period in the months of Tebet and Shebat (from about the middle of December to the middle of February) produced a general disinclination to slaughter geese throughout the two months. Some believed that it was possible to evade this consequence by eating immediately a bit of the dead fowl. The origin of this notion is obscure. There may be something to the opinion of a late commentator that it is based upon the belief that “the demons are at the height of their power in these months” (the period of the winter solstice) and for some reason resent the slaughter of a goose.15

As a final note to this chapter it should be pointed out that medieval

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medicine, Christian and Jewish, was strongly influenced by astrological considerations. The planets and stars were responsible for the functioning not alone of the universe, but of the human body as well; an exact and minute correspondence was drawn between the various heavenly bodies and the human organs. Even the foods that man consumes were related to the stars, and drew their peculiar natural and occult qualities from them. Therefore illnesses were often caused by astrological influences—we have seen how the waning and waxing of the moon can affect a man’s mind (a non-Jewish surgeon advised against operating on a fractured skull at the full of the moon, because then the brain expands and fills the cranium)—and medical treatments took these factors into account.16



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