The Jewish Calendar and the Zodiac

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Happy 2020!

With the calendar on everyone’s mind, we are looking this week at the imagery of the Zodiac. Astrological practices were commonplace in Jewish thought as far back as antiquity, with mention being made in the Talmud. The imagery of the Zodiac appears most famously in the 6th century Beit Alpha synagogue in Northern Israel. In Hebrew, the signs of the Zodiac are known as “Mazzalot.”

Books of intercalation, used for the reckoning of calendars in the Jewish cycle, closely examine the passing of time, and are often adorned with rich illuminations and illustrations. In the excerpt below from MS 902 (Sefer Evronot, Germany, c. 1779) a chart appears showing various angels bearing flags and surrounded by astrological emblems.

HUC MS 902, ff. 28r

HUC MS 902, ff. 28r

At the top, the pages reads, “These are the six angels appointed over the 7 celestial bodies and the Mazzalot.”

The associations read as such (starting from the top right):
Michael – Mercury – Gemini, Virgo

Gabriel – Moon – Cancer
Kaftsiel – Saturn – Capricorn, Aquarius
Tsadkiel – Jupiter – Sagittarius, Pisces
Samael – Mars – Aries, Scorpio
Rafael – the Sun, Venus – Leo, Libra, Taurus
In previous eras, the Zodiac and the associated knowledge of astrology was understood as a part of the cycle of the natural world and was deeply intertwined with any reckoning the celestial motions and the calendar. Jewish scribes did not shy away from its inclusion in religious works, and it was not seen as idolatrous or overly superstitious, but rather as a representation of the Divine order of the heavens and of time. So, what caused the Mazzalot to disappear from Jewish symbolism in the European world beginning the mid 19th century?
One likely argument from Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis (HUC- JIR Cincinnati ’96), is that with the advent of the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment movement, the reverence for star signs fell out of style. As knowledge of secular sciences became more commonplace in the Jewish world, it could be that the validity of the Zodiac as a reflection of any natural order was undermined and its influence on world events less empirically evident, and so Jewish scholars relegated the star signs and their associated images to the category of superstition. According to Dennis, “A collective decision was made that we would become the most modern, the most rational people in Europe. In a few decades in the 19th century most Jews walked away from those traditional ideas [i.e. the mazaalot].”
While many in the current Jewish world do not hold much stock in Jewish astrology, Dennis does not dismiss those who still embrace belief in the Mazzalot. Instead goes on to explain, “We’ve also come to realize that human beings are not simply the epitome of rationality. And our lives are richer when we embrace mysteries.”
So whether you are accounting by the stars or not, the cycle of time has always been and continues to be a powerful and meaningful element in Jewish thought. Happy new year!

You can see HUC MS 902 in its entirety here:

*Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis, HUC-JIR grduate and author of The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism writes on the matter in this article from Moment Magazine:

Contributed by Jason Schapera, Digitizing Specialist

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