Signs and Constellations

Thoughts on Shofetim (5772/2012)

(Deut. 16:18 – 21:9)

How wonderful it is to be able to celebrate Aaron and Lorrayne’s 60th wedding anniversary, as well as other August wedding anniversaries, during our service tonight.    On happy occasions like this it’s not unusual to break into song, as we did a few moments ago, with the folk song that consists of the words:   “Siman Tov u Mazal Tov yehey lanu ulekhawl Yisra’el”. The words literally mean, “A good sign and a good constellation, may it be for us and for all Israel” (“all Israel” in this context meaning “All the Jewish People”).  

This seems to have astrological implications, right?

How many of you will admit to looking at the horoscopes? I know I do.  Some days my horoscope in the daily newspaper seems to make sense for me. Some days I dismiss it as irrelevant nonsense.  But, yes, I’ve been carrying around in my wallet for the last 7 years, my “today’s birthday horoscope” that I found in the newspaper on July 26, 2005.  Here it is:  

Just because a mountain is there does not mean you have to climb it.  Some people feel that they have to prove themselves constantly, so they go out of their way to do extraordinary things, but you are pretty extraordinary just as you are, so there is really no need to do anything special this year.

Let me tell you --  that’s a message I often need to hear. I wouldn’t take it to any extremes --- I DO think it’s important to have goals and to set challenges for oneself, but the idea that we each have intrinsic worth – indeed, intrinsic “extraordinariness,” is probably a message that we could all benefit from taking to heart more often than we do.

However, it would seem that this idea of “siman tov u’ mazal tov” – “good sign and good constellation” – conflicts with the rules, or at least the spirit, of the verses we just read in the Torah, where it says in Deuteronomy 18 verses 10 and 11:




י לֹא-יִמָּצֵא בְךָ, מַעֲבִיר בְּנוֹ-וּבִתּוֹ בָּאֵשׁ, קֹסֵם קְסָמִים, מְעוֹנֵן וּמְנַחֵשׁ וּמְכַשֵּׁף.

10 Let no one be found among you who passes their son or their daughter through fire, or anyone who practices enchantment, or who is a soothsayer or a diviner or a sorcerer. 


יא וְחֹבֵר חָבֶר; וְשֹׁאֵל אוֹב וְיִדְּעֹנִי, וְדֹרֵשׁ אֶל-הַמֵּתִים.

11 or one who casts spells, or consults ghosts or familiar spirits or who inquires of the dead.  





The Conservative movement’s Torah Commentary “Etz Hayim” helpfully informs us that “Magic for purposes of entertainment is permitted.” (Halakhah l’ma’aseh commentary on Deut. 18:10, p. 1095).  So, we’re probably okay as far as the horoscopes are concerned or watching all the Harry Potter movies on dvd or streaming Netflix.

In any event, what I get out of the Torah reading is that trying to predict the future through supposedly magical or supernatural means implies a lack of faith in God.  And so the warnings against those practices are followed with the admonition:  תָּמִ֣ים תִּֽהְיֶ֔ה עִ֖ם יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃ / “You shall be ‘tamim’ with Adonai your God. (Deut. 18:13). 

Elsewhere in the Torah, the same word תמים “/”tamim” is used to describe Abraham (Gen. 17:1) and Noah (Gen. 6:9), both of whom are models of faith in God.

And, as the Plaut Torah commentary notes,  the word “תמים “/”tamim” is also related to the word “tam” meaning “simple” – which you may recall as the description of one of the four types of children that the traditional text of the Passover Haggadah says are present at the seder meal.   Our Torah commentary  says:  “Israel is to have simple, undivided loyalty to God, unsullied by magic practices.” (Note to Deut. 18:13, Plaut Torah Commentary, 2nd ed, p. 1298)

“Tamim” is translated in a variety of ways in different Torah commentaries and even within the same Torah commentary at its different occurrences.  Translations include:  “wholehearted,”  “perfect,”  “simple,” “upright,” “blameless” and “above reproach.”

Why does the Torah make such a big deal about this?  I personally don’t really relate to the idea of a jealous God.  Rather, for me the underlying issue is fatalism.  If you feel like you can predict the future, you can get weighed down by inertia, as if nothing really matters because all has been predetermined.  On the contrary, Judaism seeks to focus on the here and now, and teaches us that we CAN make a difference in the here and now as we work to create a just society.   That’s the spirit characterized by perhaps the most famous phrase in this week’s Torah portion צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף / “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” (“Justice, justice you shall pursue….”) (Deut. 16:20).

Are the practices of psychics, astrologers and fortunetellers “true?”  Actually, there’s a debate over this among the classic Jewish sages and commentators.  In the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat, Rabbi Chanina says

מזל מחכים מזל מעשיר ויש מזל לישראל

“The influence of the constellations (i.e., “Mazal”) gives wisdom and Mazal gives wealth; and Israel has “Mazel” – i.e., Israel is under the influence of the constellations.”  But Rabbi Yochanan responds אין מזל לישראל “There is no influence of the constellations for Israel.”   (Talmud, Shabbat 156a).

Maimonides is among the naysayers.  In his Mishneh Torah he adamantly declares:  “All who give credence to any of these things and imagines that they are true, but only forbidden by Torah, are nothing but fools and weakmnded… But scholars and enlightened thinkers are convinced that all these things prohibited by the Torah are not matters of wisdom, but mumbo-jumbo by which the gullible are misled, and for the sake of which they abandon all ways of truth.  Therefore, the Torah, in admonishing to beware of these vanities, declares – “Tamim Tiheyeh Im Adonai Elohekha”/ “You shall be wholehearted with Adonai your God.”  (Mishneh Torah, Avodah Zarah 11, 16 as cited in N. Liebowitz, Studies in Devarim, p. 185 [adapted])


What Jewish tradition tells us is that, instead of consulting the stars, we should have faith in God who controls the stars.  As it says in Psalm 147:  “Monim mispar lakochavim, lchulam sheymot yikra” (Ps. 147:4) (God “counts the number of the stars, giving names to each of them.”)  This to me is a metaphor for the idea that just as each star is unique and special, so is each person, and so is each element of creation.


Finally, another way of defining the word “Tamim”.  The medieval writer Bachya Ibn Pakuda writes that the word “Tamim” in Deuteronomy 18:13 means having our inner and outer actions in harmony.  Not just thinking about being good and virtuous, but also speaking and acting in the world in accordance with our ethics and morals (cited in N. Liebowitz, Studies in Devarim, p. 181)


May this month of Elul, this last month before the High Holidays, be a time for each of us or becoming more “tamim”/ “wholehearted” with God.  A time for examining whether our words and deeds have been in harmony with our ethics and values.  A time for strengthening our faith both in God and in ourselves.


Shabbat shalom.

(c) Rabbi David Steinberg Elul 5772/ August 2012 

Posted on August 28, 2012 .