For most Jews, the entirety of Jewish belief about astrology is based on a single line in the Talmud: ein mazal l’Yisrael — there is no astrological sign for the People of Israel. It’s not real, we’ve been taught, and it’s not meant for Jews to engage with. But Lorelai Kude begs to differ — and she says the weight of historical evidence is on her side. Indeed, her master’s thesis is titled “Yesh Mazal L’Yisrael” — there is an astrological sign for the People of Israel.
Over the course of her presentation, it became clear that the place of astrology in Jewish culture is much more complicated than most Jews have been told. Citing Talmudic sources, artifacts, later rabbinic authorities and more, Kude made a persuasive argument for astrology as normative Jewish practice.
“We have a long history with the stars and seasons,” she said, referencing Genesis 1, numerous Psalms and pieces of the daily liturgy, such as Yotzer Or, which praises God as creator of light and heavenly bodies. In Numbers, there is a description of the Israelites’ encampment as they wandered through the desert. The 12 tribes were arranged in a circle radiating out from the Mishkan, laid out in the order of the zodiac signs with which each tribe is associated. On the same page as “ein mazal l’Yisrael” (Shabbat 156a) there is a story in which Abraham wonders if the planet Jupiter (Tzedek, as it is known in the Talmud) is the reason he and Sarah are infertile.
Also on that page: “He who is born under the sun will be a distinguished man… he who is born under Venus will be wealthy and unchaste,” and so forth. Talmudic horoscopes!
“The rabbis of the Talmud studied and taught astrology,” said Kude, who also acknowledged that they had a certain ambivalence toward it. At times, they seem to forbid astrology, while at other times making proclamations such as this nugget from Shabbat 57a: “He who knows how to calculate the cycles and planetary courses but does not, disregards the work of God… One who knows how to calculate astrological seasons and constellations and does not do so, one may not speak with him.”
“My contention is that there is so much astrology in Jewish culture,” Kude said. “Surviving material evidence — writing, art, calendars, Torah crowns, built into synagogue architecture — points to that.”
Kude spoke of a collection of 150 swaddling bands, which babies were wrapped in for their bris, at the Magnes Collection in Berkeley. Each has the baby’s astrological sign on it. “If astrology is so asur [forbidden], why did the frummest of the frum [pious] swaddle their babies in it?”
Even today, she said, Orthodox people are interested in astrology. “I have many clients in the haredi world who want to know more about their mazal — but they’d never tell anyone.”
“There’s something I call silly astrology,” she told me. “That’s not what I practice.” Her knowledge runs deep, and she has been collecting it since junior high, when she read her first book on astrology.
For her, reading a client’s chart isn’t about pithy predictions, but about giving them a new perspective on their own inner life and the challenges they face.
“Do you believe this is literally true? Or is it metaphorical?” I asked.
“It’s a mixture,” Kude replied. “A natal chart is a reflection of the inner workings of a person.” It is not a rational, causative relationship between heavenly bodies and us. Rather it is reflective, a two-way relationship. I’m still wrapping my head around that.
Based on the time and location of my birth, she used a free piece of astrological software — “Swiss engineering!” — to generate my natal chart, a graphical depiction of the location of all the heavenly bodies at that moment. (7:02 p.m. March 3, 1989 in Austin, Texas, if you’re wondering.)
“This is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional reality,” Kude said. Even if she didn’t make a believer out of me, the image of my place in the cosmos at the time of my birth was worth the trip.
For Jewish clients, she emphasizes aspects of the heavens given weight in Jewish astrology. When people say that they are Pisces (like me) or Taurus, etc., they are referring to their sun sign. In Hellenistic astrology, the most widely practiced form of astrology today, the sun sign is of paramount importance. But, for example, in Sefer Yetzira, an esoteric Jewish text believed to be from the Second Temple period, there is an emphasis on lunar nodes (don’t ask).
My ruling planet is Mercury, “the planet of communication.” And it is located in my fifth house, which is about one’s creative urge. “You’re a creative communicator,” she told me. Pretty good for a writer, no?
Mercury is also in Aquarius, which, among other things, is “the space age sign, the sign of the future and future thinking.” “I’m a big sci-fi fan,” I told her. “Well, there you go!”
At times, it was a little eerie. We had met several times, but she brought up things she couldn’t have known.
“I just try to help people understand themselves more,” she told me toward the end of our two-hour session. “People say, I knew all that about myself, but I didn’t know how to say any of it.”
Am I believer now? No. But is astrology a legitimate expression of Jewish spirituality? Yes.
A final note: Look out, Jews! December of 2020 could be “a big turning point in Jewish history” because of Saturn and Jupiter (very powerful energies!) in Aquarius, the sign of the Jewish people. “I don’t like to make predictions,” Kude said. “But….”