Why the Zodiac is Jewish
And a new papercut in honor of the capricorn
My Hebrew birthday is in Tevet, smack in the middle of the month of December this year. Yet I was born in January, which makes me a capricorn…confused? In my case, I happened to be born in a year that the constellation aligned with both my Hebrew and secular birthdays, but this isn’t always the case. Tevet is the month of the capricorn, or g’di. And so it goes for the astrological signs, they each correspond to one of the Hebrew months in the lunar year. Because the signs follow the moon, they shift in accordance to the Gregorian calendar. This means that the capricorn constellation sometimes falls in line during January and sometimes in December, often it will overlap, but it never conforms to the zodiac dates you know from your morning paper. You may have been born under a different constellation than the one you think. It is interesting to note that the correspondence of dates is shifting gradually, by approximately one day every 200 or so years. This means that 80,000 years from now, capricorn, or the month of Tevet will fall in November (this shift is also the reason that the next thanksgivukah will happen in the year 79,043).
Many people don’t realize that the zodiac does not come from Roman or Greek tradition, but rather from Jewish tradition. The misconception stems from the fact that most of the other constellations or celestial bodies were named either after Greek or Roman mythology. Names like Andromeda, Orion, Cygnus or Hydra from the Greek myths color our view of the constellations. The planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Uranus, and even Pluto are named after the Roman pantheon. The twelve signs of the zodiac, are different, however. They were written in the Talmud thousands of years ago, but were named long before that.
The Jewish zodiac is codified as follows in the Sefer Yetzirah:
Nisan is Taleh, the Ram, belonging to the tribe of Judah. This is the month of Passover, when we made the sacrifice of the lamb to be passed over by the angel of death.
Iyar is Shor, the Bull, belonging to the tribe of Issachar
Sivan is Teumim, the Twins belonging to the tribe of Zevulun. This is the month of Shavuot, during which we received the twin tablets at Sinai.
Tamuz is Sartan, the Crab, belonging the tribe of Reuven.
Av is Arieh, the Lion, belonging to the tribe of Shimon.
Elul is Betula, the Virgin, belonging the tribe of Gad. This is the month of purity when we spiritually prepare for the high holidays.
Tishrei is Moznaim, the Scales, belonging the tribe of Ephraim. This is the month of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur , during which we face judgment.
Cheshvan is Akrav, the Scorpion, belonging the tribe of Menashe.
Kislev is Keshet, the Archer, belonging the tribe of Benjamin, the warriors.
Tevet is G’di, the Goat, belonging the tribe of Dan.
Shevat is Dli, the Water Vase, belonging the tribe of Asher (literally wealth). This month signifies the end of the rains and the bounty is celebrated with Tu b’Shevat.
Adar is Dagim, the Fish, belonging the tribe of Naftali.
In Judaism we believe the constellations influence our lives, but the wrinkle is that we have free will. The constellations were never meant for us. In Judaism our fate is so tied to the constellations that we still refer to them ever time we wish someone good luck or congratulate them. We say Mazal Tov at weddings and bar mitzvahs and at the brit milah. In modern Hebrew we think of mazal as luck. The word, mazal, literally means “constellation” or “star”. Many people mistakenly think that astrology and horoscopes are forbidden in Judaism as avodat kohavim, but this is actually a misrepresentation. The Orthodox Union holds that
“In Judaism, Astrology is not regarded as “idol worship,” even though the generic name for “idol worship” is Avodat Kochavim U’Mazalot, Worship of the Stars and the Signs of the Zodiac.” From the Jewish perspective, the stars are not unrelated to events on earth. It is not irrelevant whether one was born on Pesach, or Yom Kippur, or Lag Ba’Omer or on any particular day. Each day is special and has a unique imprint. On the other hand, if an individual was born under the “sign” of Mars, the Talmud says that he will have a tendency to spill blood. This tendency can be realized in a number of very different ways, however, which are subject to an individual’s choice. In this case, options might be a soldier, a surgeon, a murderer, a “shochet,” a ritual slaughterer of animals, or a “mohel,” one who performs ritual circumcisions. These options correspond to a potential hero, a healer, one who violates the “image of G-d,” to those who do “holy work” of different types. There is a principle, “Ayn Mazal L’Yisrael,” “Israel’s fate is not determined by the stars.” The Jew, raised in his People’s traditions and Torah values, feels the reality of “freedom of choice” in his bones. So deeply ingrained is this knowledge and feeling, that the Jew rarely has cause to think about astrological factors. It is the belief that one cannot escape from the grip of the stars that distinguishes Astrology from “Worship of the Stars and Signs of the Zodiac.” It is always possible to define one’s fate, by choosing behavior which is guided by morality and integrity, within the parameters – intellectual and emotional, physical and spiritual, which a person is given to work with.”
There is a distinction to be made here. The reason we are not to look heavanward for our path is because we were given the gift of making our own path in this world — something we have that the angels to not — and even if our path is written (the classic paradox of free will) we should still live our lives as though it is not.