Free Will

In Talmud and Midrash

The doctrine of free will, expressed in the idea that man is free to choose between good and evil, was at the core of the Pharisaic outlook. Josephus indeed characterizes the differences between the Pharisees and their Sadducean and Essene opponents as between those who accepted both the freedom of man and divine providence (the Pharisees), those who ascribed everything to chance, denying providential guidance (the Sadducees), and those who denied human freedom, maintaining a doctrine of predestination (the Essenes; Wars 2:162ff; Ant. 13:171; 18:12f.). Though some doubt has been cast on Josephus' account because of his tendency to explain matters in terms of Greek philosophical schools (see G. F. Moore, Judaism vol. 3 p. 139), there seems no grounds for rejecting the main outlines of his characterization (Urbach, Hazal: Pirkei Emunot ve-De'ot (1969), 227).

Though both the doctrine of man's freedom and that of divine providence were adhered to by the rabbis as central to their faith, they do not seem to have been integrated in any systematic way in the talmudic texts which deal with the subject. On the one hand, one finds constant reference to the notion that nothing happens in this world which is not in some way determined from on high: "No man can touch that which has been prepared in advance for his friend" (Yoma 38b); "No man injures his finger here below unless it has been decreed for him on high" (Hul. 7b); "Never does a snake bite... or a lion tear [its prey]... or a government interfere in men's lives unless incited to do so from on high" (Eccles. R. 10:11); "Everything is in the hands [i.e., control] of heaven except cold and heat" (Ket. 30a); "Forty days before a child is formed a heavenly voice decrees so-and-so's daughter shall marry so-and-so" (Sot. 2a). On the other hand the whole rabbinic theological structure of reward and punishment turns on the idea that man is free to do evil or good (see Deut. 30:15–19; and Sif. Deut. 53–54). As Josephus mentions, the rabbis wished to maintain both doctrines despite the tension between them, though they were aware of this tension. Before conception the angel appointed over conception takes a seminal drop and asks God:"What is to become of this drop? Is it to develop into a person strong or weak, wise or foolish, rich or poor?" (Nid. 16b). But no mention is made of its becoming wicked or righteous, because "Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven" (ibid.).

The combination of these two doctrines within rabbinic theology may be understood, not so much from the philosophical point of view, but rather from the practical point of view which underlies all rabbinic thinking. On the one hand it is necessary to think of the world as under the complete surveillance and control of heaven, a thought which adds to the confidence and trust of the Jew in God, and on the other the individual needs to make his choices and decisions on the assumption that evil and good are both within his grasp. The conceptual integration of these two ideas did not enter rabbinic thought forms. The philosophical problems surrounding God's foreknowledge and man's free will are dealt with in an equally cursory way in the texts. The most striking is the saying of Akiva, "Everything is foreseen, but freedom of choice is given" (Avot 3:15). This has been taken by some commentators—Maimonides, for example—to be a statement of the position that though God has foreknowledge of all our acts, still this does not limit our freedom (Maimonides, commentary to the Mishnah, Avot 3:15). Though such a doctrine—that God's foreknowledge is such as not to be philosophically irreconcilable with human freedom—may have been held in some inchoate form by the rabbis, the saying of Akiva has been interpreted as an assertion that God sees all man's acts, even those performed in the privacy of his room (see Rashi on Avot 3:15; Urbach, op. cit., 229–30).



ASTROLOGY, the study of the supposed influence of the stars on human events and the predictions based on this study.

Bible and Apocrypha

There is no explicit mention of astrology in the Bible, but two biblical passages dealing with the diviner (menahesh) and soothsayer (me'onen; Lev. 19:26; Deut. 18:10) were understood by the rabbis as bearing relation to astrology (Sanh. 65b–66a; cf. Maim. Yad, Avodah Zarah 11:8, 9). The prophets were aware of the practices of "star-gazers" (hoverei ha-shamayim) among the Babylonians and other peoples but they scoffed at them (Isa. 47:13; Jer. 10:2). In the book of Daniel the Babylonian astrologers are called kasdim (Chaldeans), and in Aramaic kasda'ei (2:2, 4, 5, 10; 4:14; 5:7, 11). The Sibylline Oracles (219–231) praise the Jewish people for refraining from astrology, which is a delusion. The Book of Jubilees (12:16–18) depicts the patriarch Abraham as overcoming the beliefs of the astrologers. The first Book of Enoch (8:3) includes astrology among the sins spread among mortals by the primeval giants (nefilim). Josephus, however, writes that astrology was common among the Jews in his days and that Jewish misinterpretation of celestial signs was partially responsible for the outbreak of the revolt against the Romans and its continuation for four years (Jos., Wars, 6:288ff.).

Talmud and the Midrash

In the Babylonian Talmud astrologers are known as kaldiyyim (Pes. 113b), Aramaic kalda'ei (Shab. 119a, 156b; Yev. 21b)—a term used by the Greeks, Romans, and Syrians. Iztagninin ("astrologers") and iztagninut ("astrology") were also common terms. In the Jerusalem Talmud and in Palestinian Midrashim astrologos and astrologiyya are the most frequent terms. The majority of the talmudic sages believed in the decisive role played by celestial bodies in determining human affairs in the sublunar world. On the one hand the patriarch Abraham and his descendants are spoken of as having been elevated beyond subjection to the stars (Gen. R. 44:12; Yal., Jer. 285), but on the other hand, the blessing bestowed on him in Genesis 24:1 is interpreted as the gift of astrology (Tosef., Kid. 5:17). Astrological consultation is one of the methods suggested by Jethro to Moses for governing the Children of Israel (Mekh., Amalek 2). Several instances are cited of astrologers whose predictions of future events came true (e.g., Shab. 119a). Gentile rulers were considered to have been especially well versed in astrology or to have consulted astrological experts; but knowledge of astrology was also attributed to King Solomon (Eccl. R. 7:23 no. 1). Nevertheless, the rabbis of the Talmud were skeptical of the astrologers' ability to interpret the stars correctly; they conceded the possibility that the astrologers might be able to predict the future by consulting the stars, but claimed that they err in understanding the contents of their forecasts. On the basis of the phrase in Isaiah 8:19, "the familiar spirits that chirp and mutter" (ha-mezafzefim ve-ha-mahgim), they developed the exegesis: "They gaze (zofin) and know not at what they gaze, they ponder (mehaggin) and know not what they ponder" (Sot. 12b). In several places in the Talmud it is stated that every man has a celestial body (mazzal), i.e., a particular star which is his patron from conception and birth (Shab. 53b; BK 2b) and which perceives things unknown to the man himself (Meg. 3a; Sanh. 94a). Two people born under the same star have a bodily and spiritual kinship (Ned. 39b; BM 30b). Not only human beings are influenced by the stars; but "there is not a blade of grass that has not its star in the heavens to strike it and say to it: grow!" Stars in certain constellations (the Pleiades, Orion, Ursa Major) were connected with the growth and ripening of fruits (Gen. R. 10:6).

As among most ancient peoples, eclipses were thought to be an evil portent, particularly for Jews, "because they are accustomed to calamities." According to another opinion, a solar eclipse was a bad omen for the Gentiles, a lunar eclipse for the Jews, since the Jews based their calendar on the moon, while the Gentiles based theirs on the sun (Suk. 29a).

Some held that there was a direct connection between the signs of the days of the week and the characters of those born on those days: a person born on Sunday would have one perfect attribute, either good or bad; a person born on Monday would be irascible, and so forth. According to another opinion, "it is not the sign of the day, but the sign of the hour, that determines". Thus, for example, he who was born under the rule of Venus would be rich and adulterous; he who was born under Saturn (Heb. Shabbetai) would have his plans annulled (mahshevotav yishbotu); he who was born under Jupiter (Heb. Zedek) would be a righteous observer (zidkan) of the commandments (Shab. 156a).

A number of important tanna'im and amora'im, such as R. Akiva, R. Johanan, Mar Samuel, Rav Nahman b. Isaac, were of the opinion that the power of the stars over ordinary mortals did not extend to the People of Israel. "R. Johanan said: there is no star (mazzal) for Israel" (Shab. 156a; cf. the statement by R. Samuel, 156b; also, Suk. 29a). R. Hanina b. Hama held the opposite opinion: "The stars make one wise, the stars make one rich, and there are stars for Israel" (ibid., 156a). The rabbis were divided as to whether a fully virtuous person could transform and abrogate the decrees of the astral configurations for himself. Mar Samuel, who was an astrologer as well as an astronomer, formulated several rules of health and agriculture on the basis of astrological principles (Shab. 129b; Er. 56a); it was his opinion that "righteousness delivers from death" (Prov. 10:2) as it is ordained by the stars (Shab. 129b). Such deliverances were said to have been granted to R. Akiva's daughter and to R. Nahman b. Isaac and his mother. The contrary position was upheld by Rava: "Life, children, and sustenance—these things depend not on merit, but on the stars" (MK 28a); by way of illustration he cited the histories of several great men of learning and faith. Because of the warnings of the "Chaldeans," R. Joseph refused appointment as head of a yeshivah (Ber. 64a); but R. Yose of Huzal decreed that "one must not consult the Chaldeans" (Pes. 113b); cf. Rashi and Samuel b. Meir ad loc.

In several places in the Talmud (MK 27a; Ned. 56a; Sanh. 20a), one of the customs mentioned is clearly a survival of an ancient astrological belief: an unslept-in bed, called "the bed of Gad" (arsa de-gadda), would be kept in the house as a good luck charm. The astrological character of this custom was forgotten and the noun gad, originally the name of a star, came to mean simply "luck," as was eventually the case with the term mazzal ("star of luck") itself.