This article by Karni Zor was recently published in the Journal of Research of the American Federation of Astrologers.
Although the practice of astrology is forbidden in some Jewish orthodox sects these days, astrology throughout the millennia was well embedded in the Jewish tradition. Astrology is mentioned in the Jewish texts, in different traditional interpretations of the bible and in the esoteric practice of the Kabala. Actually – the Old Testament itself offers some fascinating esoteric knowledge to do with astrology.
This article offers a glimpse at the ways the art of astrology was traditionally referred to, mentioned and practiced in Judaism for thousands of years.
Being an astrologer in Israel can be a bit awkward at times. Although Israel is a very modern country, in which new-age activities and spiritual treatments and consultations are abundant – Astrology has a special problem. And that is that in the eyes of most orthodox Jews – Astrology is actually strictly forbidden. Therefore, orthodox Jews will not come to an astrologer for consultation. . But because many of the people here in Israel, who are not orthodox themselves, will have an orthodox background or orthodox family members, from time to time I will hear the question, almost whispered in my ear: “But, isn’t IT forbidden?”
Then I will usually go into a lengthy explanation that serves to calm that person, allowing him or her to accept the astrological advice they so want to receive. I will explain to them that not only is astrology not forbidden, but it is even mentioned in the bible in numerous ways, and has been practiced by Jews throughout the millennia.
This article offers a glimpse at the ways the art of astrology was traditionally referred to, mentioned and practiced in Judaism for thousands of years. I think that any fan of astrology will find fascinating the esoteric astrological knowledge found in a text written over 3000 years ago.
The Astrological Debate in Judaism
At the end of the fifth century there was a huge debate between the Jewish leaders about whether to refer to astrology or not. Some of the Jewish leaders and Rabbis not only accepted astrology as a tool of guidance, but even practiced astrology themselves, writing about the different characters of the astrological signs and the influence of the planets upon people’s lives. Others referred to astrology as the practice of pagans, strictly condemning the use of it in the monotheistic tradition (1).
Since then the two voices have been heard in the Jewish courts. We can see Jewish scholars like Rabbi Yom Tov Ben Abraham Shvili (born around 1300 dc) writing that “…a person born under the Sun’s influence will achieve leadership and greatness whilst that who was born under the influence of the Moon will suffer great difficulties” (2), while other scholars like Rabbi Moshe Ben Mimon (born 1138 dc) writes that astrology is considered paganism and has no influence upon a person’s life (3).
But since Judaism goes back well before the 5th century – one can actually see that millennia before this debate started, astrology was well embedded in the Jewish tradition. Astrology is mentioned in the Old Testament, in different traditional interpretations of the bible and in the esoteric practice of the Kabala.
A Glimpse to a Lost History
I have to confess that being a non-practicing Jew and having my Masters in Comparative Religions I do not take the stories of the Old Testament as absolute truths. Nevertheless – even if we do not relate to the stories of the Old Testament as historical truths, they do allow us a glimpse into early cultures, just as do texts written over 3000 years ago. The biblical stories tell us something about ancient times and forgotten history.
According to the Old Testament the first Jew, Abraham, was told by God to leave his homeland and move to a new land – the land of Israel. Abraham’s old home was in Horan – a city in Mesopotamia. And Mesopotamia is, amongst other things, the birth place of astrology. Ancient archaeological relics show us that astrology and astronomy were practiced in Mesopotamia as early as 3000 BC (4). That is – 5000 years ago.
Amongst the artifacts found in Mesopotamia one can find drawings of astrological wheels and ephermis that follow the movement the planets (5). It is known that later on, in Babylonia (the kingdom that rose in Mesopotamia around 2000 BC) the astrologers held a special place and rulers consulted with them often (6).
As all travelers of his time, Abraham must have used the stars for navigating towards the unknown country he was heading to. But Abraham did not use the stars solely for navigation. One of the first things he was told by the Lord, according to the Old Testament, was to look up at the skies for his own destiny: “I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven” (7). The legends say that Abraham knew the language of the stars and that he was one of the Mesopotamian magi. So when Abraham left his old country he probably took the knowledge of the stars with him, passing on the astrological knowledge outside of Mesopotamia and further to the west.
The Israelites’ connection to the stars continued with Joseph, one of Abraham’s successors who needed to move on from the Promised Land and relocate to the nearby land of Egypt. Egypt, as we know, was another ancient culture that held much knowledge of the stars, their movements and their application upon human life (we will not go here to Egyptian Astrology which is another fascinating theme on to itself). In the biblical story, Joseph carried on the family tradition of astrology and found himself the Pharaoh’s personal advisor, telling him of forcoming events (8).
Before going to Egypt, young Joseph had a dream. In his dream eleven stars, the Moon and the Sun bowed before Joseph. Later on his dream became a reality, when Joseph’s 11 brothers, together with his mother and father came to meet him in Egypt, not knowing this was their lost brother and son, and bowing before him as he was the Pharaoh’s great consultant(9). I think it is quite amazing to see that in a text written over 3000 years ago, the Sun and Moon are referred to as symbols of the father and the mother, astrological knowledge that we, as astrologers, almost take for granted, but here we can see the very early roots of this.
Joseph and his 11 brothers, the 12 sons if Israel, are the establishing fathers of the 12 Tribes of Israel, which are tightly connected to the 12 astrological signs, as you will soon see…
Esoteric Knowledge of Astrology in the Book of Genesis
The Jewish esoteric study of the Kabala relates to the stories in the Old Testament not as actual events but rather as clues for universal knowledge. And universal knowledge, especially related to astrology, can definitely be found in the book of Genesis, in the way the Kabala interprets them.
In the story that unfolds in the first book of the Old Testament, Genesis, we find some interesting references that will catch the attention of the astrology fan. The biblical stories tell about the three fathers of the nation: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It also tells about four great mothers: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. Together these seven ancestors parented 12 sons, later to become the 12 tribes of Israel.
Threefold and fourfold patterns, together with numbers like seven, and definitely the mentioning of a dozen brothers are the sort of thing that gladdens the hearts of astrology lovers. When we think of it – the fundamentals of astrology are the 12 signs (or houses) founded from the different combinations of the 4 elements (Earth, water, air and fire) and 3 modalities (fixed, cardinal and mutable), governed by 7 classical rulers (the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn).
A further look will actually reveal that the three fathers of the Jewish Nation held 3 different personalities that acutely correlate to the 3 modes – the fixed, the mutable and the cardinal tempers. Abraham – the founder of the nation, followed the words of the lord without tilting left or right – showing a fixed character. Isaac, was of a good temper. Even his name tells of his pleasant character, as it means literally “he shall laugh” in Hebrew. Therefore Isaac can correspond to the mutable mode. And Jacob was a troublemaker. Whilst in his mother’s womb he was already opposed to his twin brother. Later on Jacob tricked Esau into giving him the right to inherit from their father. When older Jacob fought an angel and defeated it, and was then renamed Israel, which literally means “the one who confronted god himself and defeated him” – showing the traits that represents the cardinal mode (10).
By the way – the very name Abraham contains a puzzle, for it is an anagram to “Brahma”. Brahma was the creator god in the Hindu (or Brahmin) tradition that rose about the same time as Judaism. Brahma worked as part of a triad of three gods that held the cosmic principle of positive, negative and neutral. Brahma was the creator (positive – cardinal), Vishnu the preserver (neutral – fixed) and Shiva the destroyer (minus – mutable) (11).
The Wondrous 12
The Book of Numbers, in the Old Testament, seems to deal a lot with the number of people in each one of the twelve tribes and gives in-depth details about the whereabouts and location of each tribe during the Israelites’ 40-years journey in the desert. According to the Kabala, the number of people mentioned in each tribe does not represent an actual count of people, but rather depicts the number of stars in each constellation of the Zodiac associated with each tribe, and the location of each tribe in the camp represents esoteric knowledge that has much to do with astrology.
In Jacob’s blessing to his 12 sons, Jacob describes Dan (Scorpio) as a snake biting the horse rider’s leg. The snake of course, is the symbol of Scorpio, and the rider is Sagittarius. And in fact the part of Scorpio’s constellation that ‘invades’ the realm of Sagittarius is also known as Ophiuchus- The Snake-Bearer. Further on Jacob depicts Judea as a lion (Leo) and Ephraim as a bull (12).
According to the Kabala each one of the12 tribes of Israel is associated with a constellation of the zodiac.
Aries – Gad
Taurus – Ephraim
Gemini – Menashe
Cancer – Issachar
Leo – Judea
Virgo – Naphtali
Libra – Asher
Scorpio – Dan
Sagittarius – Binyamin
Capricorn – Zvulon
Aquarius – Reuven
Pisces – Shimon
Each tribe is also associated with a gemstone that could be found on the great priest’s breastplate (13). This article is not going into the depth of gemstones and astrology, but those who know about the qualities of the gemstones can see that each tribe was given the gemstone that would counter-balance its natural tendencies (for example – relaxing amethyst was given to Aries, focusing Agate to Sagittarius and so on).
Following the Clues and My Own Investigation
The bible is filled with riddles, clues and hints of the esoteric meaning behind the 12 tribes.
One of these clues is presented in the description of the locations of the twelve Israelite tribes around the Tabernacle during their voyage in the desert to the Holy Land (14). This is how the tribes camped each night, 3 tribes on each of the Tabernacle’s directions:
To the East: The Camp of Judah, which included the tribes Judah, Issachar and Zebulun;
To the South – The Camp of Reuben – Reuben, Simeon and Gad;
To the West – The Camp of Ephraim – Ephraim, Mannasseh and Benjamin
To the North: The Camp of Dan – Dan, Asher and Naphtali.
When I followed the clues left to us by the biblical author/s I found myself, uncovering ancient tradition and knowledge, just like a detective, and revealing some fascinating finds. The following is my own adding up, part of my research investigating the astrological clues presented in the text of old testaments.
The biblical division of the twelve tribes to four sets of three caught my attention immediately. As astrologers we are used to seeing the table of elements and modalities, so finding this kind of set -up hinted that something astrological might be hiding here. My interest grew as I realized that the leaders of each camp were the tribes associated with the four cardinal signs: Leo (Judah), Aquarius (Reuben), Taurus (Ephraim) and Scorpio (Dan). I then thought I might find the other two tribes of each camp as representatives of the other two modalities. But this was not the case. Putting aside the disappointment, I saw something even more fascinating than having the actual table of elements and modalities in the tribe’s layout: something that I most definitely did not expect to find.
Let’s take a second look at the position of the tribes in the camp:
East – Leo, Cancer and Capricorn
South – Aquarius, Pisces and Aries,
North – Taurus, Gemini and Sagittarius
West – Scorpio, Libra and Virgo
What are these combinations trying to tell us? Aquarius, Pisces and Aries are obviously following signs. So are Scorpio, Libra and Virgo, but in the backward order. But the other two sets are quite strange at first glance..
Looking again, something fascinating is revealed: Leo is assigned to Cancer, which is the sign preceding it, and to Capricorn. The line of Capricorn and Cancer mark Earth’s tilt between the tropic of Capricorn and the tropic of Cancer. Taurus is associated with its following sign – Gemini, and to Sagittarius. The line between Sagittarius and Gemini is a very important line astronomically as it marks the region of the sky in which our Milky Way galaxy can be seen at night.
But could the ancient once have known about Earth’s tilt between the tropic of Cancer and Capricorn and the astronomical whereabouts of our Milky Way? We do need to remember that the bible is at-least 3000 years old… The answer to the question remains unknown. But what we can tell is that 3 millennia ago the knowledge of astrology was abundant and rich in the land set between Mesopotamia and Egypt.
As it is hard to overcome years of tradition and deep psychologies I cannot yet say that I have managed to convince many orthodox Jews to refer to astrology. But what I do know is that although not commonly accepted today in the eyes of the Jewish believers, astrology was definitely practiced in the land of Israel and throughout the ages and that much esoteric astrological knowledge is embedded in the original Jewish most sacred text – the Old Testament itself.