Birthdays, Purim and Jewish Luck

By: Rabbi Dovid Markel

 

Is There Such a Thing as Luck?

Josh had heard a family rumor that his father, his grandfather and even his great-grandfather all “walked on water” on their 21st birthday. Well, today was his 21st birthday and if they could do it, so could he.

So, off he went in a boat with his friend Jake on a calm mid-July morning.

When he reached the middle of the lake, he got up and stepped out of the boat…. and nearly drowned.

The next day, Josh asked his grandmother why he wasn’t given the same gift as the others in his family.

The grandmother told him that his father, grandfather and great-grandfather had all been born in February.

 

Depending on our age, a birthday can have different meanings. When we were young, our birthdays were fun filled days, crammed with birthday parties, family and friends.  As we age however, many feel that our birthdays serve as a reminder that we are just a little more over the hill.

For most of us though, no matter our age, a birthday is a special time of the year and we all feel a little different on that day. We tend to wake up more chipper, and have a bit more swing in our step. Many feel that their birthdays give them a little more luck, and that they could even walk on water, if they so wanted.

Interestingly, the idea that on a person’s birthday he has more luck than usual is rooted in the Talmud. The Talmud tells us that the Amelekites, knowing that a person is luckier on his birthday and is not likely to fall in battle, sent people whose birthday was on that day to fight with the Israelites.

 

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ריב”ל אמר עמלק כושפן היה מה היה עושה היה מעמיד בני אדם ביום גינוסיא שלו לומר לא במהרה אדם נופל ביום גינוסיא שלו. מה עשה משה עירבב את המזלות…(תלמוד ירושלמי, מסכת ראש השנה פרק ג’ הלכה ח)

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said, “Amalek was a sorcerer.  What would he do? He would send to battle those whose birthday fell out on that day, saying, that a person does not fall quickly on his birthday. What did Moshe do? He mixed up the mazalos…[thus taking away the strength of the Amaleki fighters]”

Talmud Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashana 3:8

 

A person has a certain mazal or heavenly constellation from where his luck in this world originates. When his mazal is in a healthy position he is bound to have good luck, and if it is not as healthy, his luck may not be as bright for him.

For this reason, it has become common practice to wish a person, “Mazal tov,” during occasions when a person is embarking on a new endeavor. We wish that the person not be affected by a negative mazal, and that a good mazal should shine upon them.

On the day that a person is born, his mazal is stronger than on other days, and for this reason on a person’s birthday they have better luck. This is what is called in Hebrew, mazalo gover (his mazal dominates).

It is not only birthdays where luck plays a role, but in fact the basic facets of life are said to be dependent on luck, or mazal.

 

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אמר רבא חיי בני ומזוני לא בזכותא תליא מילתא אלא במזלא תליא מילתא

תלמוד בבלי, מועד קטן כח א

Rava said: “[Length of] life, children and sustenance depend not on merit but [rather on] mazal.”

Talmud, Moed Katan, 28a

 

Purim Luck

We see an example of the constellations coming to play during the holiday of Purim. Haman threw a raffle to determine which month he should exterminate the Jews. Being an astrologer and a historian, he was happy when the lots fell out on the month of Adar—the time when Pisces or Dagim (fishes) begins to rise[1] – and assumed that his plot was destined for success. The Talmud tells us:

 

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בא לו מזל דגים שהוא משמש בחדש אדר ולא נמצא לו זכות, ושמח מיד ואמר אדר אין לו זכות ומזלו אין לו זכות, ולא עוד אלא שבאדר מת משה רבן. והוא לא ידע שבאדר מת משה ובאדר נולד משה. ואמר כשם שהדגים בולעין כך אני בולע אותן. אמר לו הקב”ה רשע דגים פעמים נבלעין ופעמים בולעין, ועכשיו אותו האיש נבלע מן הבולעין. א”ר חנן הדא הוא דכתיב: ‘ונהפוך הוא אשר ישלטו היהודים המה בשנאיהם’ (אסתר ט’, א)

(אסתר רבה ז, יא)

On reaching the sign of Pisces-Dagim (fishes) which shines in the month of Adar, he found no merit in it and rejoiced, saying, “Adar has no merit, its sign has no merit, and what is more, in Adar Moshe their master died.” ’He however did not know that during Adar Moshe died and during Adar he was born. He said, “Just as fishes swallow one another, so I will swallow them.” Said the Holy One, Blessed be He to him: “Rasha (evil one)! Fishes sometimes swallow and sometimes are swallowed, and now it is you who will be swallowed.” R. Chanan said, “The same thing is intimated by the verse, “Whereas it was turned to the contrary, that the Jews had rule over them that hated them (Esther 9:1).”

Esther Rabba 7:11

 

The Medrash tells us that the Jewish people are compared to a fish that is submerged in the water of Torah[2]. The Jews therefore, are generally under the zodiac of Pisces—Dagim. During the month of Adar the zodiac of Pisces in on the rise, and the mazal of the Jewish people is the healthiest. Haman started up with them during the month that they were the strongest. He was therefore actually doomed from the start.

For this reason the Talmud[3] tells us that if a Jew has a court case against a non-Jew, he should attempt to arrange for it to happen during the month of Adar. Clearly, Judaism believes that one’s mazal plays a strong role in the way that his luck turns out.

No Luck for the Jews

The Talmud[4] records lengthy discussion as to the personality traits that a person is destined to have, based on the constellation that they are born under. For example, if a person is born on Sunday, he will be exceptional in a certain character trait; Monday, a person will be easy to anger; Tuesday, he will be rich, and so on. At the end of the discussion, the Talmud records an argument[5] as to whether or not our fate is determined by the constellations at all. It comes to the conclusion that our destiny is in fact not determined by luck. The Talmud says:

 

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רבי חנינא אומר מזל מחכים מזל מעשיר ויש מזל לישראל רבי יוחנן אמר אין מזל לישראל ואזדא רבי יוחנן לטעמיה דא”ר יוחנן מניין שאין מזל לישראל שנאמר (ירמיהו י, ב) כה אמר ה’ אל דרך הגוים אל תלמדו ומאותות השמים אל תחתו כי יחתו הגוים מהמה הם יחתו ולא ישראל ואף רב סבר אין מזל לישראל דאמר רב יהודה אמר רב מניין שאין מזל לישראל שנאמר (בראשית טו, ה) ויוצא אותו החוצה אמר אברהם לפני הקב”ה רבש”ע (בראשית טו, ג) בן ביתי יורש אותי אמר לו לאו (בראשית טו, ד) כי אם אשר יצא ממעיך אמר לפניו רבש”ע נסתכלתי באיצטגנינות שלי ואיני ראוי להוליד בן אמר ליה צא מאיצטגנינות שלך שאין מזל לישראל

שבת קנו א תלמוד בבלי,

R’ Chanina said, “The planetary influence gives wisdom, the planetary influence gives wealth, and Israel stands under planetary influence.” R’ Yochanan maintained, “Israel is immune from planetary influence.” Now, R’ Yochanan is consistent with his view, for R’ Yochanan said [previously], “ How do we know that Israel is immune from planetary influence? Because it is said, ‘Thus says the Lord: Learn not the way of the nations, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the nations are dismayed at them: They are dismayed but not Israel.’” Rav too, holds that Israel is immune from planetary influence. For Rav Yehudah said in Rav’s name, “How do we know that Israel is immune from planetary influence? Because it is said, ‘And he brought him forth from abroad.’ Avraham pleaded before the Holy One, Blessed be He, ‘Sovereign of the Universe! One born in my house is my heir.’ ‘Not so,’ He replied, ‘but he that shall come forth out of your own bowels.’ ‘Sovereign of the Universe!’ cried he, I have looked at my constellation and find that I am not fated to beget child.’ ‘Go forth from [i.e., cease] thy planet [gazing], for Israel is free from planetary influence.’”

Talmud, Shabbos 156a

 

There seems to be some disparity. If the Jewish people have no mazal, what then is the meaning of having stronger luck on one’s birthday? Isn’t the destiny of a Jewish person not determined by luck?!

While the statement about one’s luck on his birthday concerning the luck that the Amalikites had is discussing non-Jews who may in fact be dependent on luck, the idea that birthdays change our luck is brought down in Jewish literature about Jews as well. What’s more, is that the statement in Talmud that our children, health and livelihood are dependent on luck, was also said about Jews.

This begs the question: Do we as Jews have luck, or do we not have luck?!

Changing your Luck

The simple answer to this difficulty can be found in the words of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi), the foremost Talmudic commentator, who comments on the above passage in the Talmud:

 

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אין מזל לישראל – דעל ידי תפלה וזכות משתנה מזלו לטובה

רש”י שם

There is no mazal for Israel—because through prayer and merit his mazal changes for the good.

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) ad loc

 

In Rashi’s words, the Jewish people do have a mazal but it is not concrete. A person’s mazal can be healthy or unhealthy, strong or weak, but it is not bound to be that way and we are able to change it. Through a Jew’s actions, prayers or merits, they can change their predestined fate for the better, and transform a bitter future into a beautiful one.

This idea is expressed wonderfully in a well known story that the Talmud tells us, concerning the daughter of the great sage R’ Akiva and the fate that was to be by her wedding.

 

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דר”ע הויא ליה ברתא אמרי ליה כלדאי ההוא יומא דעיילה לבי גננא טריק לה חיויא ומיתא הוה דאיגא אמילתא טובא ההוא יומא שקלתה למכבנתא דצתא בגודא איתרמי איתיב בעיניה דחיויא לצפרא כי קא שקלה לה הוה קא סריך ואתי חיויא בתרה אמר לה אבוה מאי עבדת אמרה ליה בפניא אתא עניא קרא אבבא והוו טרידי כולי עלמא בסעודתא וליכא דשמעיה קאימנא שקלתי לריסתנאי דיהבית לי יהבתיה ניהליה אמר לה מצוה עבדת נפק ר”ע ודרש וצדקה תציל ממות ולא ממיתה משונה אלא ממיתה עצמה

תלמוד שבת קנו,ב

Astrologers told Rabbi Akiva that on the day of his daughter’s marriage, as she entered the bridal chamber, a snake would bite her and she would die. He was worried a great deal about this.

On her wedding day, as she entered the bridal chamber, she removed the brooch she was wearing and pinned it to the wall. Unknowingly when the pin of the brooch went through the wall, and continued straight through the eye of a poisonous snake hidden inside. The next morning, as she removed the pin from the wall, she found the snake, dead.

Her father told her, “What good deed did you do?” She answered, “A poor man came to the door on my wedding night. Everyone was so busy at the wedding feast that no one paid attention to him. I therefore took my portion and gave it to him.” “You have done a very good deed,” said Rabbi Akiva.

R’ Akiva went out and taught [the principle of] “righteousness delivers from death” not only from a tragic death, but from death itself.

Talmud Bavli, Shabbos 156a

 

The above illustrates that by astrology alone one cannot determine what is to be the destiny of the Jew. His destiny is determined by the actions that he performs, and only he is in charge of his fate. If a Jew does a mitzvah, he can reverse any negative destiny that he may have previously had into a positive one. Alternately, he can choose to do nothing and let fate do to him as it pleases.

What is different and special about the days of Adar specifically, or the day of one’s birthday, is that a person’s normal luck is automatically healthier and stronger. While during the rest of the year a person may have a weak mazal, and alter it through prayers or merits, on the day of one’s birth or during the month of Adar we are naturally in a better position to be lucky[6].

Deeper Luck

The successor of the Bal Shem Tov, R’ Dov Ber of Mezritch, known as the Magid of Mezritch, reveals a deeper dimension as to what is meant by the statement that the Jewish people have no mazal. He explains that the word, “ein” – there is not [luck for the Jews], can be read as “ayin.” The Jewish people have a mazal whose source is the lofty level of Ayin.

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איתא אין מזל לישראל, ואיתא הכל תלוי במזל אפילו ספר תורה שבהיכל. אך הענין הוא, כי בוודאי כי מדריגת אי”ן, שהיא חכמה, היא מזל לישראל.

אור תורה, בלק קמז

It is stated, “there is no mazal for Israel,” and is it stated as well that all is dependent on mazal, including the Torah scroll in the ark. Rather the concept is, that for sure the level that is called “Ayin,” which is the level of Chochma, is the mazal for Israel.

Ohr Torah, Balak 147

The Jewish people are not defined by luck in the sense that they are limited to the stars and constellations. The Jewish person’s luck is determined by the way that he is connected to Ayin, the G-dliness in the world, i.e. to Hashem and to the Torah.

When a Jew is connected to G-dliness, his mazal is healthy. When he is not connected with G-dliness, then his mazal is unhealthy.

When a Jewish person acts in a manner that is nullified to G-d, he has physical luck in this world! Additionally, during our birthdays or during the month of Adar, we have more of an ability to tap into our ultimate mazal—the G-dly root that is our source!

During a Jewish person’s life, he should not limit himself to his predestined, external mazal, but rather should become in tune with the deeper part of his mazal, the G-dly part. A person can accomplish this by heeding the advice of the sixth Chabad Rebbe, R’ Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, who explained how one should contemplate on their birthday.

 

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ביום ההולדת, על האדם להתבודד, ולהעלות זכרונותיו ולהתבונן בהם, והצריכים תיקון ותשובה ישוב ויתקנם.

היום יום, יא ניסן

On one’s birthday one should spend some time in seclusion, bringing to mind recollections from the past and pondering over them. As to those that call for rectification or repentance, one should repent of rectify them.

Hayom Yom, 11 Nissan

 

When we are nullified to G-d and are in tune with His Will, then our mazal is Ayin, under the direct control of G-d Himself, and we are bound to have success.

The following story was told by Reb Shmuel of Lubavitch, the Rebbe Maharash, and beautifully expresses that depending on the way that we position ourselves, we have the ability to change our destiny for the better. We are either able to live out the fate that we are predisposed to, or change our future for the better:

There were once two chassidim who were disciples of Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi, known as the Alter Rebbe.  They were neighbors, both wealthy, and used to give to the Rebbe generously for the Chassidic colony in Eretz Yisroel and for the communal causes in which he was involved. They both served their Creator earnestly, though each had his own style. The first ordered his spiritual life beginning from the bottom, and working upwards; that is, first seeing to the actual performance of his duties in a spirit of self-sacrifice, and only later taking off the time to digest intellectually their spiritual connotations. The other favored the pattern beginning from the top, and working downwards; that is, first working through each spiritual challenge intellectually, and only then bring it to fruition it its physical fulfillment.

The Alter Rebbe, once sent an emissary to ask them for funds for some worthy cause. He came to the first chassid and said simply: “The Rebbe needs money.”

“How much?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” said the emissary. “The Rebbe didn’t say.”

The chassid left the room for a moment, and returned with all the money that he had in the house at the time.

From there, the emissary proceeded to the second chassid, and hereto said: “The Rebbe needs money.”

“How much?” the chassid asked,

“I don’t know,” said the emissary as before. “The Rebbe didn’t say.”

The chassid decided: “I will travel to Liozna, ask the Rebbe how much he needs, and give it to him.”

The emissary returned to Liozna and gave the Rebbe the wallet which he had received from the first man. When asked what he had brought from the other chassid, he repeated the answer he had been given. For a few moments the Rebbe meditated and then said: “Before the event, or after the event?”

At dawn the next day, the first chassid came to Liozna, and the Rebbe told him: “You should move your place of residence.”

Without a moment’s delay he returned home, sold whatever household items were salable, hired a wagon for his family, and took to the highway. Not that he knew where he was headed or why he was travelling, but the Rebbe has said he should move, so he moved. Arriving at Liozna, he left his family at some suitable place, and went off to shul to pray.

The second chassid got up in the morning and thought: “Why should I hurry and leave right now? I’ll pray first, then after prayers, have some breakfast and set off to Liozna about midday.”

In the meantime, a violent storm broke loose. In the midst of the thunder and lightning his whole street caught on fire, and he barely succeeded in saving his family.

The Rebbe Maharash commented: “That is the difference between obedience—and obedience. Both men obeyed, except that the first started with the practical execution of the Rebbe’s instruction, while the second started by thinking it over.”

A Treasury of Chassidic Tales, Shlomo Yosef Zevin

 

This story illustrates how there can be two people who have a similar destinies, but that depending on their merit, will turn out to be either good or bad. Both men were destined to lose money and they both did. One “lost” it through giving it to charity and the other lost it through the flames of a fire.  One lost everything and one gained everything.

What changed their destiny was the way that they reacted to the scenario: one acted in an “there is no mazal for Israel,” manner and nullified himself. The other retained his worldly mindset, contemplating the situation in a rational manner and ended up with the natural effect of his actions.

When we have a true nullification to the Ayin, and listen to G-d’s Will without hesitation, then we are guaranteed that we will have a good outcome–one that is not limited to the confines of the natural world.

 


[1] See Rashi to Bava Metzia 106b, that in Adar the constellation of Pisces begins to rise.

[2] Bereishis Rabba, Parsha 97

[3] Tanis 29b

[4] Shabbos 156a

[5] For the specifics of the argument of whether there is a mazal or there isn’t a mazal, see Drashaos Haran Hadrush Hashmini.

[6] While the statement that children, health, and livelihood are not dependent on merit seems to imply that through merit we are not able to change our luck, in truth, if the merit is great enough, it can be changed. What the Talmud meant in its statement, is that in order to change those major things, a person needs great merit. (See Tosfos, Ein Mazal Liyisroel Shabbos 156a and Tosfos, Mosifin Lo Yevamos 50a)

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