Today few of us take astrology seriously. Sure, you might be familiar with the sign of the zodiac that your birthday falls on or glance at your horoscope in the newspaper. But to say that the stars and planets rule our lives? Unlikely.
In the ancient world however, this was the prevalent concept. Practically everyone believed that the star you were born under influenced your personality and affected the events of your life. The Babylonians were famous for their astrology and the ancient Greek practice continued on in Rome.
But what of the Jews? Doesn’t a belief in astrology negate the concept of free choice and of God’s omnipotence? That is part of the discussion on our daf. After an exhaustive catalogue of how one’s personality is influenced by when he is born, we have the general statement of Rabbi Hanina that יש מזל לישראל, Israel is under the influence of the planets. Rabbi Yohanan is quick to disagree and proclaims אין מזל לישראל. A number of stories are brought to prove Rabbi Yohanan’s position and the bottom line of the Gemara seems to be that the planets do influence but you can change your fate by doing good deeds.
Whatever your position on the philosophical question, it’s clear that the Jews in Eretz Yisrael were very familiar with astrology and the zodiac. In synagogue mosaics in the Galilee we have a number of representations, some startling in their imagery, of the zodiac. Here is the first one discovered, in the 1920’s from Bet Alfa.
Since then archaeologists have been finding more and more images in ancient synagogues, including more zodiacs: one from Zippori and another from Hamat Tverya.
When the Jews of 4thcentury Hamat, south of Tverya, prayed on Shabbat in their synagogue, were they thinking about the debate on our daf about if Israel is controlled by the stars? If only we could know.