Vayechi: Genesis 47:28 – 50:26
“A Zodiac Wheel in a Synagogue?”
During one of our congregation’s trips to Israel, we made a stop at the archeological site of Bet Alpha, a sixth-century synagogue near Beit She’an. The synagogue is famous for the stunning mosaic floor of its sanctuary which depicts the Zodiac wheel with Hebrew names for each of the 12 signs. Our tour guide shared that this synagogue is one of many from that era which included the Zodiac as part of its décor. Yet, in my Modern Orthodox upbringing I had been repeatedly taught a quote from the Talmud that states: “Ein mazal l’Yisrael” [Shabbat 156a]—meaning: “Israel isn’t concerned with the flow/influence of the constellations (mazalot).” I was unaware that this teaching was taken out of its Talmudic context by my rabbis, who neglected to mention that this was just one side of a multi-faceted rabbinic argument on the topic, where others insisted that everyone has a particular mazal, a celestial counterpart of sort—when the word “mazal” wasn’t understood as “luck” but from its root “nozeil” meaning “[heavenly] flow/influence.” But when and how did the Zodiac come to be included in our tradition?
With the book of Genesis coming to a close, Jacob, as he is dying, gives his blessing to his sons; the six sons of Leah first, followed by the four sons of the concubines Bilah and Zilpah, and concluding with the two sons of his favorite, Rachel. Altogether, Jacob blessed the 12 tribes named after him, the 12 tribes of Israel who will carry forward God’s Promise to Abraham. In the later unfolding of the story, Levi is removed from the count—being assigned to the priesthood—and Joseph’s tribe is split into two, named after his two sons, Ephraim and Menasheh, keeping the count at the all-important 12. This number is, of course, associated in our minds with the months of the year, and there is a perfectly good reason for that.
Until our Babylonian exile which followed the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, we didn’t have names for the months of the year. Just like the days of the week, months were numbered but not named. For example, the Torah tells us that Passover is on the 1st month of the year, the holiday of sounding the shofar and atonement on the 7th month of the year. During our first exile, we borrowed the names of Babylonian months and made them ours. Along with the months, we also took on the Zodiac symbols they had inherited from their Assyrian ancestors. Undoubtedly, this influence made its way into the Torah—which was compiled in Babylon—in the guise of the 12 sons of Jacob, and which becomes apparent already in Joseph retelling his dream of “the sun [Jacob,] the moon [Rachel,] and eleven stars bowing down to [him.]” [Gen. 37:9]
This recurring theme appears in the second chapter of the Book of Numbers when Moses assigns each tribe its marching position around the Ark and the Tabernacle ahead of the 40-year wandering through the desert. The eastern quadrant comprises the tribes of Yehudah, Issachar & Zevulun (of Leah’s lineage.) The southern quadrant includes the tribes of Reuben, Shimon and Gad (from Leah, and Zilpah’s lineage). The western quadrant is composed of Ephraim, Menasheh and Benjamin (of Rachel’s lineage); and the northern quadrant of Dan, Asher and Naphtali (of Bilah and Zilpah’s lineage). It would have followed Jacob’s blessing exactly if the western and northern quadrants had been switched around. This arrangement depicts a 12-spoke wheel surrounding the Tabernacle, connecting each tribe to a Zodiacal sign and, therefore, to a month.
The first month is Yehudah, the only surviving tribe, the kingdom harboring Jerusalem and its Temple, the lineage of the Kings of Israel and of the Messiah. He is the month of the T’leh in Hebrew, the Ram (Aries) that Abraham sacrificed in lieu of Isaac, and which turned into the lamb of the Passover sacrifice celebrated in this first month of Nisan.
The month of Tishrei with the High Holy Days is the month of the moznaim, the scales of the Libra. This is the time when our good and bad deeds are weighed and the decision whether we will be written in the Book of Life is made. It is the month of Ephraim whose name is associated with creative energies, giving birth to new realities, which is what Rosh HaShanah invites us into. A midrash says: Libra weighs all the deeds of man, who, if found guilty, is punished by Scorpio, a symbol of Gehinnom; after purification in Mercy, however, he is cast forth as quickly as an arrow from a bow, represented by Sagittarius, and becomes as innocent as a kid (Capricorn) and is purified as by water poured by Aquarius (Pesiḳ. R. 20 [ed. Friedmann, p. 97b]).
Aquarius is connected to the month of Sh’vat where we celebrate TuBish’vat the birthday of the trees. This birthday represents the end of the rainy season that watered the trees, defining which fruit belonged to which year for Temple offering purposes. It is the month of water, the month of Asher—happiness—like a prayer that the rains be abundant so that food might grow, and happiness dwell in the land.
Benjamin is blessed by Jacob as the warrior-archer (keshet – Sagittarius) because the land of Benjamin was narrow and expanded East-West at the intersection of the North-South central highway and the Transjordan Road. Benjamin is the crossroad in the shape of a bow and arrow. He is the month of Kislev, of Chanukah, of the winter solstice, the crossroad of the year from darkness into light.
Yet it is not just in Torah that we find allusions to the Zodiac. They are found in the Book of Prophets as well. In ancient times the sign of Scorpio was often represented as an eagle because scorpions were associated with death and people feared invoking such an image as darkness set-in in the early winter months. In his vision of the Divine Chariot, Ezekiel saw four angelic beings—each with a different head—connected to the four wheels of the Divine Chariot. One had the head of a lion, the other of a bull, the third of a man and the last one of an eagle. Scholars saw the creatures as representing the middle signs of the four quadrants of the Zodiac, with the lion as Leo, the bull as Taurus, the man as Aquarius and the eagle as Scorpio.
There, certainly, is more to Jacob’s blessing of his sons in this week’s Torah portion than meets the untrained eye. More influences, more layers and dimensionalities to our tradition than we are often taught to believe. As this tradition of ours evolves—borrowing from or reacting to external influences—some practices become mainstream while others are rejected and denied. It is a reminder that, despite what many insist is the truth, there never was one way of practicing Judaism; that Judaism never existed in its own solitary vacuum, but was rather, always permeable to traditions deemed an enhancement to its own spiritual practices. A healthy balance between permeability and rigidity is what has helped Judaism remain alive and relevant through its 3,000 years of existence. We would be well-advised to remember this truth, and not censure one entire side of a Talmudic argument.