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Eclipses: Fate or Freedom?

Eclipses: Fate or Freedom?


Eclipses: Fate and Freedom

On the Verse, “Let there be luminaries… and they shall serve as signs…”1 Rashi quotes the statement of our Sages:2 “When the luminaries are stricken it is an ill omen for the world, as in the verse3 ‘Be not dismayed at the signs of heaven, etc.’ But when you comply with the will of G‑d, you need not worry about punishment.”

Regarding the cause of eclipses the Talmud says,4 “On account of four things the sun is stricken: if the head of the rabbinical court dies and is not properly eulogized, etc. On account of four things the luminaries are smitten: on account of writers of forged documents, etc.” In other words, eclipses are related to people’s actions.

There is a famous question: The fact that the ‘luminaries are stricken’, i.e., that the sun and the moon become eclipsed, is a matter fixed in the nature of the cosmos, occurring at set intervals. In fact, one can even calculate in advance when it will occur. So how can we say that it happens as a result of human failings when it is really an unavoidable fact of nature?5

Over the course of time, certain people have used this “question” as “proof” that not everything the Sages said is correct.6 Thus, they excused and justified their own behavior, i.e., their decision not to fulfill Torah and Mitzvot.

The truth is, however, that one’s lack of Torah observance is not really because of his “intellectual questions”; it is rather because of the “appetite” of his emotions. The questions are no more than excuses to justify his improper behavior. That is why he can be comforted even with such a “question” that can be completely dispelled with even a little thought.

To preface:

It is well known that in Mishnaic and Talmudic times, the non-Jewish sages already knew the calculations to predict solar and lunar eclipses. Anyone who knows Jewish history (from the narratives in the teachings of our Sages, and — in greater detail — from the history texts of that era) knows that the non-Jewish scholars were in close contact with the Jewish Sages about matters of philosophy and science. They even traveled to meet each other and debate about various areas of knowledge,7 including astronomy.8

And even for those who are obstinate and unwilling to admit that the Jewish sages had a comprehensive knowledge of science9 and astronomy10 and that it was through them that this knowledge came to the non-Jews,11 it is nevertheless certain — completely beyond contention — that at the time when non-Jewish scholars knew about solar and lunar eclipses, our Sages knew as well,12 through the above-mentioned contact. This is especially true regarding astronomy, as the Sages had a particular interest in knowledge that impacts upon the Mitzvah of setting the Jewish calendar.13

It is therefore apparent that our Sages’ statement — that eclipses are an ill omen, and that they come because of specific misdeeds, etc. — cannot be contradictory to the necessity of eclipses according to the laws of nature.

Theoretically, one could explain14 that the statement that “eclipses are an ill omen, etc.” does not refer to the occurrence of the eclipses themselves, but rather to the fact that the person has seen one. Since the point of G‑d exhibiting an “ill omen” would be so that the people should return to Him,15 they must obviously be able to see the sign.

Accepting this premise would answer our original question: All that is required by the laws of nature is the eclipse itself. Nature does not require that we be able to see the eclipse, since there could be clouds, etc., which conceal the eclipse.

This detail is dependent on human behavior: When people commit those “four misdeeds,” they are shown an ill omen by being able to see the eclipse, while if they are behaving properly there are clouds to conceal the eclipse, so that there is no “ill omen.”

However, this explanation is not satisfactory.

(First of all, there are some locations where there are almost never clouds, such as in Egypt.16 But in addition to that…)

From the wording of our Sages, “when the luminaries are eclipsed,” the implication is that the ill omen is the eclipse itself, and not the sighting of it.

This is why the Talmud17 differentiates there between Jews and heathens: “When the sun is stricken, it is an ill omen for heathens. When the moon is stricken, it is an ill omen for the ‘enemies of18 the Jews’; for Jews count by the moon and heathens by the sun.” The eclipse in their behavior causes the eclipse of the sun and moon. Solar and lunar eclipses (and failings) come as a result of the eclipses (and failings) in the behavior of heathens and Jews, respectively.

Thus, it is obvious that when Jews are behaving properly, there should not be any lunar eclipse at all (and not just that if there is one it would not be seen).

There is a simple explanation:19

The idea that “when the luminaries are stricken it is an ill omen” (and that this happens “on account of four things…”) is: When an eclipse occurs it is a sign that this time is dominated by a “mazal ra” — bad luck, or literally, an evil constellation.20 It is a time that has a predilection for tragedy. That, in turn, causes it to be a time more prone to being punished for the “four things.”

This is why “when you comply with the will of G‑d, you need not worry about punishment.”21 If people are behaving as they should, there is nothing for which to be punished — even if it is a stricter time.

According to this interpretation, there is no longer any problem arising from the fact that eclipses must occur at predetermined times, in accordance with the laws of nature. Obviously the eclipse itself is not a consequence of human behavior. It is merely a sign of a period of tragedy, a time especially predisposed to punishment for the four things. These times (of bad luck etc.) with their omens are indeed predetermined within the nature of G‑d’s creation [just like the times enumerated in tractate Shabbat:22 “One who is born on Sunday… will be a… etc.].

Some explanation is still needed:

The Talmud23 differentiates between Jews and idolaters. “When Jews are complying with the will of G‑d, they need not fear all of these… ‘Do not be frightened by the signs of the heavens, though the nations are frightened by them’ — the idol worshippers shall be frightened, but the Jews need not be frightened.” In other words, under the very same circumstances that Jews “need not be frightened” (i.e. when they “are complying with the will of G‑d”), idolaters “shall be frightened.”

This requires explanation: If an “ill omen” just means a time when punishments are especially harsh (for not keeping the four things) — and the meaning of “complying with G‑d’s will” is that one has not transgressed and therefore will not be punished — why should “the idolaters be frightened” if they have not transgressed His will?

The explanation is as follows:

The way a mazal – “constellation” affects a specific time period (not only with regard to rewards and punishments meted out then, but also) with regard to a person’s behavior, is that the “constellation” creates a predilection for a specific mode of behavior, or for certain deeds (whether for good or for…). For instance: “Most of a person’s wisdom is achieved only at night.”24 This does not mean that a person cannot have success in daytime study of Torah.25 It is just that the night is a time that is especially auspicious for success in Torah, more so than by day — since by day greater toil is needed to ensure success.

The same is true with regard to the statement in tractate Shabbat that “one who is born on … will be a…” — that the nature and characteristics of a person are dependent on (the astronomical context) when he is born.

That doesn’t mean that the constellation has an inevitable effect on the person who is born during that time period. “Freedom is granted to every person” whether to be righteous or the opposite;26 it is impossible that one’s “innate predisposition should draw him immutably to something.”27 Rather, the sign of that time merely creates within the person a “slight partiality”28 to a specific thing. If one works on himself, he can overcome his natural tendencies, and even transform them.

This is similar to that which is explained in Rambam’s Shemoneh Perakim:29 “A person cannot be born to success or failure;” he can only be “by nature predisposed to success or failure.” Thus, one’s nature does not affect one’s free choice.

Then what does one’s nature do?

One who is “by nature predisposed to success” will not have to work as hard to make the choice to become something, since his nature assists him. (Nevertheless, he still has free choice to choose to be the opposite.) The one who is “predisposed to failure,” on the other hand, must work much harder to make himself successful. (On the other hand, this in itself is proof that he was given greater energies and potential than the other person, for “according to the size of the camel is the load”30 — a person is only given such challenges that he can manage.)

The same is true of those innate qualities that come as a result of (the astronomical sign of) the time when a person is born. While the Talmud states “one who is born on… will be a…” that does not mean that the person is forced to be so; it is just that he needs to apply more strength and toil to overcome this nature.

[A similar idea is true of those days that are called “inauspicious days”31 and the like. It is merely that during those times a negative occurrence is more likely — which is why extra caution is suggested on those days, such as the rule that “one should not start an endeavor on Monday or Wednesday,” etc. — but it is in no way certain to happen.

That is why the rule that “one should not start an endeavor on Monday or Wednesday32” is only applicable where it does not conflict with the rule that “one may not pass over an opportunity to do a Mitzvah.”33 Also, as long as the right effort is put into it, it is feasible to have success even on an inauspicious day.34]

According to all of the above we can explain the statement “when the luminaries are eclipsed it is an ill omen for the world” as meaning [not only that it is a calamitous time, when one is more easily punished for improper behavior, but also] that it is a time when there is aroused in the nature of man a partiality and bias towards a certain bad behavior. At the same time, that does not mean that he has no choice but to behave that way inasmuch as he has the ability to overcome his predisposition.

[According to this, we can appreciate the specificity of the illustration the Talmud uses for the concept of a solar eclipse:35 “A human king made a banquet for his servants, and placed a lantern before them. When he got angry, he said to his servant, take the lantern away from them….” In other words, it is “his servant” who “removes the lantern,” rather than the king himself. The eclipse and the ill omen are something that is completely within nature (the King’s servant)].

Following this track, the statement “On account of four things the sun is eclipsed…” means [not that the eclipse of the luminaries is because of actual misbehavior in these four areas, but rather] that because during these times there is a predilection towards the “four things,” this is why the luminaries are eclipsed.

Now we can also understand why specifically Jews are told “not to be frightened,” and not idolaters:

Idolaters can also overcome the natural predispositions etc., caused by the time period and behave properly — for although they do not posses the ultimate degree of free will,36 they would not be punished unless they were sinning “independently.”37 Yet they are ruled by the laws of nature. Thus, it would require a great amount of work and toil etc. to break the natural effect. Therefore, “non-Jews will be frightened of them” — they are fearful of the predispositions caused by nature.

Jews, on the other hand — if they increase in their Divine service — are higher than the measures and bounds of their nature. They “fulfill the will of their Creator,”38 and so they are higher than nature (even than “the signs of the heavens”). Thus, “they are not afraid of all these.”

Not only are Jews able to overcome their nature (through hard work etc.), but rather they don’t take these “signs of the heavens” into account in the first place — they can begin endeavors on Monday and Wednesday, etc. The ultimate level is when we no longer have to pay attention to the rules of nature at all.39 This is the way G‑d behaves with righteous people40 (and “Your nation are all righteous”41) — a clearly miraculous manner that is completely beyond nature42.

Bereishit, 1:14.
Tosefta Sukkah, 2:7. Sukkah, 29a. Mechilta Bo, 12:2.
Yirmiyahu, 10:2.
Sukkah, ibid. Tosefta, ibid. 6. cf. Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, end of chapter 7.

Rabbi Yehonatan Eibeshitz [5450-5524, 1690-1764] in his Ya’arot Devash (vol. 2, 7. p. 67d.) explains that the intent in “luminaries being smitten” is not eclipses, but rather sun-spots and other such temporary darkening of the light of the sun or moon events that do not have a pre-set schedule or determinable cause.”But I have not merited to understand his words (Note that it is well known that he was often forced to debate publicly with the non-Jewish scholars of his day (including famous astronomers). See Bava Batra, 116b. Menachot, 65b. Bechorot, 8b. et al.): (a) Who would know about the sunspot to recognize that it is a sign for him? (b) There are opinions, currently, that maintain that sunspots too have a natural frequency that can be calculated in advance. (c) This interpretation contradicts the straightforward meaning and also opposes many early commentators on the Talmud and the Mechilta (including those that did not comment at all). (d) This bad omen is “analogous to a physical king… remove the lantern from them and let them sit in the dark.” Tosefta Sukkah, 2:7. From here we understand that even if the eclipse is a natural event and even if it was determinable in advance, the result is “sitting in the dark.”

In the Chasdei David commentary on this Tosefta, we find that the intent of our Sages is “Eclipses sometimes occur at times inappropriate according to astronomical calculations. Such timing indicates that the eclipse is due to punishment for those offences.” However in addition to arguments 3 and 4 above, when has such a thing ever happened? And yet, the causes listed in the Talmud (about the head of the Rabbinical Court dying, etc.) have certainly happened a great many times.

Note Perush HaMishna L’HaRambam, Sanhedrin beginning of Chelek, “And the second group…” Ibid. “And this is the fourth concept….”
See Bechorot, 8b, et al.
Pesachim, 94b.
See Encyclopedia Talmudit, Chochmot Chitzoniot, (p. 58). Cit. loc.
As explained in the books dealing with the Jewish calendar. Cf. Rambam, Kiddush HaChodesh, 17 that this knowledge was written in Jewish books already in the times of the prophets, by the children of Yissachar. However, those books didn’t reach us. (See ibid. 1:6. 11:3-4.) Cf. Targum, Divrei HaYamim Im 12:32. Cf. Shabbat, 75a: “It is a Mitzvah to figure out the seasons and constellations… for it is your wisdom and your insight before the eyes of the nations.” Some even count this as one of the 613 Mitzvot. (Semag, PC 47. Sefer HaMitzvos L’HaRambam, Shoresh II.)
See Sefer HaIbur by Rabbi Avraham ben Chiyah HaNassi, 2:2. et al.
See Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 7. Me’iri Shabbat, ibid.: “A person is obligated… to calculate the seasons and constellations, since this wisdom is beautified with knowledge of the signs of heaven and eclipses, without any error at all.” See Yesod Olam, 3:17.
See Rambam, Kiddush HaChodesh, end of chapter 17.

See Shelah Noach (Amsterdam imprint, p. 244b, fn) who quotes the Ramah on the subject of rainbows, and his citation of an “extremely wise man” regarding rainbows and eclipses.The Shelah explains that “G‑d foresaw all the generations, and He created the world in such a way that there would be eclipses when people are worthy to be punished for these sins. Do not wonder… if these sins were already known to G‑d, and based on them He acted and created His creation, then… these sins are inevitable… I have already explained this concept at length…” [It can be explained according to that which it says in Torat Chaim (Toldot, 13a ff.) about “awesome is the libel against man” — that even sins are by Divine Providence. (See Likutei Sichot, vol. 5, p. 65 ff. cit. loc.).]

However, see Ma’amar Shnei HaMe’orot (by Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac of Homil) 11b fn.: “The eclipses cannot be explained in this manner…” Note that it is known (See Likutei Sichot, vol. 5, p. 132, fn 3. vol. 6, p. 65, fn 46. cit. loc.) that when G‑d’s knowledge is expressed in speech, it does negate the possibility of choice (which is why “righteous or evil He does not say”). This would definitely be so in our case, since we are discussing a fixed natural order in creation; as the Shelah himself expresses it, “He acted and created His creation.”

See Sefer HaChassidim 64, p. 230. Quoted in Magen Avraham, Orach Chaim, 580:1. Ba’er Hetev, 571:1.
That is why there is generally no rain there, viz. Rashi, beginning of Mikeitz. It is implausible to contend that when Jews comply with G‑d’s will, He performs a miracle and brings clouds.
Tosefta Sukkah, 2:7. Sukkah, 29a
of the Jews and from among the Jews, i.e., Jewish anti-Semites, rachmana litzlan.
See a similar interpretation in Iyun Yaakov on Ein Yaakov, Sukkah ibid. Aruch LaNer, Sukkah ibid. Ma’amar Shnei HaMe’orot ibid.
For instance: Shabbat, 129b. 156a. Ta’anit, 29a ff. Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah, 179:2. Zohar III, 58a ff. 234a. Ra’ayah MeHemna, 281b.
Rashi cited earlier. See Sukkah, Tosefta, and Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer ibid. Cf. fn 38.
Sukkah ibid. et al.
Hilchot Talmud Torah – of the Rambam, 3:13; of the Alter Rebbe, 4:8.
Which is why “it is a Mitzvah to study both by day and by night.” (ibid.)
Rambam, Teshuvah, 5:1.
Lechem Mishna, ibid.
Chapter 8. Cf. Akeida, 22 and 26.
Sotah, 13b.
Ta’anit, ibid.
Yoreh De’ah, ibid. Ra’ayah Mehimna ibid. p. 273a. 234a. Shabbat, 129b.
See Sefer HaChassidim, 59. Ra’ayah Mehimna, 273a.
See Rashi Shemot, 10:10. At length in Ma’amar Shnei HaMe’orot ibid.
The Aruch LaNer interprets “his servant” as a reference to the moon, which blocks the light of the lantern (the sun) from reaching His servants (human beings).
True free will is possessed only by Jewish souls, as explained in Likutei Torah Emor, 38b.
See Rambam, Teshuvah, 6:3. Shemoneh Perakim, ibid.
See Maharsha, Berachot 35b. Ohr Torah of the Maggid, 53d. Likutei Torah Shelach, 42c. “Fulfilling G‑d’s will” is accomplished through a service beyond boundaries and limitations.
According to that which has been explained, we can better understand Rabbi Yochanan’s statement in the Mechilta: “These and these were given to non-Jews” — without mentioning any conditions, or if they are complying with G‑d’s will, etc. This is because Jews, both righteous and otherwise, posses two souls (Tanya, Chapter 1). About one of those souls G‑d declares, “a part of G‑d, is His nation” (Tanya, Igeret HaTeshuvah, Chapter 5) — even when they are not complying with G‑d’s will, they are a part of the Divine name, which supersedes nature.
For instance, this is the way He dealt with Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa (Berachot, 33a). Compare the idea that a completely righteous person may antagonize evil people in this world (Berachot, 7b. Megillah, 6b).
Yeshaya, 60:21.

Likutei Sichot, vol. 15, p. 7.[We have included only a portion of the Rebbe’s footnotes, and in abbreviated form.]

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David Spring Valley August 21, 2017

I see that various Rambams are brought in the footnotes presumably as support for various points, but when it comes to the primary thesis, distinctions between Jews and "idolaters" as regards to free choice and boundedness to Nature, I did not notice any sources from Rambam. Is there any evidence that Rambam would support this contention? Reply

David Spring Valley August 21, 2017

1)Which Sicha was this taken from?
2)Could you explain how what Rambam writes in the footnote 6 reference relates to the point being made in the paragraph that brings that footnote? Did the Rebbe use this Rambam for the rhetorical point this paragraph wishes to make or was it just the writer of this essay doing so on his own? Reply

Leonard Melman Nanoose Bay, BC August 21, 2017

I read this article with great interest but cannot agree with the conclusions at all. Eclipses are a matter of precise mathematical calculation. Scientists are able to predict their occurrence over a period of decades or centuries with precision -which would not be at all possible if the timeliness of eclipses was a matter brought about by human behaviour.

I value our Jewish literature and traditions as a wonderful means of correcting our behaviour, of informing us about our history and in teaching us about the valuable commentaries of our illustrious Patriarchs and Sages - but to equate all of that with matters proven by precise mathematical calculation is, I believe, a significant error. Reply

Len August 21, 2017

What ? Jews are to direct their daily activities in accordance with naturally occurring phenomena ?

Jews do not worship the Sun - that is way to limiting ! Reply

Anonymous Morayfield August 21, 2017
in response to Len :

Absolutely correct!
Sage nonsense!
Sun worship, is anti-HaShem paganism. Reply

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