Mazal tov literally means “good luck,” but Jews use it pretty much the same way that English-speakers use the word “congratulations.” So this is the appropriate wish for an engagement, wedding, birth, circumcision, bat mitzvah, bar mitzvah, closing on a new house, a new job, or even the completion of a tractate (known as a siyum) or any milestone worth celebrating.

Note that the traditional Yiddish-inflected pronunciation is MAH-zel tov, while the modern-Hebrew pronunciation is mah-ZAHL tov.

This term is found in the Kiddush Levanah prayer, which is said every month thanking G‑d for the moon. The key to understanding its meaning is that mazal, which we translated as “luck,” actually means “constellation” or “planet.” This connection is only natural since the Talmud understands that a person’s fortune is influenced by the position of the heavenly spheres.

In this sense, there are times when the word mazal tov can be seen as a wish that the joyous event take place at an auspicious time (under a “good constellation”), which would thus portend good things to come for the new marriage, baby, etc.1

It is fascinating to note that some Sephardic Jews traditionally reserved this wish for the birth of a girl (using a similar congratulation of siman tov for the birth of a boy). Perhaps this is why Mazal Tov is also a fairly common girl’s name among Sephardim, a cognate of the Ladino (Latin) Fortuna.

Despite its narrow original meaning, the term has certainly been broadened and can be said even in instances where it would make no sense to express your wish that something happen under auspicious circumstances.

In fact, it is even customary to shout mazal tov when dishes or cups fall and shatter (read why here).

Did you learn something new?

Mazal tov!