Q. I am confused in regard to Judaism and the Zodiac signs. My understanding was that “diviners, necromancers and soothsayers” were forbidden. If this is the case, why and how have the Zodiac signs been incorporated into Judaism?A. The idea of the Zodiac, a notional belt in the heavens within which are the paths of the sun, moon and chief planets, may have been introduced by the Chaldeans about 4000 years ago. They lived in a locality which was conducive to the observation of the heavens. They saw twelve full moons each year and speculated as to the different characteristics of the months.
The name Zodiac is derived from the Greek “zoion”, an animal (another word from this root is “zoology”), since all twelve Zodiac constellations except Libra (the scales) are represented by animal figures – bull, lion, goat, etc. The signs of the Zodiac were believed to contain portents which influenced human life.
In the Talmud, however, there is no reference to the Zodiac; Rabbi Yochanan quoted the verse, “Learn not the way of the nations, and be not dismayed at the signs of the heaven; for the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of the peoples are empty” (Jer. 10:2-3) and added that Israel is immune from any planetary influence (Shabbat 156a).
Nonetheless the Zodiac entered early Jewish art, e.g. on the mosaic floor of the 6th century Bet Alpha Synagogue in Israel. It is mentioned in the brief Sefer Y’tzirah (“Book of Creation”), which is known to have been in existence in the 10th century. The Latin names for the signs of the Zodiac are given Hebrew translations, e.g. shor (= taurus, the bull) and moznayim (= libra, the scales). Each of the signs is linked up in the Pesikta Rabbati (p. 133b) with an event in Jewish history, e.g. the ram/lamb recalls the Passover sacrifice, the calf/bull recalls the golden calf and the twins represent Jacob and Esau or the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. Diagrams of the Zodiac signs featured in marriage covenants, prayer books, etc.
The problem for Judaism is whether one should really believe that Zodiac signs affect what happens in human life. When the sages say, hakkol biy’dei shamayim – “everything is in the hands of heaven” (Ber. 33b), they meant Heaven with a capital H, i.e. God.
Maimonides tried hard to warn people against attaching superstitions to the heavenly bodies, but the popular sentiment was frequently against him, at least until modern times.