By Lori Koffman If it’s summer it must be Sirius. The star, that is. Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, it is better known by most people as the “Dog Star.” That’s because it’s the most prominent star in Canis Major’s (the Greater Dog’s) constellation. It was the ancient Greeks who first noticed that the appearance of Sirius heralded in the hot summer days. So it’s from the ancient Greeks, and later the ancient Romans, that we get the term, the ‘dog days of summer.’ The ancient Romans actually sacrificed a brown dog at the beginning of the Dog Days to appease the rage of Sirius, believing that the star was the cause of the hot, sultry weather. While Jews have never performed dog sacrifices in an effort to mitigate the weather (thank goodness!), many scholars believe that Sirius does show up in the Bible and in the Talmud; they believe it appears under the alias of Kimah (which clearly refers to a cluster of stars, the question being whether or not it refers to Canis Major). In fact you may be surprised to find out just how much astronomy, and yes, astrology, can be found in the Jewish tradition. The Talmud identifies the twelve constellations of the zodiac with the twelve months of the Hebrew calendar (we are currently in the Hebrew month of Tammuz which equates with Cancer, and the new Hebrew month of Av will begin on July 20th just a few days before the zodiac sign Leo will begin). Several ancient synagogues, both inside and outside of Israel, have been discovered with large tile mosaics of the zodiac signs found on their floors. There are many, many, many discussions in the Talmud about the rabbis’ belief in the effect the stars and the planets have (or do not have) on our world. And even the medieval Jewish philosophers (with the notable exception of Maimonides) believed in the power of the stars. One more thing: did you know that when you wish someone ‘Mazel Tov!’ on their good luck or good fortune, you are literally saying to them ‘the constellation is good!?’ Mazel is the Hebrew term for stars/constellation. Or you might have heard the Yiddish term “shlimazel” used for an unfortunate person; it’s a term which means “one on whom the stars do not shine.” Surprised? Don’t be. The Jews were surrounded by cultures in which astrology was a scholarly tradition, and Judaism has always been influenced by its surrounding culture—just as Judaism has had an impact on the cultures that surround it. We have always borrowed and we have lent. We have mimicked and we have innovated. And still today, in art, music, literature, theology, psychology…(the list goes on and on), there are things we can learn from other cultures and religions, and things we can teach. We can enrich and we can be enriched. But to do so, we must keep our eyes, our minds and our hearts open to those around us. During these dog days when temperatures, and often tempers can rise, let’s remember to stay cool, to stay open, and to celebrate the manifold blessings of our good mazel. *** Rabbi Lori Koffman is Founder and Director of Mamash, an organization that engages Jews in the intersection of daily life and Jewish thought and tradition through its customized Mamash Groups and its Mamash Minutes, making Judaism accessible and relevant and providing people with Jewish community.
- Past Conferences
- Learn All Year