Today’s daf (Nedarim 32a) records, on the basis of Bereishit 15:5, how Avraham gazed at his Mazal (his astrological signs) and concluded that he was destined to have just one son (i.e. Yishmael). In response, God told Avraham to look beyond what he could see because אֵין מַזָּל לְיִשְׂרָאֵל – ‘Israel (i.e. the Jewish people) is not bound by Mazal’.
In order to understand this statement, we must understand what the word Mazal (מזל) means, and though it is applied to one’s astrological signs, it actually goes far beyond this. As various commentaries (eg. Radak, the Ari z’l and the Vilna Gaon) explain, the word Mazal is related to the word Nazal (נזל) which refers to liquids that drip and flow. Accordingly, the word Mazal refers to the many factors which ‘drip’ and ‘flow’ onto our lives even though we ourselves didn’t choose them (eg. where and when we were born) – with the question being: to what measure are those ‘Mazal’ factors decisive in who we are and what we become?
Interestingly, in the key Talmudic source which addresses this question (Shabbat 156a), we read how Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi is of the opinion that our temperament is determined by *the day of the week* on which we are born. Rabbi Hanina disagrees and, instead, he insists that it is *the time of the day* when a person is born – which is associated with one of seven different constellations – is what determines the temperament of a person. However, in contrast to these two positions, Rabbi Yochanan – whose opinion as stated in Shabbat 156a is referenced in our daf – asserts that what we learn from the story of Avraham is that אֵין מַזָּל לְיִשְׂרָאֵל! In fact, it is in this spirit that Rabbi Hoshaya teaches us that whoever conducts themselves wholeheartedly, the hour will stand up for them (i.e. they will be able to determine who they are and what they become notwithstanding the day or time when they were born).
In terms of the subsequent debate on this topic of whether Jews are bound by Mazal, Rava (see Moed Katan 28a), though acknowledging that some parts of one’s life are not dependent on their Mazal, nevertheless insists that other aspects are determined by Mazal. As he teaches: “the length of someone’s life, the number of children they have, and the money they earn are not dependent on their merit but instead, on their mazal”.
Tosfot (see commentary to Shabbat 156a) and many other commentaries (Rashi, Ran, Ritva & Maharal) take a different view, and they assert that while Mazal can theoretically determine certain outcomes, people can liberate themselves from their Mazal: “if they have a great merit, they can at times overturn their Mazal.”
And in contrast to all the above, the Rambam (Shemoneh Perakim Ch. 8 ) echoes the approach of Rabbi Yochanan and states that: “It is well known and taught by our Torah…that every aspect of a person’s conduct is dependent on their free will. We are under no compulsion whatsoever. There are no external forces directing us to virtue or to inadequacy.”
Personally, I am deeply inspired by – and I live my life according to – the approach of Rabbi Yochanan and the Rambam. Yes, when I was born, where I was born, and to whom I was born, affects me in various ways. But in even greater measure, what I do, how I live, and the choices I make, affect me even more. And knowing this leads me to think even more carefully about the choices I make – because I know that whatever I do can, and does, make a difference.