Are Omens True?
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
On the one hand, gemara Succah (29a) says that solar phenomena are signs of impending evil…surprisingly echoing the idolatrous notion of astrology. But later on the gemara says that if the Jews follow God's will, there is no need to fear these phenomena. So which one is it?! If they are signs of doom, why shouldn’t Jews fear them even when obeying God? And if they are not signs, why do these eclipses occur when the Jews obey God? This later case rendering them not ominous, questions their very appearance if astrology is true!
Furthermore, Jeremiah 10 compares fearing solar phenomena to idolatry, suggesting that it is inherently wrong to attribute value to any solar phenomena, just as idolatry is inherently wrong. This strengthens the question as to how the talmud can suggest an eclipse is an omen.
Rabbi Israel Chait taught as follows:
This gemara must be interpreted. There is a saying that an eclipse has a bad affect on a person: one feels as if something bad is about to happen to him. [But] this is all in his imagination. He cannot protect himself from this [these baseless fears]. Only Torah can remove him from this idolatrous state of mind. The language of the prophet Jeremiah expresses this idea: “From the signs of the heavens do not fear because that is what the gentiles do” (Jeremiah 10:2). The entire chapter 10 of Jeremiah is very interesting.
Rabbi Chait means that this gemara’s statement “solar phenomena are signs of impending evil” is a prevalent incorrect attitude. The gemara teaches that due to his great insecurities, man forecasts good or evil based on meaningless phenomena. The rabbis who said heavenly phenomena indicate doom, didn’t refer to objective reality, but that insecure man subjectively views these phenomena as forecasting evil. This gemara is a discussion of human insecurity connected with rare heavenly events. Man doesn’t say that nightfall indicates impending doom, since man considers nightfall as natural. But eclipses are rare, evoking idolatrous thoughts that play on human insecurity. Due to man’s need to know his future, he seeks indications in his day to make his future certain by removing the fear of the unknown. Even if the indication forecasts some evil, man prefers that evil forecast over no forecast at all; uncertainty is intolerable to the infantile, idolatrous and superstitious mind.
Jeremiah (10:1-9) corrects idolatrous notions:
Hear the word which the LORD has spoken to you, O House of Israel! Thus said the LORD: Do not learn to go the way of the nations, And do not be dismayed by signs in the sky; because the nations be dismayed by them! For the laws of the nations are delusions: for it is the work of a craftsman’s hands. He cuts down a tree in the forest with an ax, he adorns it with silver and gold, he fastens it with nails and hammer so that it does not come apart. They are like a beaten [sculpted] palm tree, they cannot speak. They have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Be not afraid of them, for they can do no harm; nor is it in them to do any good. O LORD, there is none like You! You are great and Your name is great in power. Who would not revere You, O King of the nations?! For that is Your due, since among all the wise of the nations and among all their royalty there is none like You. But they are both dull and foolish; [their] doctrine is but delusion; it is a piece of wood, silver beaten flat, that is brought from [the land of] Tarshish, and gold from [the land of] Uphaz, the work of a craftsman and the goldsmith’s hands; their clothing is blue and purple, all of them are the work of skilled men.
Jeremiah teaches by association that heavenly phenomena must cause no fear, because the nations who fear them also value idolatry. The same idolatrous mindset that accepts idol worship, also attributes meaning to heavenly phenomena; it’s the same error. The breakdown is that idols are mere crafts made from a tree in the forest. Just as one would not look at one tree as more significant than others, one should not view this carved tree as a deity. The craftsman intends to raise its value through silver and gold adornments, he must use tools, indicating the idol’s need for man’s construction. The idol is dependent. It is no more than a molded palm tree. Man’s modifications haven’t elevated the tree stump to any greater value than the tree from which it was cut. It doesn’t have life or speech, and it can’t walk. Man must carry it. Jeremiah exposes the idol as a lifeless log. “For they can do no harm; nor is it in them to do any good.” “But they are both dull and foolish; [their] doctrine is but delusion; it is a piece of wood, silver beaten flat, that is brought from [the land of] Tarshish, and gold from [the land of] Uphaz.” The whole of the idol seems impressive, but it is merely lifeless components shipped in from various lands.
Eclipses and other natural phenomena must carry no more weight than sunset or a rainy day. Both are equally natural, they are unrelated to man’s activities and bereft of any consciousness or will that can affect man. The talmudic rabbis discussed man’s baseless fears regarding the heavens, a realm out of man’s control and often deified, as seen in star worship, from which idolatry commenced.
Jeremiah and all the prophets present God’s absolute truths. Once we know from Jeremiah that the heavens are inconsequential, we interpret this talmudic portion accordingly. Torah sources have a hierarchy: God’s words are most authoritative, and these comprise Bible, Prophets and Writings. We are dedicated to truths found in these books, and apply their truths to decipher the rabbis. The rabbis cannot contradict Jeremiah who dismisses astronomical phenomena as natural as a leaf falling from tree. Omens are a false idolatrous belief.
Man must escape the infantile mindset, and as Rabbi Chait said, use Torah to guide him towards truth. Here, Jeremiah is our guide.