Dear TEE community,

I was astonished when I first saw the interior paintings in Eastern European synagogues that portrayed the signs of the zodiac. I was aware of a Roman-era mosaic on a synagogue floor in Israel, featuring zodiac symbols along with a central image of Sol, the sun god. But I hadn’t realized that such images had survived the ancient world, let alone traveled to Jewish communities in Europe.

The Mesopotamians are credited with being the first astronomers. The first sky maps date from c. 1000 BCE and were developed to track agricultural seasons and for navigation. Some ancient cultures regarded the heavens as the abode of deities and, combining what we now consider the separate realms of astronomy and astrology, saw the astral bodies of sun, moon, stars, and other planets as impacting events in the human realm.

Ancient Israelites were certainly influenced by these beliefs, although the authors of the Hebrew Bible, and later the Talmud, discouraged what they saw as idolatrous practices. The presence of images of the zodiac in the sacred space of synagogues demonstrates that, then as now, what Jews actually do doesn’t always accord with what the authorities tell us to do.

As the eclipse approaches, it seems a good time to learn more about how Jews and Jewish texts have understood the purpose and meaning of the astral bodies. I will be teaching two classes on the topic next week. The first is Tues, Apr 2 at 11am at the JCC, and the second is on Zoom at 7pm on Wed, Apr 3 – see the home page for details. I hope you’ll join me for these classes and for the eclipse as well!

Rabbi Drorah Setel