Common was the belief in rabbinic times that the planets had an influence upon human life; the planet of the day (and even hour) of birth could influence a person's personality and destiny. Like the other peoples of antiquity, the Jews interpreted an eclipse as a bad omen, a manifestation of divine anger.

The rabbis taught:

When the sun is in eclipse, it is a omen for the nations of the world.; when the moon is in eclipse, it is a bad omen for Israel, because Israel fixes the calendar (reckons time) by the moon, while the nations of the world count it by the sun. If the eclipse occurs in the east it is a bad omen for those who dwell in the east; if its occurs in the west it is a bad omen for those who dwell in the west; if it occurs in the center of the heaven it is a bad omen for the whole world.

If its visage becomes the color of blood [it is a sign that] the sword is about to befall the world; if it becomes the color of sackcloth (i.e., gray), the arrows of famine are about to befall the world.[1] If the eclipse takes place at the sun's setting, the calamity will tarry in coming; if at its rising, the calamity hastens to come; but some authorities say the meanings of the signs is to be reversed....[2]

In his discussion of the pervasive "science" of astrology in the fabric of medieval life, Joshua Trachtenberg notes the "the usual primitive interpretation of eclipses and comets as potents of disaster":

"Eclipses of the moon were taken to be especially ominous for the Jewish people. Eclipses of the sun which occurred on October 26, 1147, and September 4, 1187, threw German Jewry into consternation; later it was learned that on these days the German Crusaders had suffered serious reverses in Palestine."

(See also Joshua Trachtenberg's article on the auspicious and ominous phases of the moon as perceived by the medieval Jew.)

[1] the faces of men and women will be gray from hunger. [back]
[2] Sukkot 29a [back]

Abraham Cohen, Everyman's Talmud: The Major Teaching of the Rabbinic Sages. Schocken Books, New York, 1995.

Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion. JPS/Behrman, 1939; Atheneum, 1974





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