In Judaism, special occasions are almost invariably solemnized over a cup of wine — for example, the benediction Kiddush said at home to inaugurate the Sabbath as I’ll be doing shortly, or at Havdalah on the Sabbath’s departure. Traditionally, following the Grace After Meals, there’s a further blessing over a cup of wine. A wedding is conducted amid certain blessings over a cup. The Passover Seder has its four cups. And so on. With each, there’s a prescribed choreography involving how to pick up and hold the cup, or receive it from someone else, or what posture to assume while drinking it. Why all the cups and why all the fuss about them?
Rav Hirsch in his Torah commentary points out the symbolic meaning of a cup in the Hebrew Bible. Sometimes, a cup is just a cup — or perhaps a magic cup, as Pharaoh possessed for divining. But in the more poetic and prophetic passages, it usually denotes the fate God has assigned to you:
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. (Psalm 23:5)
What we seem to be doing on these occasions is ceremonially accepting our fate from God, with the purpose of reminding us, frequently, that He is in charge of our destiny. There’s also an implied prayer that our destiny should be like wine — beautiful, mellow, mildly intoxicating in its goodness. It all reminds me of a verse in this week’s Torah reading, Shoftim, “You shall be wholehearted with the Lord, your God” (Deuteronomy 18:13). Rashi explains, “Conduct yourself with Him with simplicity and depend on Him, and do not inquire of the future; rather, accept whatever happens to you with [unadulterated] simplicity and then, you will be with Him.”
The verses immediately above warn against divination, seeking guidance from astrology, reading omens, and so on. Rather than trying to outsmart Him, accept your cup from God.
This isn’t to say that Judaism entirely disdains such magic arts as false and empty. Some authorities do, some not. Rather the warning is against seeking out insight from them about our individual futures. Don’t think for a moment that sophisticated people, secular folks, today have all grown up and beyond the allure of prognostication. Hence the popularity of websites that promise to tell your “real age,” i.e. how many years you can expect to live. This is pure fortune telling.
It’s funny because I’ve had astrology on my mind lately. I reconnected with an old friend who was telling me her troubles living in New York, an uncanny series of glitches in her life, from health difficulties to traffic accidents. I suggested it might be time to change her “mazal,” literally her constellation or fate, by changing her place of residence — an old Jewish idea. I’ve also been reading David Berlinski’s fantastically interesting and evocative history of astrology, Secrets of the Vaulted Sky.
More on that later, I hope. For a balanced view on Judaism and astrology, see here.