Shmuel (a fictional hero) always spent the first weeks of Nissan flying through the Congo jungles and delivering matzos, chrein, and kosher wine to its scattered Jewish communities. One day, the engine of his light aircraft suddenly conked out and he found himself spiraling downwards towards a deserted island off the African coast. Boom!
After recovering consciousness, Shmuel discovered that he was suffering from partial amnesia and could no longer recollect what month it was and whether he should soon be eating matzos, chewing challah inside a sukka, or lighting Chanuka candles. Since there are no seasons down in the tropics except one eternal summer, his situation seemed hopeless. How could he keep track of the flow of time? One glimmer of hope remained. Twelve glimmers, in fact.
Shmuel recalled reading that according to an ancient system, which the Rambam dates back to time of the flood, the night sky is divided into twelve sectors (mezalos or constellations), each sector representing one month of the year, which together comprise the twelve signs of the Zodiac. Speaking geocentrically (from our viewpoint on earth), the Zodiac traces the route taken by the sun as it makes its annual circuit of the world against the backdrop of the stars.
The first month of the Zodiac is Nissan when it falls in spring. At this point, if you zap a straight line from the earth through the sun, it will theoretically zip onwards towards the constellation of Aries (Tleh, lamb). By next month when the sun has moved further in its course round our planet, a straight line drawn from the earth to the sun should point towards the next mazal of Taurus (Shor, ox). And so the process continues. Throughout the year, every month, the earth-sun axis will point to yet another mazal of the zodiac until the sun returns to its starting point at the mazal of Aries. In other words, the zodiac denotes at which mazal the sun is located during each month of the year.
Subsequently, it seems that we have a convenient way for Shmuel to fi gure out the months of the year. All he has to do is get up at dawn and spot which zodiac is visible eastwards, in the vicinity of the rising sun. If he spots the mazal of Pisces (Dagim, fi sh), this will indicate that Adar has arrived and its time to distill a supply of coconut liquor, while if he sees the Aries constellation it will indicate that Pesach is round the corner and that it is time to start grinding wild wheat.
Actually, it was not that simple. Matching the zodiac to the year is no simple matter for a number of reasons. First, Shmuel would need to have a good working knowledge of what the mezalos look like since Aries really looks nothing like a lamb, and Pisces in no way resembles a pair of fi sh. In fact, both these constellations look more like oversized V’s than any kind of animal or bird, although it must be admitted that one mazal that lives up to its name is Scorpio (Akrav), whose stars strongly connote a creature wielding a pair of pincers in front and trailing a long, curved tail behind.
The Sefer Ha’Ikarim (maamar 4) is very puzzled by this state of affairs, raising the objection that even if these imaginary pictures are created by drawing lines from star to star, “why not draw other lines in different ways and create some other form… They say that the early ones who were more perfect creations than us perceived those [particular] fi gures even though we cannot perceive them. This is nonsense, because how can you say that the physical grasp of contemporary people is less than those who preceded them? Is it not true that people with less intellect have more powerful senses and detect the physical more as we see with animals…?”
Fortunately, Shmuel was familiar with the shapes of the mezalos. However, he realized that even this was still insuffi cient to determine the exact month since the twelve mezalos are not spread neatly across space, each mazal politely occupying exactly a twelfth of the sun’s orbit. Instead, some of them have a tendency to elbow others out of their rightful space, such as Virgo (Besulah), which takes up fully fi ve times as much room as the mazal of Scorpius (Akrav). So, unless one knows exactly how the mezalos are spread across space there is still no way of knowing when months really begin or end.
It so happened that Shmuel was familiar with the distribution of the mezalos in the sky. But now he faced yet another challenge, since the mezalos do not coincide exactly to the beginning of the solar months, but rather stretch from about the 20th of one month to the 10th of the next. Shmuel made the necessary adjustments.
PRECESSION OF THE EQUINOXES
Now he faced an even greater obstacle to fi guring out his calculations, since the Zodiac no longer corresponds to the modern calendar at all. This is due to a process known as the “Precession of the Equinoxes” (regression of the seasons), which the Rambam describes in Hilchos Yesodei haTorah (3:7): “These twelve images [of the Zodiac] only corresponded to those sectors [of the zodiac] at the time of the fl ood when they were given these names. Nowadays, however, they have already revolved a little. This is because all the stars in the eighth sphere [of the stars] revolve just like the sun and the moon, except that they revolve slowly. Each of their stars revolves as much in seventy years, only as much as the sun and moon revolve in one day.”
What does this mean? Almost 2,000 years ago, the Greek astronomer, Hipparchus, made a disturbing discovery. Until his time people thought that the sun sails smoothly round the Zodiac each year, beginning its journey in spring at the mazal of Aries, and returning there exactly a year later. Now, Hipparchus discovered that this was not so. The zodiac is slowly retrograding, according to modern astronomy at the rate of 20 minutes a year.
The main cause of this backwards regression is that the world has a slight paunch round its midriff and the sun and moon tug specially hard at this added mass, causing the world to wobble like a top. Lets take a case where the sun begins its yearly orbit opposite the mazal of Aries. Because of this wobble, the sun will align with Aries 20 minutes late and to observers on earth it will seem that Spring began 20 minutes earlier. (If this is unclear to you, don’t worry. You’re not the only one).
Accordingly, Spring only began at the beginning of Aries when the zodiac system was in its infancy. One year later Spring fell 20 minutes earlier, two years later it fell 40 minutes earlier, and after three years Spring began a full hour ahead of Aries. By our time, these 20 minute increments have added up to about a month so that Spring no longer falls in Aries at all but, somewhere in the mazal of Aquarius, which, 2,500 years ago, used to fall in the heart of winter. Since the entire cycle lasts about 25,700 years, Spring is not expected to fall in the mazal of Aries for about another 23,000 years.
Fortunately, Shmuel knew enough about the Precession of the Equinoxes to include that in his calculations as well and could now calculate the date to the accuracy of approximately a week. A fi nal impediment remained. The zodiac is based on the annual orbit of the sun that lasts for 365 1/4 days and has no direct correlation to the 354-day lunar year. Since Shlomo was not very adept at converting secular dates to the Jewish calendar, his accuracy now dropped drastically so that whatever date he calculated might be off by a month, and fi guring out even an approximate date for Purim, Pesach, or Sukkos became a hopeless task.
What should he do now?
THE MYSTICAL SIDE
For thousands of years, astrologers, Jewish and non-Jewish, have studied the signs of Zodiac in an attempt to determine future events. Even today, most newspapers have columns informing people born under the constellation of Libra, Aries, or Capricorn what fate has in store for them in the coming weeks, although each paper’s predictions generally contradict those of the next.
Skeptics raise the objection we mentioned earlier, that due to the Precession of the Equinoxes, modern astrologers are making predictions not according to the present position of the mezalos but according to their position of 2,500 years ago! How can their astrology be relevant today, when someone born in what they call “Aries,” was actually born sometime during the mazal of Pisces!
Western astrologers blithely ignore this discrepancy, marking the beginning of spring with Aries in accordance with the system of ages past. And there is actually a method to this madness. What they are doing is to no longer associate the mezalos with months, but with the seasons these months denoted in ancient times when the Zodiac was still in sync.
A glimmering of this idea is found in Hilchos Kiddush Hachodesh (9:3) of the Rambam where he writes: “The season of Nissan is when the sun meets the beginning of the mazal of Aries, and the season of Tammuz is when the sun reaches the beginning of the mazal of Scorpio, and the season of Tishrei is when the sun reaches the beginning of the mazal of Libra (Moznayim), and the season of Teves is when the sun reaches the beginning of the mazal of Capricorn (Gedi).”
In other words, one can speak of the mezalos not denoting months, but rather the solar seasons associated with those months. This is how astrology is practiced in the West since time immemorial.
Hindu astrologers, on the other hand, have always kept the zodiac in synchronization with the Precession of the Equinox and because of this, the Western and Eastern astrological systems have so far drifted about a month apart and never will the twain meet for another 23.5 thousand years! Shlomo was not worried about all this. His dating dilemma had been solved after the Congo Jews began wondering what had happened to their annual Pesach supplies and sent out a search mission. Spotting Shmuel’s plane, which had fortuitously wrecked in the shape of a menorah, they rescued him in time to enjoy a Pesach Seder to the accompaniment of the roars and screams of the steaming African jungle.