Zodiac

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.

THE ZODIAC
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.

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