Shabbos 156 - Eiruvin 6
Do Jews have mazal?
Mazal, loosely translated as luck, literally means the events in a person's life that are predetermined according to the hour or day of his birth. Whether or not a Jew is prey to the determination of the "stars" which dominate the time of his birth, we seem to receive conflicting signals from our Sages.
"Children, life and livelihood," says the Sage Rava in Mesechta Moed Katan (28a) "are not the result of merit but of mazal."
This position is echoed in our own gemara by Rabbi Chanina. But Rabbi Yochanan seems to categorically reject the idea that Jews are subject to mazal, in apparent conflict with Rava's statement. Tosefos, however, reconciles the two opinions. For Jews, as for everyone else, "children, life and livelihood" are predetermined as Rava states. But Jews, unlike others, have the ability to overcome this predetermination through an extraordinary merit. (The motto of a famous contemporary astrologist that "the stars impel but do not compel" certainly fits the Jews!)
Two examples of extraordinary merit beating the stars are offered in our gemara.
The non-Jewish astrologer Avlat pointed out a man, headed for the meadow with his comrades to chop some reeds, as a predetermined victim of a deadly snake. Shmuel told Avlat that if the man was Jewish, he was capable of surviving. The man was indeed a Jew and returned safely. A surprised Avlat examined his pack of reeds and found a deadly snake, which the man had unknowingly cut in two. To Shmuel, this survivor related that it was his group's custom that each day, every member placed some food in a communal basket whose contents would then be shared by all. On this particular day, one of them had no food to contribute. To save him from embarrassment, our hero undertook the job of collection, and when he came to his poor comrade he pretended that he received food from him, while actually contributing some of his own.
The other incident involved Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva was told by the stargazers that his daughter would be killed by a snake on the day of her wedding. On that fateful day, she unknowingly pierced the eye of a snake with an ornament she put into the wall. When the dead snake was discovered the next morning, she explained to her father that a poor man called at the door on the wedding day, and since everyone was too preoccupied with preparations to even notice him, she gave him a precious item she had received from Rabbi Akiva. In both cases the sages publicly proclaimed that the miracle they had observed was a demonstration that "charity rescues from death" (Mishlei 10:1).
Some Like It Hot, Some Like it Cold
This commonly quoted saying is usually understood as a comment on the futility of trying to achieve communal consensus. Since there will always be some who want the food hot while others want it cold, the result will be that the pot will end up neither hot nor cold.
A closer look at the application of this folk wisdom in our gemara, however, indicates a different understanding.
In two cases we find the limitation of 20 cubits height. A korah beam placed across the entrance to a mavoi (an alleyway into which courtyard traffic empties) in order to permit carrying within its precincts on Shabbos cannot be more than 20 cubits above street level. The schach covering a sukkah that is more than twenty cubits above the floor of the sukkah is not considered kosher.
What if the korah and the schach are partially within the 20 cubit limit and partially above it?
There is a difference of opinion amongst the Sages on this point. We shall focus here only on the point of view put forth by Rabbi Ada bar Masneh in the name of the Sage Rabbah. In the case of the sukkah, he contends, the schach which is thus situated will be kosher, but in the case of the korah beam it will be considered invalid.
The central consideration in both cases, explains the Sage Rava of Parzeka, is whether we must be concerned lest the lower half of the schach or korah become detached or eroded, leaving only the part which is higher than the legal limit. In the case of the sukkah the responsibility for maintaining a kosher sukkah is that of the individual. We can therefore rely on him to keep his eye on his schach, take notice if the lower portion of it became detached and take the proper steps to amend the situation. In the case of the korah, however, responsibility is shared by all the residents of the homes and courtyards leading into the mavoi. There is, therefore, a concern that each one will rely on the other to watch what happens with the korah, and no one will notice that the lower part eroded and left only the part above twenty cubits intact.
As an illustration of this point the gemara cites the above mentioned adage about the communal kettle. This compels us, points out Maharsha, to reexamine this folksy bit of counsel. When partners or a community are involved in the management of a kettle, even if there is a consensus that it should be hot or a consensus that it should be cold, there is reason to suspect that the agreed upon result will not be achieved, because each member of the collective group will rely on someone else watching the kettle, with the result that no one will do so.