A Possible Reason for the Zodiac in the Temple?

A while back I shared with you some photos of Toronto’s oldest synagogue. (If you haven’t seen them yet, do take a quick visit to this post.) If you’ll remember, I was a shocked that this synagogue had paintings depicting the signs of the zodiac on the walls. From my reference point, the bible mostly frowns upon astrology; so what was such an obvious representation of the twelve signs doing in a meeting place for Orthodox Jews?

Well, I am happy to say there may be an explanation! While doing research for a paper on Jewish mysticism, I came across an intriguing theory in Rachel Elior’s The Three Temples. In the book, she lays out the conflict between the priests and the rabbis (or what would become the rabbis) during the Second Temple period. Basically, as the rabbis ascended to power amongst the Jews, they deliberately suppressed much of the priestly material that came before.

But what does this have to do with our zodiac? Well, Elior does a lot of math in The Three Temples, and emphasizes the priestly preference for a solar calendar (over the rabbinic lunar calendar), one defined by the number seven, and represented in the calendar through various multiples of this important number, for example 52×7=364, the number of days in a solar year (or thereabouts, these ancients had a complex system akin to our leap year for dealing with the precise alignments of the celestial bodies). But it isn’t just seven that gets a lot of play, seven-based numbers that can be divided into four are also very important, as four represents the Cherubim that carry God’s throne or chariot. To make a long story short, you end up with a division of 12 months, which are represented by—ta da!— the zodiac.

Let’s see what Elior has to say about this:

“Among other synagogue decorations associated with the Temple ceremonies one finds citrons and palm branches, which recall the institution of pilgrimage; and perhaps one can similarly associate the zodiac, with its division of the year into twelve ‘signs’, with conceptions of the cosmic and ritual cycle represented in the Temple and its service…Works discovered at Qumran also refer to the zodiac, as does Sefer Yetisirah (The Book of Creation), and ancient priestly work which discusses the zodiac in detail in connection with the priestly conception of the universe.” (14)

By Elior’s reasoning, the zodiac in modern synagogues is a remnant from the Second Temple Period—one that should have disappeared, but didn’t. This certainly provides one explanation for their use in synagogue decoration.

Source: Elior, Rachel. 2004. The Three Temples. Oregon: The Littman Library of Jewish Conservation.

Photo by Emmanuel Dyan.

3 thoughts on “A Possible Reason for the Zodiac in the Temple?
  1. To understand the origins of Kabbalah one needs to revisit the origins of Judaism itself, starting with Abraham the Patriarch. Abraham, who’s life is memorialized in the Hebrew Scriptures, though he never wrote any biblical literature he is credited as the author of the first book of Kabbalistic wisdom, Sefer Yitzerah or “The Book of Formation,” which was already infamous by the third century B.C.E.

    Classical Hellenistic Greek writers of the third century B.C.E. such as Eupolemus, Firmicus Mathesis, Vettius Valens; Egyptian Jewish historian Artapanus of the third century B.C.E.; and Josephus the Jewish historian of the first century C.E. all credit Abraham as being one of the earliest astrological geniuses in history. One of the earliest of these writings credit Abraham with teaching his techniques of astrology to the Egyptian priests of Heliopolis and also to the Phoenicians.

    Abraham is one of the greatest pillars of Western spirituality, and as one of the greatest Kabbalists of ancient times, his Kabbalistic and astrological insights continue to guide us today. All the Greek writters above and the Hebrew/Aramaic wrings mention Abraham the Patriarch of Israel and the Zodiac say they were designed and designated by him for his descendants, the 12 Tribes of Israel. In Judaism, you will often see the zodiac as each sign was historically a crest and banner for each of the 12 Tribes (as seen in the Bible in Numbers 2 among other places). Although astrology historically in the understanding of ancient Judaism should be more understood as classical astronomy prior to true scientific -method, just as “alchemy” was the precursor to chemistry, but you go back far enough before the term chemistry only the term “alchemy” can be found though at this point the relation is not one in the same.

    There are many speculations as to where Abraham acquired his astrological wisdom; some claiming that Abraham was the recipient of knowledge transmitted by Seth the son of Adam and Eve, or from Enoch who was said to have learned astrology from angelic messengers.

    However the most credible sources lie in the heart of Jewish holy writings. In Midrash Rabbah it is said that Abraham’s father Terach was an astrologer, certainly Abraham would have been taught such knowledge by his father. The holy writings of Judaism state that as a young man he exceeded in learning and wisdom far beyond his peers and contemporaries. Undoubtedly Abraham was immersed in astrological learning as a boy in his homeland which the Bible in English identifies as Ur of Chaldea in Mesopotamia. It is notable that in the original Hebrew the name of this province is Ur Kasdim, which means “Light of the Astrologers.”

    Though Abraham was undoubtedly a great teacher in his time, he also become a central figure in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, though his influence didn’t stop there. The Hebrew Scriptures tell us that Abraham had many children, aside from Isaac and Yishmael who are well known, to whom he gave “gifts” and sent east into Asia. Jewish holy texts tell us that these gifts were mystical teachings, which are believed to have inspired the various eastern religions.

    Abraham’s “Book of Formation” which was the first work in history to detail the spiritual and physical composition of the universe, including astrology, and continues to be a principal work Kabbalah to this day.

    1. Hi Schmu!

      Thank you for your comment. What you allude to with Abraham speaks to the conflicting images of astrology within the Old Testament. On the one hand, we have Enoch and Abraham, on the other is Deuteronomy. Some scholars suggest that while the secrets of the cosmos were revealed to these important figures, it was the interpretation of these signs that is frowned upon. In other words, the constellations representing the 12 tribes=good, marking festivals by the constellations=good, using those constellations to tell the future=bad.

      The book I’m referencing here looks at the Second Temple period, which predates the Kabbalah by several centuries. Elior specifically examines the Dead Sea Scrolls sect (heavily influenced by Enoch!), whom she sees as a “secessionist priesthood” and places this literature within the formation of Jewish mysticism (i.e. after Enoch and Ezekiel, but before the Hekhalot literature). Interestingly, as you probably already know, a number of horoscopes were found at Qumran—which is really strange, as the Dead Sea Sect were like groupies for Deuteronomic law! (For this reason, some believe these texts were not written by the supposed sect as it is divergent from their body of belief.)

      As for the Zohar (Ed: Sorry! Sefer Yetizerah), I’d watch out for attributing pseudepigraphic works to Abraham. Instead, I would ask what the author of the text stands to gain from claiming such historic authorship.


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