Monday evening, December 21, will be a special time for those who gaze upwards. One who looks towards the south-western sky soon after sunset will see an unusually bright light, close to the horizon. This light will be coming from two planets so close together that, to the naked eye, they will almost appear as a single object. This is the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. For many centuries this event was an omen of terrible things to come – a harbinger of war, plague, or famine – and occupied the attention of several medieval Jewish scholars, most notably Abraham Ibn Ezra.
A conjunction occurs when two or more bodies in the sky appear very close to each other. Saturn and Jupiter, the two outermost planets in our solar system visible to the naked eye, usually appear far apart from one another as they wander across the night sky. Saturn orbits the earth once every thirty years or so; Jupiter orbits every twelve years. As they do so, faster-moving Jupiter catches up with Saturn every twenty years, much as a faster runner overtakes a slower one as they race around a track. The background against which these conjunctions appear changes over longer periods of time. For example, if one appears against the backdrop of the constellation Aries, the next will appear in Sagittarius.
Conjunctions of Saturn and Jupiter occur every twenty years or so, although their apparent distance apart varies. Over the last few months the two planets have appeared closer and closer together. On Monday night they will appear so close that Jupiter will appear to almost cover Saturn. They haven’t appeared this close since 1623, and the next time you will be able to see them this close will be 2080.
Although there are several lengthy discussions in the Talmud about the influence of the planets on the fate of humanity, none make any mention of conjunctions. Writing about three hundred years after the close of the Talmud, Saadia Gaon (d. 942 C.E.) mentioned the belief of the terrible consequences of the Saturn-Jupiter conjunction in his introduction to the Book of Daniel. He explained that some believed the twenty-year conjunction of the planets allowed for predictions to be made about individual kings, and that the conjunctions occurring at certain multiples of these twenty-year intervals influenced the fate of nations. However, Saadia mentioned all this only to reject the entire notion that these conjunctions, or indeed any planetary alignments, were of consequence. They were nonsense, as fanciful as other fraudulent means of divination.
Indeed, things have come so far as the claim that the nations in their countries and the people of every kingdom they rule—their fate is determined by the judgments of the stars. They have relied in all this on the conjunction of the two superior planets, I mean Saturn and Jupiter. For they find that both of these planets are in conjunction once in a period of approximately twenty years… However, the Lord, may He be exalted and magnified, has made it known in His books that none of the wise men know anything about the duration of the kingdoms and their ends.
Saadia’s rejection of astrology in general and of the importance of the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in particular was shared by Maimonides in his “Epistle to Yemen,” a work concerning various aspects of faith written around 1173.
I note that you are inclined to believe in astrology and in the influence of the past and future conjunctions of the planets upon human affairs. You should dismiss such notions from your thoughts. Cleanse your mind as one cleanses dirty clothes. Accomplished scholars, whether they are religious or not, refuse to believe in the truth of this science…
For while the Gentiles believe that our nation will never constitute an independent state, nor will they even rise above their present condition, and all the astrologers, diviners, and augurs concur in this opinion, God will prove false their views and beliefs, and will order the advent of the Messiah… This is the correct view that every Israelite should hold, without paying any attention to the conjunctions of the stars, of greater or smaller magnitude.
Unaware of these objections to astrology, or in spite of them, several later rabbinic scholars wrote about the astrological consequences of planetary conjunctions in general, and of the Saturn-Jupiter conjunction in particular. The most famous of these was the biblical commentator, grammarian, poet, and astronomer Abraham Ibn Ezra (d. 1167), who was most singularly responsible for the incorporation of astrology into medieval Jewish culture.
His Sefer HaMahbarot (The Book of Conjunctions), one of fourteen books he authored on astronomy, discusses the influence of the conjunction of the two planets in great detail. Ibn Ezra believed that the sun and planets, together with the constellations across which they appeared to travel, influenced the fates of nations, cities, and religions. Jupiter in Aries held sway over Iraq, Saturn in Libra over Rome. Saturn held sway over Jews, the sun over Christians, and Venus over Muslims. Like all of his contemporary astronomers, Ibn Ezra paid additional attention to conjunctions, of which the most important was that of Saturn and Jupiter. These conjunctions had influenced the births of prophets and leaders, including Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed. “The conjunction [of Saturn and Jupiter] took place before the birth of the man they consider to be God” he wrote in his Sefer Olam, “and the conjunction [of Saturn and Jupiter] in the sign of Scorpio took place before the emergence of the prophet of the Muslims.”
Ibn Ezra’s emphasis on the importance of the conjunction is not found only in his many esoteric works of astronomy. It is included in his commentary on the Torah, in a long passage found on Exodus 33:21, printed in any edition of the Mikraot Gedolot.
Know that all plants and everything that lives on earth, all birds, domesticated and wild quadrupeds, and other animals, and all human beings, depend on the celestial bodies, because the species depend on the forty-eight constellations of the orb… The conjunction of the two uppermost planets [i.e., Saturn and Jupiter] in the sign of Aries takes place every 960 years, and both revolve from the sign of their conjunction to the ninth [following] sign every 20 years, and they repeat this cycle twelve times to make up 240 years. From there they repeat this cycle the same number of times and in the same manner in the earthy signs, in the airy signs, and in the watery signs… It is because of this that [Scripture] states, “which the Lord thy God has allotted” (Deut. 4:19); “But you hath the Lord taken… to be unto Him a people of inheritance, as ye are this day” (Deut. 4:20); “The portion of Jacob is not like these, for he is the former of all things” (Jer. 51:19). This is the meaning of “so that we are distinguished, I and Thy people” (Exod. 33:16). This is what the Sages mean by “there is no mazal for Israel” (Shabbat 156a)—as long as they observe the Torah… But if they do not observe the Torah, then the zodiacal sign rules over them, as has been proven by experience, for any conjunction [of Saturn and Jupiter that takes place] when Aquarius is in an evil configuration results in harm to Israel. Those versed in astrology admit that a conjunction took place in a configuration which meant that they would remain in exile in Egypt for many more years, but because they cried out to God and returned to Him, He saved them.
Solomon Ibn Gabriol (d. 1058) and Abraham bar Hiyyah (d. c.1140) believed that it was possible to link the conjunctions of Saturn and Jupiter to a calculation of the arrival of the Messiah. Ibn Ezra was critical of these eschatological attempts, but not of the significance of the conjunctions and their important role in astrological computations.
Abraham bar Hiyyah (c.1070—1145) was an extremely influential Catalonian mathematician and astrologer. He wrote two famous works on astronomy, Tzurat Ha’aretz and Heshbon Mahalakh HaKokhavim. Ina lesser known work of astrology, Megillat HaMegalleh, he detailed how the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter explained the course of Jewish history. Moses was born under the influence of a conjunction, he fled Egypt during one, and stayed in Midian until there was a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in the constellation of Scorpio. The next conjunction initiated the moment to punish the kingdom of the wicked Pharaoh. The conjunctions continued to influence both general and Jewish history, with a rule that whenever they occurred with Pisces a calamity of some sort would befall the Jewish people.
With copious calendrical precision bar Hiyyah details the fall of the kingdoms of Judea and Israel and their association with the conjunctions. In contrast, he observed that the birth of Jesus was not heralded by a conjunction, because “he was belittled and despised by his people, and he never reached greatness in this world.”
In 1166 there was to be another conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, and astrologers of many faiths composed horoscopes of sorts, known as prognostications. One of these, written in Hebrew, has been attributed to Ibn Ezra, since it is found in an Oxford manuscript appended to his Sefer Hame’orot. However, based on a philological analysis, it is unlikely to have been written by Ibn Ezra, and cannot have been written by Avraham bar Hiyyah since he had died long before the prognostication was composed. Its anonymous author remains unidentified, though he was most likely a Jew living in Aragon. The prognostication demonstrates the seriousness with which a Saturn-Jupiter conjunction was taken. Here are some excerpts:
The following prognostication was made in 4914 [1153-54 C.E.] concerning a [forthcoming] prognostication [to occur on Sunday, July 31, 1166]… the conjunction will take place in Capricorn… Since the conjunction will be retrograde, it will be very strong and powerful…
This [conjunction] indicates a consolidation of the affairs of kings who have inherited their kingdom from their fathers… [By way of contrast] every conspirator and traitor not of royal seed will be weak and abased. This is a major indication concerning the Christian kingdom; their regency will be strengthened, whereas the strength of the conspirators of al-Masmud will diminish, their kingdom will fall and perish, and their alliance will be scattered…
There is hope for our nation in these years of the conjunction, with the help of God, kings will honor them, elevate them, make them great, and join with them…
The people [of Israel] will move from their place to other land… many warriors will rest from war…. Wonder will be seen in the East, and in the Land of Israel new things will happen, as also in other land. The summer will be made temperate, and the heat of the sun will be milder… Blessed be God who knows future events, for there is none like Him. Blessed be the name if His glorious kingdom for ever and ever. Amen.
Levi ben Gershon, an important biblical commentator, was a French polymath who referred to astrology in his main work, Milhamot Hashem. There is, however, a single manuscript held at the University of Cambridge which contains Levi’s prognostication for the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter that occurred on March 14, 1345 (10 Nisan 5105). He predicted unrest and turmoil for the next decade that would come to a head in 1355. Levi never lived to test the accuracy of his prognostication; he died in April 1344.
Now I say that it is known by experience that a conjunction of Saturn with Jupiter signifies great and general events. When it takes place inthe airy [zodiacal] signs, its impact is of great strength. When it takes place in a fixed sign, its impact will last for many days. This is the case for the conjunction to take place on March 28, 1345…
According to [the planetary] configuration it indicates the destruction of a nation and a kingdom by a nation of a different religion. This will begin to happen in the tenth year [after] the aforementioned conjunction according to this configuration because this conjunction will take place in the third house that signifies religions… According to what is manifest in [the planetary] configuration the evil for these countries will begin from the north. Since Saturn and then Mars will dominate this conjunction, this indicates extraordinary evil with many wars, visions, and miraculous signs… Since the conjunction is strong and Mars is eastern and also will dominate the ascendant, it indicates the spilling of much blood and increasing enmity, jealousy, hatred, strife, famine, various diseases, drought, and dearth…
On account of Saturn it indicates much disease, senseless enmity, strife, destruction of places, collapse, and the sinking of ships in some seas. The conjunction with Mars indicates burning heat in some latitudes, many dry exhalations, comets and for most of the inhabited [world], wars, calamities, death by the sword, killing, and destruction…
Up to here [is all that] he revealed and added nothing more, for he [Levi] was beckoned to the Upper Academy, may his soul be bound up in the bond of [everlasting] life.
Levi’s prognostication carried considerable weight and was translated into Latin at the request of Pope Clement VI. In hindsight it was applied to the terrible European outbreak of bubonic plague that began only three years later, and as a result additional attention was paid to Levi’s forecast. The French astrologer Johannes de Muris (c.1320-1350) also prognosticated for the Pope, and was certainly aware of Levi’s predictions. “It appears” he wrote, “that the Jews will expect the Messiah before a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter recurs, which will be within ten years, rather than at another time.”
Today, echoes of the belief that misfortune may follow a conjunction remain. The name of the winter viral disease influenza comes from the Latin influentia, meaning influence, for it was believed to be caused by astral alignments, among which was the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. Professional astrologers remain concerned about the upcoming conjunction, though they couch their prognostications in modern language. “Not only will Jupiter and Saturn be uniting in Aquarius, they will also be forming a catalytic square aspect with Uranus in Taurus. At this pivotal moment in our journey, the lightning bolts of Jupiter and Uranus will not only bring down old societal structures but will also impel us to release old personal dreams and drama we have been attached to. There will be new challenges and unknown potential arising as we begin a new era of Jupiter and Saturn that we will need to make space for in our lives.” The spectacular 2020 conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter will take place following a year of worldwide pandemic misery but will occur within a few days of the start of vaccination campaigns. The ominous celestial omen has become a harbinger of hope.
Jeremy Brown is the author of New Heavens and a New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought, and Influenza: The Hundred Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History. He writes on science and medicine in the Talmud at Talmudology.com, and works at the National Institutes of Health.