Word of the Day / Mazal Tov: Stars Above! Good Luck With That

And if you don't have any, you can always move, says the Talmud.

Whether you prefer a more Israeli-sounding ma-ZAL tov or a more Yiddishy MA-zel tov, these two congratulatory words are one of the most high-profile Hebrew phrases there is. Jews and non-Jews alike know this is the thing to say when people tell you their good news, or at a bar or bat mitzvah, or a wedding. And in Israel, it’s also what you say on someone’s birthday.

Mazal tov translates as “congratulations,” but mazal actually means “luck” or “fate.” Tov means good. Yes, this means that when you heaped good wishes on a friend who just announced she was getting married, on a literal level you were actually telling her “good luck with that.”

And now for a horoscope break.

The mazalot (to use the plural) are the signs of the Zodiac, and galgal hamazalot is the wheel of the Zodiac (or wheel of fortune, Vanna White not included). This often has a negative context in Judaism, but not always.

The Talmud uses the acronym akum, which stands for “worshipers of stars and constellations [mazalot],” to refer to idol worshipers. And the book of 2 Kings states: “And he put down the idolatrous priests… them also that offered unto Baal, to the sun, and to the moon, and to the constellations [mazalot] and to all the host of heaven” (23:5).

Despite the association with idol worship, one of the biggest Jewish no-nos, the idea of mazal has not been expunged from Judaism. Zodiac signs have been found in the mosaics of ancient synagogues in the Galilee. And the Talmud tells an exegetical story that has God saying “I created 12 mazalot in the sky,” as well as hundreds of thousands of stars, “and I created all of them for you” (Brachot 32b).

Jewish sources also refer to mazal as fate or as an entity that affects something else’s fate. The homiletic collection Bereshit Rabba states that “There is no blade of grass that doesn’t have a mazal in the heavens that strikes it and tells it: ‘Grow!’” (10). And the Jewish mystical work the Zohar states that “everything depends on mazal, even a Torah scroll in the synagogue.”

In addition, the prevalent phrase meshane makom meshane mazal, meaning that changing your place of residence changes your fate, is an adaptation of a passage in the Talmud. Tractate Rosh Hashannah 16b lists four types of things people can do to change their fate (such as charity and changing one’s actions) and adds that some say moving to a different location can be a fifth luck-changer. For renters, this means that changing your lease gives you a new lease on life.

As luck would have it, we’ve now established that “congratulations” actually means “good luck.” But in that case, what should you say if someone’s about to face a tough day and you want to wish the person well?

Forget about mazal tov; that’s already taken. To wish someone good luck, the word you need is behatzlaha, which means “with success.” And if that seems confusing or counterintuitive, well, what can I say but tough luck.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.