On Monday night, a bright light will appear in the nighttime sky, the result of a rare convergence of the largest planets in the solar system that was last seen almost 800 years ago.
Saturn and Neptune: Last Seen by Genghis Kahn
On the night of December 21 (the Sixth of Tevet on the Hebrew calendar), the solar system’s two largest planets, Saturn (שַׁבְתַאִי Shabtai in Hebrew) and Jupiter (צדק, Tzedek in Hebrew), will appear to unite, creating a particularly bright point of light in the southwestern heavens. The night also happens to be the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere when the North Pole has its maximum tilt away from the Sun and marks the shortest day and the longest night of the year. The convergence will be in appearance only with the planets appearing to be separated by just one-tenth of a degree from our perspective or about one-fifth the width of a full moon. The two planets will not actually be close together and will, in reality, be 450 million miles apart. The two planets align once every 19.6 years but this particular astronomical phenomenon in which they appear as one point in the night sky has not taken place since dawn on March 4, 1623, but even then, the convergence occurred close to dawn and is not believed to have been visible. The previous sighting of Jupiter and Saturn converging was in the year 1226 when Genghis Khan was conquering Asia. It is not expected to appear again until March 15, 2080.
Balaam’s Star of Jacob
Such astronomical spectacles have frequently been ascribed Messianic import. The source for this belief is in the Torah. When Balaam is hired by Balak, he blesses them concerning the end-of-days.
What I see for them is not yet, What I behold will not be soon: A star rises from Yaakov, A scepter comes forth from Yisrael; It smashes the brow of Moab, The foundation of all children of Shet. Numbers 24:17
This Torah verse also plays a central role in the Jewish concept of the Messiah though it is the subject of different interpretations This verse was interpreted by Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, known as Maimonides and by the acronym Rambam who was the foremost Torah authority of the 12th century. In his book, Mishneh Torah, the Rambam brings this verse about a star appearing as proof that the Messiah will come one day. According to the Rambam, the Messiah will come from Jacob, more specifically, from the tribe of Judah.
Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra, an 11th Century Bible commentator from Spain, explained this verse as a prophecy that relates to the time of King David
In addition, the Zohar, the foundational work of Jewish mysticism describes in detail the stars that are prophesied to appear as a precursor to the Messiah.
The Failed “Star Son” of 132 CE
The prophecy of the Star of Jacob was applied to Simon bar Kochba, leader of the Second Jewish Revolt of 132 CE, whose adopted name meant “Son of a Star” in Aramaic. The failure of the Bar Kochba revolt – which was considered a political Messiah – had a large impact on the interpretation of the Star of Jacob. The failure of the revolt led the sages to deemphasize the eschatology of the Star of Jacob. That led to a preference for the explanation that the Star of Jacob was no longer relevant since it was described as already happening in the time of King David.
Misinterpreting Sign Led Nimrod to Build Tower of Babel, Pharoah to Jump Into Red Sea
In his book Davar B’ito, a guide to the calendar based on esoteric Jewish sources, Rabbi Mordechai Genuth discussed the upcoming astronomical event.
“Astrologers ascribe great importance to such events as a sign of imminent change,” Rabbi Genuth said. “But this can easily be misinterpreted. According to some traditions, this convergence of Shabetai and Tzedek led the astrologers to direct Nimrod to begin building the Tower of Babel with disastrous results.”
Rabbi Genuth explained that the 17th-century German astronomer Johannes Kepler believed that the “star of Bethlehem” that the New Testament related as preceding the birth of Jesus could have been a rare triple conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus.
“Pharoah had experts in astrology and astronomy,” Rabbi Genuth said. “They advised him that his stars were on the rise and the Children of Israel and Moses in particular could not overcome him. But he did not take into account that God created the world and through His will and the Jews observing commandments, the stars and their import could be brushed aside. This message of God’s will overcoming nature was powerfully reiterated at the Red Sea.”
Looking to the Stars: Great Wisdom or Great Paganism
Rabbi Yosef Berger, the rabbi of King David’s Tomb on Mount Zion, emphasized that interpreting prophecies requires a complete and proper understanding of the source material.
“There is a human tendency to see what you would like to see and not what is actually written, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy and not a biblically-based prophecy,” Rabbi Berger explained. “The Rambam brings this verse about a star appearing as proof that the Messiah will come one day, specifically from the descendants of Jacob. The Messiah must come from the Jews and it will be recognized by the Jews, more specifically, from the tribe of Judah.”
Rabbi Berger noted that the term the sages used to describe pagan idol worship is avodat cochavim o’mazalot (serving stars and signs).
“Searching the stars for signs can lead a person to wisdom but it can also lead people astray,” Rabbi Berger warned.