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Thursday, January 25

Death Star

Rashi in Parshas Bo (10:10) cites a midrash that says that when Paaroh told Moshe that “Ra’ah” will befall Bnai Yisrael in the wilderness should they leave that Paaroh was referencing a star named “Ra’ah.” This evil star is symbolic of death and blood, and it seems that Paaroh was correct. Rashi continues to state that when Bnai Yisrael sinned with the golden calf and were to be destroyed, Moshe defended them by saying,” Why should the Egyptians state with ‘Ra’ah’ He took them out …?”

The question is which star was Paaroh referencing. We do not find a star called “Ra’ah” mentioned in ancient Hebrew or gentile astrology. The first candidate could be Mars. We are talking about a single star and not a constellation (a reading of Rashi provides that information). Because we are discussing a specific star coming out to greet Bnai Yisrael I initially assumed that we are discussing a star that moves independently of the constellations. That leaves us with the seven ancient planets; the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn (see Rashi in Berachos 49b, Shabbos 129b and Shabbos 156a). One would think that we are talking about the Sun since Ra’ah is the name of the Egyptian god of the Sun; however, since Paaroh’s statement indicates a star that does not rise daily, the Sun (and Moon which are not seasonal) could not possibly be “Ra’ah.” Thus Ra’ah must be the midrash’s Hebrew translation of the Egyptian word “evil,” which was their nomenclature for this heavenly body. Mercury, Venus and Jupiter do not have malevolent associations in ancient astrology (see Ptolemy’s “Tetrabiblos,” which is based on ancient Egyptian astrology, and “Reishis Chachmah” by Harav Avraham ibn Ezra who agrees with Ptolemy’s classification), so it is not likely that any of them is the star being discussed. Saturn was associated with plague and pestilence and Mars with blood and war. Seeing that the aspects being discussed in Rashi are associations with blood, Mars would seem to be the best candidate. However, Mars is called Ma’adim in Hebrew (both ancient and modern). To suggest that Chazal had another name for Ma’adim seems a bit difficult because even in the instances in Talmud when it is being referenced as being an evil object it is called Ma’adim. Rashi (and the midrash) should have mentioned that “evil” means Mars since it is a referenced star in Talmud.

Since the seven planets do not seem to be “Ra’ah,” I hypothesized that it is possibly a named comet. Comets are the only other celestial beings that would have their own perceived motion through the sky; however, there is no record of any comet at this time and it would seem that whatever body was there would have been around when Yehoshua was about to enter Canaan (this is when the star finally found its blood). There are no recorded visible comets that would have a 40 year orbit. Even if we are to assume that the star would only have been present during the Exodus it is still problematic for the earlier reason cited. It is difficult to assume that we are dealing with an unnamed comet or previously unknown comet because how would the Egyptians have known this information and even if they did we should have some records of such a comet. The implications of the midrash are that this star was a known star.

The next possibility is that “Ra’ah” is a supernova. Supernovae are the explosions created during the death throes of stars. They can be very bright and can stay in the sky for many weeks. Some have even been so bright that they were visible in the daytime. The problem with this theory is that it would have been impossible for the ancient Egyptians to predict when and if a star (known or unknown) was about to experience this phenomenon. It therefore would be impossible for them to have known that it would come to greet Bnai Yisrael in the wilderness. Also, supernovae leave their mark and are able to be observed for hundreds of years after the event occurred. There are no such supernovae that date back to this time. Moreover, there are no records of new stars appearing during this time.

Another similar suggestion would be to assume that Ra’ah is a variable star. There are several types of variable stars. Some are stars that are in a binary system in which the smaller star periodically passes in front (from our perspective) of the more luminous star. This passage of the less luminous (and usually not visible) star causes the more luminous star’s light to become dim or even non-existent from our perspective. These are called eclipsing binaries. Others oscillate in such a way that they appear to brighten, dim or disappear. Perhaps Paaroh was saying that an invisible star was about to appear and this appearance would signify an ominous trip for Bnai Yisrael. There are many of these stars found in the night sky, but most do not dim or brighten with such significance that one would say that the star has disappeared and then reappeared. There is one major candidate for this, Mira. Mira otherwise known as Omicron Ceti is a variable star with a variable period of 332 days. During these eleven months it actually would appear to disappear and reappear. Cetus (the constellation) is known as the whale in modern times but in ancient times was known as a sea monster. The Greeks regarded it as the monster that Perseus (a Greek hero) killed by showing it the head of the Gorgon Medusa. Mira was known as the heart of this beast. The problem is that if you do the math it was coming to its brightest in September the year of the Exodus and in March the year that Yehoshua entered Canaan. Pesach and the circumcision in the times of Yehoshua may have been close to March (even that is pushing it a bit), but neither the Exodus nor the golden calf would have been near September. If one takes into the account that the forgiveness for the calf took quite some time and it seems that this occurred on R”Ch Elul then Moshe’s statement of, “B’Ra’ah Hotziyam …,” could have been around September. I think this is very unlikely as no sources prior to 1569 discuss the variation of this star, so it is probable that no one realized that it appeared and disappeared. Furthermore, even though Cetus is associated with a monster, Mira seems to be referred to as the “Wonderful Star,” and to be associated with good tidings.

After further analysis, one can conclude that Moshe’s comment seems to be referring to the month that Bnai Yisrael left Mitzrayim because he says, “Hotziyam” or “He took them out.” Therefore, the most probable candidate for “Ra’ah” could be determined as Algol. Algol happens to be a variable star, but it never disappears. Its variation is about 2.87 days and it appears as a pulsating red star. It has always been associated with evil and even its name connotes this. Algol or Alghul comes from the Arabic that we have taken into English to mean ghoul (some maintain that the word alcohol has roots in this word as well and is often referred to as a spirit that takes over the body; even today we refer to alcohol as spirits). Associated with death (specifically decapitation), Algol has become known as the demon, demon star or demon head. This star is found in Perseus and the Greek’s referred to it as the head of the Gorgon Medusa. Perhaps what Paaroh meant by coming to greet them was not its appearance and disappearance as we noted with Mira; rather, it refers to the celestial position of Algol, that it would be rising with the Sun. The ancients believed that the constellation that rose with the Sun was considered to be in control (hence the Zodiac; the precession of the equinoxes has messed this up as noted by Harav Avraham ibn Ezra, but both Hebrew and gentile astrologers still use the old system). This method of astrological prediction is mentioned by the Talmud and elucidated by Rashi (see R”H 11b and the notation found at the end of the mesechta regarding this Rashi). Perseus (and Algol more specifically) is very close to Aries (Tleh). It would definitely have been viewed as rising with the Sun during Nisan (Aries/Tleh’s month) and likely would have been considered as being more powerful then. The fact that Bnai Yisrael would be traveling to the East in the direction where Algol would be rising probably made it seem more formidable. Once again, it would have been rising when Yehoshua circumcised the nation (although this is unnecessary as it would seem to be the beginning of the journey that would define its outcome, Chazal consider the prohibition of Lo SeOneinu to be stating which days are better to start a journey due to ominous signs or astrological influences, see Rashi on VaYikrah 19:26). Based on all this information it seems very probable that Ra’ah is Algol.

Ari Storch
Questions and comments are welcome at or at (410) 358-5546


Blogger David said...

A nice discussion. Paragraph breaks would have made it better, but still nice, nonetheless.

Just because the Greeks identified the star with Meduas, does not mean the Egyptians did the same. Their civilizations flourished what, 1000 years apart? And how red can a twinkling star (unlike a planet) appear, so that it can be associated with evil by color alone.

1/26/2007 10:32 AM  
Blogger Shtikler said...

Paragraph breaks were my bad. I've fixed them now.

1/26/2007 10:59 AM  
Anonymous Ari S. said...

I would like to address a few things. First, many have brought to my attention that the Malbim states that Mars is Ra'ah. I was unaware of this; however, I did know that this is the opinion of Rabeinu Bachye. The essay was written in accordance to the opinion of the Maharal who rejects this opinion without stating why. I stated in the essay why I have difficulty with this opinion. I did not cite it because I did not want to appear to be disrespectful to R"B. Second, some have brought to my attention that the statement was stated during Makas Arbeh. I am aware of this and I think this supports my opinion. If you do the math Arbeh came sometime in late Shvat. Choshech started without warning on 13 Adar (Taanis Esther, V’LaYehudim hoysa orah). The fact is that, realistically speaking, the Jews left quickly and this was not planned and was miraculous in nature according to Chazal. I do not find it difficult to assume that Paaroh and the Jews figured it would take several weeks to a month to pack and prepare for the journey. Keep in mind that we are talking about approximately 3 million people including many many children. That being the case Paaroh may have assumed that if he granted Moshe’s request they would practically not leave until approximately 1 Nissan (the start of Aries’ month). The proof to this is the Paaroh never mentioned Ra'ah in any of the earlier grants of leave given. It seems only at this specific time that B”Y would end up greeting it in the Midbar.

1/28/2007 8:43 AM  
Blogger Ari S. said...

My apologies, I haven't looked at this post in a long time and noticed a small typo (it does not change the ideas expressed). Algol is not red, but it is viewed as the demon.

1/22/2010 1:13 PM  

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