August 29. 2014
Mazal tov colloquially means “good luck” in Hebrew. Mazal, though, literally means star or constellation. And so the phrase, at least in mishnaic Hebrew, is probably better rendered as something like, “May you be under a good star.”
I met Rabbi Shmuel Simenowitz years ago when I was working as a timber-framer back East (and just beginning rabbinical school). Reb Shmuel is a Chabad rabbi who ran the world’s only shomer-shabbos, organic, horse-powered, kosher maple syrup farm in rural Vermont. He’s a musician who used to play a bit with Dylan and the Dead. (You can read more about him at http://www.torahcafe.com/scholar/rabbi-shmuel-simenowitz_0000000432.html). We got together to build timber-frame sukkot, and I got to learn wonderful Torah from Reb Shmuel when we weren’t boring mortises or cutting tenons. One of his teachings was about mazal. He would say that the shochet (kosher butcher) is born under the same mazal as the murderer. We each are born with tendencies, dispositions, abilities – and our work is to learn how to channel our gifts to serve G-d, rather than serving something destructive, or even just something more self-centered. To use a less dramatic example than the previous one, Reb Shmuel would reference his old musical days before he was as deeply religious, and say he was previously using his musical gift, but not to serve G-d.
So when we say mazal tov – in addition to offering our congratulations to whoever we are speaking to – maybe we are also offering them a blessing that their gifts might increasingly be used for holy service, however we each interpret that.