With a smile and a joyful heart, the words mazal tov (in Yiddish mazeltov) are usually heard as a congratulatory expression acknowledging a jovial event. The question arises, why does mazal tov connote salutation?
The key word in this phrase is mazal followed by the adjective tov meaning 'good.' So, what does 'good mazal' mean? Surprisingly, the word mazal, plural mazalot, appears only once in the Bible in connection with the criticism of celestial pagan worship and means 'stars' or 'constellations' (ll Kings 23:5). The etymology of the word is unclear. Some say mazal entered the Hebrew from the Akkadian mazaltu literally 'the standing of the stars.' Others say the origin is Aramaic where the root a.z.l means 'go' and the word mazala points to the 'star of destiny' which moves in its set orbit. Yet others connect mazal to a similar word in Phoenician meaning 'destiny.' It becomes clear that Hebrew, like other Semitic languages, connects the destiny of people to the position of the stars as mazal means 'luck,' 'destiny,' 'constellation,' or the 'Zodiac.' Therefore, mazal tov implies a fortunate destination in the orbit of the stars, which is cause for celebration.
It is interesting to note the ambiguous meaning of mazal in rabbinic literature. Although universally the rabbis connected the mazalot to the position of the stars, there were those who adhered to the biblical rejection of celestial worship saying "Ein mazal le-Israel" meaning 'Israel has no mazal' (Shabbat 156:17). That is to say, Israel, unlike the pagan world, does not accept the belief that the position of the stars affects people. This statement was misinterpreted through the years to mean that Israel is devoid of good luck. There are other rabbis who adhered to the belief connecting luck with the path of the stars (Brashit Raba 10), pointing to the mazalot, the 12 constellations, as God's universal order (Brachot 32).
Either way, nobody wishes to be a sh'limazal, a misfortunate person with bad luck. This Yiddish word is a hybrid derived from the German schlimm meaning 'bad' and the Hebrew mazal. Clearly then, when we say mazal tov, we, like the astrologers of old, affirm that the stars are aligned to assure good luck and good fortune. Concurrently we also express hope that the stars continue to shine from their destined orbit to maintain the mazal and the good life.
Professor Rachel Zohar Dulin teaches Hebrew and Bible at Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago.