Hi Rabbi, a friend just had a baby and everyone keeps telling him “Mazel tov”. It sounds like they’re wishing the parents congratulations and good luck. But is that really what “Mazel tov” means? Thanks.
Although “Mazel tov” is used almost universally as a phrase of congratulations and a wish for good luck, the words do not literally say that exactly. Nevertheless, the words convey a deeper meaning which is certainly fitting for a celebratory occasion, as I will explain further.
The word Mazal does not literally mean “luck.” “Mazal” is literally associated with the 12 signs of the Zodiac, which are called the “Mazalot,” but we use the word in a way which means more than just the Zodiac. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto explains that there is a multi-leveled conceptual system through which God interacts with the physical Creation. In other words, “energy” which originates with God travels through this system and eventually reaches us. At some point along the way, this energy is said to pass through the Mazalot, the stars and the planets in their various configurations, and is transferred to the rest of Creation. This explains how people trained in astrology may know what will happen to an individual in the future. They are “reading,” through the configuration of the Mazalot, the energy that is yet to be delivered. However, we are actually forbidden to engage in the prediction of the future via astrology even though it may work. The source of this prohibition is, “You shall be tamim (pure, perfect, simple) with the Lord your God.”
The Talmud cites three life-issues which are directly affected by the Mazalot: life, children and livelihood. Elsewhere the Talmud seems to contradict this and states that “There is no Mazal regarding the Jewish People.” The classical sources explain this to mean that the influence of Mazalot can be overcome by the Jewish People through prayer and other great merits.
So, what do we mean when we say “Mazel Tov”? We are saying a brief prayer at this time which is strongly influenced by the Mazalot, that God will ensure that the “energy” that is sent will be only for good.