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I'm an Israeli Jew living in Israel. I often give "sky tours" where I show children and adults different stars and a view through a powerful binocular at objects of interest.

Recently a young boy asked a naive question at a sky tour:

Is it true that the first three stars that we see at night are Avraham, Izhak, and Yaacov?

I answered him that depending on the time of year the first three stars that he see will not always be the same stars, and that he should direct religious questions to his father. He seemed to accept this.

Then when myself and other people started to point at stars (with our fingers, a laser pointer, and the binocular) this same inquisitive lad started telling us that in Judaism it is forbidden to point at stars. Being Ashkanazi I had never heard this, but other children were familiar with the tradition. I explained to them that the rule probably has root in the differentiation between our religion and that of the Greeks, who believed that the stars represented their false deities. Because I am not pointing to explain a false deity but rather to explain a scientific concept, the pointing should be acceptable. This explanation was not accepted so I again suggested to the young man to consult his father on the issue.

In the great Jewish tradition, I've now told a story and here follow the questions:

  • What is the basis of the tradition (minhag) to not point at stars?
  • Assuming that this is not a Mizvah from above, did the wise man who made the rule explain why?
  • Considering that I regularly give sky tours to the devout and also to those who do not express their relationship with their creator on a daily basis, how might I better anticipate and cater to the unique traditions of our people? Simply "not pointing" will not work, I probably do more pointing than talking.
  • Should I warn groups that I point at stars before we start, at the same time that I ask them to disable cellphones and other sources of light?
  • Are there any resources for specifically Jewish tales and observations of the stars?

I would actually love to give the tours a more Jewish angle, especially considering the heavy Arab influence in the stars' names due to their research on the topic (before Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, anyway). Being sensitive to Jewish traditions is therefore very important, however I stress that the tours should remain a scientific exercise and not a religious exercise. Surely Judaism has a place for that.

  • I think that your question about the source of a minhag is valid but the other parts are beyond the scope. – rosends Oct 21 '14 at 22:15
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    I think both parts are on-topic (though they could also be two separate questions). Assuming there is in fact a strong custom to not do this, asking about ways to mitigate it sounds like a "Jewish life" question to me. – Monica Cellio Oct 22 '14 at 0:39
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    I had actually heard this minhag in connection with marranos is Spain on motzei shabbat who didn't want to be seen visibly counting the stars out of fear that someone would notice they continued to observe Jewish practices. Not sure if there's any actual historical basis to this or if it's just a story. – Popular Isn't Right Oct 22 '14 at 2:45
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    BTW - I really like the way you handled the young man's questions by deflecting to his parents. It's a very smooth and appropriate way to maintain your integrity, not sidetrack the tour, and not put either the youngster or another person on the tour in an awkward position. +1 for tact. – Popular Isn't Right Oct 22 '14 at 2:46
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    Hi Dotan! I'm glad you accepted my invitation! – Y     e     z Oct 22 '14 at 3:23
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The Gemara in Chagiga 16a mentions not staring at a rainbow (for too long). It represents (is similar to?) the glory of Hashem and (along with not staring at the king) is considered disrespectful to enjoy the view.

כל שלא חס על כבוד קונו רתוי לו שלא בא לעולם: מאי היא ר' אבא אמר זה המסתכל בקשת רב יוסף אמר זה העובר עבירה בסתר מסתכל בקשת דכתיב {יחזקאל א-כח} כמראה הקשת אשר יהיה בענן ביום הגשם כן מראה הנגה סביב הוא מראה דמות כבוד ה' ‏

One may look at a rainbow in order to make the Bracha. All this is brought down in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 229:1

א הָרוֹאֶה הַקֶּשֶׁת, אוֹמֵר: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם זוֹכֵר הַבְּרִית נֶאֱמָן בִּבְרִיתוֹ וְקַיָּם בְּמַאֲמָרוֹ; וְאָסוּר לְהִסְתַּכֵּל בּוֹ בְּיוֹתֵר. ‏

Could be that pointing and staring are similar. One has to be looking at at to point at it.

There's also an issue about staring at the moon, as it is embarrassed about having been shrunk. The Be'er Heitev in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 426:2:(6) mentions this:

בשל''ה והג''ה י''נ שלא יסתכל בה רק פעם הראשון שיראה עמידתה ואח''כ אסור להסתכל בה

Regarding the stars it says in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 227:1 that one makes a Bracha on shooting stars, but it says nothing about not pointing or staring at them.

א עַל הַזִּקִּים, וְהוּא כְּמִין כּוֹכָב הַיּוֹרֶה כְּחֵץ בְּאֹרֶךְ הַשָּׁמַיִם מִמָּקוֹם לְמָקוֹם וְנִמְשָׁךְ אוֹרוֹ כְּשֵׁבֶט; וְעַל רְעָדַת הָאָרֶץ; וְעַל הַבְּרָקִים; וְעַל הָרְעָמִים; וְעַל רוּחוֹת שֶׁנָּשְׁבוּ בְּזַעַף, עַל כָּל א' מֵאֵלּוּ, אוֹמֵר: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם עוֹשֶׂה מַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁית; וְאִם יִרְצֶה יֹאמַר: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁכֹּחוֹ וּגְבוּרָתוֹ מָלֵא עוֹלָם.

Conclusion: Mainstream Halacha does not mention anything about pointing at the stars. If certain families have a custom not to point at them, they have no right to make others feel inferior about not keeping their custom, nor may they impose their views on others.

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    +1, I suppose, but note that הַזִּקִּים וְהוּא כְּמִין כּוֹכָב הַיּוֹרֶה כְּחֵץ בְּאֹרֶךְ הַשָּׁמַיִם מִמָּקוֹם לְמָקוֹם וְנִמְשָׁךְ אוֹרוֹ כְּשֵׁבֶט is not actually a star. – msh210 Oct 27 '14 at 19:37

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