Image: The stem of a wine glass, with a label saying “Mazal tov!” (Iwona Kellie via Wikimedia, some rights reserved.)
If you are a consumer of American pop culture, you are likely familiar with the Jewish saying, Mazal tov! (מזל טוב, MAH-zel tahf or mah-ZAL tohv.) Everyone yells it at the end of the Jewish weddings in the movies, right?
Colloquially, mazal tov! means “congratulations!” We say it when someone has a happy moment. We might say it to a new parent, a graduate, or the parent of a bat mitzvah girl. In all those cases, the speaker is rejoicing with the fortunate person, and the proper reply is “Thank you!”
Literally, mazal tov means “Good fortune!” or even more literally, “Good stars!” Mazelot are the constellations of stars, and for many centuries, they were thought to determine one’s luck in life, even among Jews. Even though science has debunked astrology and modern Jews do not put stock in it, the practice survives in the expression.
On a deeper level, mazal tov recognizes that the good things that happen to us are only partially dependent on our own accomplishments. Luck is a factor in all human experience; bad things happen to good people, and good things sometimes happen to bad people. The fact of fortune or misfortune does not tell us about the moral status of that individual.
This stands in contrast to some other theologies, including one expressed in the Book of Deuteronomy, which asserts boldly that sinners will have bad luck and that the faithful will have good luck. (See Deuteronomy 28 for examples.) While this is an alluring idea (“people get what they deserve,”) as a theory it does not stand up to real life experience. Most Jewish thinkers have moved on to a more nuanced view, in which we recognize that our life experiences are a mixture of our own efforts and chance, and that the role of God in such matters is mysterious.
So if mazal tov means “good fortune,” what should one say to wish another person luck? That phrase is בהצלחה, b’hatzlecha (buh-HATZ-luh-KHAH.) We use it in the same situations in which an English speaker would say, “Good luck.” Literally, it means “in (or to) your success.”
Also, remember that mazal tov is only appropriate for a matter that is resolved. We do not say mazal tov to news of a pregnancy, because there are still many things that can go wrong. Rather, we say b’sha’ah tovah (buh sha-AH to-vah) “at a good time.” In this case, we do not want to make any assumptions about the luck of the parents or child, since traditionally such assumptions are seen as tempting fate!