Sunday, June 28, 2009

Blessing the Sun

Something extraordinary is about to happen in our Jewish world, but it is something most Jews will miss entirely, something subtle and barely noticeable…but also something profound and wonderful.

As you all know, I’m sure, many of the commandments recur in our lives on a cyclical basis. Some are tied to our so-called life cycles, but others devolve upon us on a daily, weekly, or even on a monthly basis. There are also mitzvot, mostly connected with various holidays, that devolve upon us on an annual basis. And there are longer cycles than those: the sabbatical year that comes every seven years or the jubilee year, no longer operative but once an event of the greatest importance in the lives of Jewish people everywhere, which arrived with every fiftieth year in ancient times.

The mitzvah I wish to write about today, however, is far more obscure than any of those mentioned just above: it is the Birkat Hachamah blessing that we recite one single time every twenty-eight years and which will be recited a week from next Wednesday on Erev Pesach. (The word chamah is a literary Hebrew word for “sun.” Literally, birkat hachamah means “the blessing of the sun.”) What it’s all about is just a little obscure, but also very interesting. And the specific way we relate to the ritual says a lot about the way we feel about our heritage in general, and specifically parts of it that are anchored, as is this piece of our Jewish past, in just a bit of romantic unreality.

The basic concept, as sweet as it is fanciful, is that, as our solar system hurtles along through space in some vast, mostly uncharitable, trajectory, it periodically returns to the precise spot in which it was created all those many millennia ago. Our sages in ancient times, using a very complicated combination of astronomical observation, mathematical reasoning, and textual study, concluded that, in fact, it is every 10,227 days, corresponding to precisely twenty-eight years (10,227 = 28 x 365.25), that the universe, including our planet, returns to its original setting. And that, they declared, is reason enough to recite the special blessing coined specifically for use when amazing natural phenomena present themselves to us. (The most crucial text comes from the Talmud, where we read as follows: One who sees the sun at its turning point (i.e., at its original place in the heavens)…should say “Praised are You Who carries forth the work of creation.” And when does this occur? Abaye said, Every twenty-eight years, when the solar cycle begins anew and the vernal equinox falls in Saturn on the evening of Tuesday going into Wednesday.” )

So much for the Talmud, but what are moderns to make of this? Never mind that the vernal equinox has already come and gone. Never mind that the whole concept is unrelated to anything astronomers or cosmologists tell us about the history of the universe. Never mind that the whole concept of the sun rotating around the solar system is incorrect, as is all the rest of the pseudo-science behind the concept. Never mind any of that! (And who knows what that whole thing about Saturn is all about?) The point, I think, is not to be smarter than our ancestors (although we surely do know more about the solar system than they did), but to allow their naïve theorizing about the cosmos remind us that we, no less than them, need to labor to inculcate an appropriate sense of awe at the physical universe, and specifically at the grandeur of nature, as we contemplate the world around us. The calculations themselves may be in error, but the underlying notion that we need periodically to recommit ourselves to faith in God the Creator is just as relevant and meaningful as ever.

This year will only be my second Birkat Hachamah. (The one in April of 1981 was my first. The one previous to that, in April of 1953, took place six weeks before I was born.) But the blessing itself has a long, interesting history. In 1897, the police arrested the rabbi leading the ceremony for several hundred Jewish people in Tomkins Square in Manhattan (just east of Avenue A near 10th Street ) and charged him with leading an illegal demonstration. (He was released later in the day. The Jewish community was not pleased.) In 1925, the recitation Birkat Hachamah took place during the Scopes trial in Tennessee (i.e., while the rest of the world was finding it so stressful to attempt to reconcile science and religion), but for Jews the more important detail—which is also particularly important to stress this year, was that the blessing was recited on Erev Pesach. A famous rabbi, Rabbi Meir Yechiel called the Ostrovster Rebbe, went on record claiming—only possibly correctly—that 1925 was only the third time in history that Birkat Hachamah was recited on Erev Pesach, the other two times having been the eve of the Exodus from Egypt and the first of Esther’s three days of fasting before she went into uninvited to see King Achashveirosh. (You can find this issue discussed in almost excruciating detail at More to the point, the rabbi allowed himself to look far into the future, then to note that the next and final time this would happen would be in…2009. And he noted that , as a result, there would be a real possibility for the redemption of Israel if only the Jewish people would take this seriously. Well…we’ll see! (What else can we do? At Shelter Rock, we’ll do our part!)

History moved forward. In 1953, just before I was born, Birkat Hachamah was recited for the first time in an independent Israel. A newspaper account I found quoted reported that “worshipers celebrated with ecstatic fervor” and “whirlwind vehemence,” and that they sang and danced in the streets. In New York, the United States Army flew eleven elderly rabbis up over the clouds so they could recite the blessing on the cloudy day that was very likely their last chance to recite the blessing. In 1981, the blessing was recited for the first time in a unified Jerusalem under Israeli control. I have the vague recollection of people singing “Let the Sun Shine In” from Hair on the top of the Empire State Building, but I myself was in Central Park on April 8, 1981, where I recited the blessing (no singing!) together with a huge crowd of people who gathered there early in the morning for that specific purpose. It was a long time ago! Joan and I had just gotten married. We were still living in our tiny one-bedroom apartment (monthly rent: $270) on Broadway and West 111th Street and I remember wondering where I would be in 2009 when the opportunity to recite the blessing would come around again. I won’t ruin this pleasant reverie by wondering where I’ll be on April 8, 2037, when the next opportunity after this one circles around. Perhaps it would be wiser just to hope for the best and not press the matter unduly! After all, Rabbi Judah ben Eliezer Halevi Mintz of Padua recited the blessing in 1505 at age 100. And I won’t be anywhere near that old in 2037, please God! (March 27, 2009)

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