Blessing of the Sun: The Talmud, 1981, 2009, & the Future

Blessing of the Sun: The Talmud, 1981, 2009, & the Future

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow | 3/17/2009

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow *

Early in the morning of April 8, 1981, I gathered with several hundred other people at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC, to watch the sun rise and to bless it in what is surely the rarest and perhaps the oddest of all Jewish ceremonies — Birchat HaChamah, the Blessing of the Sun, that comes only once every 28 years. It commemorates, according to ancient tradition, the moment when God created the sun in the first place.

Ancient Jewish tradition (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 59b) teaches: “Whoever sees the sun at its tekufah [transformative cycle-marker], the moon in its power, the stars [or planets] in their orbits, and the signs of the zodiac in their orderly progress, should say, ‘Baruch oseh ma’aseh v’reshit. Blessed be the Doer of Deeds of “In the Beginning [Creation].”

The Talmud continues: “And when is that? Abbaye said: ‘Every twenty-eight years when the cycle is repeated and Tekufat Nisan [the Spring Equinox] falls in Saturn on the evening of Tuesday, going into Wednesday.”

What is this business about Saturn? Rabbi Miles Krassen of our own generation explains, “The relevant text for determining which planet rules a particular hour of the day is Rashi on Eruvin 56a, “ve-‘eyn tequfah moshechet me-chavertah ‘ela chatzi sha’ah.”— that is, each hour is ruled by a particular planet. As in the ancient geo-centric rabbinic cosmology there were 7 planets (including the sun and moon) and 24 hours in a day, the first hour (twilight) of each day has a different ruling planet. [Remember, each Jewish day begins at sunset, so twilight is the first hour of each day.]

Saturn is indeed the first planet in the cycle but rules at different hours each day. Since, according to rabbinic tradition, the stars were created on the fourth day [and since Saturn is considered the “first” of these “stars,”], Saturn rules the twilight hour every Tuesday (the first hour of the fourth day. To be clear: Saturn rules the first hour only on Tuesday evening. Every other day begins with a different ruling planet and the planet rules for only one hour. The Baraita in Berakhot only establishes on what day the blessing for the Sun is said. The “day” begins in the evening, but the blessing itself is said the following morning [when the sun becomes visible].

That moment comes again April 8, 2009. (Which this year happens to be the morning of the day before the first night of Passover, an extremely rare confluence.)

The bimonthly magazine I had founded, published, and edited –- Menorah: Sparks of Jewish Renewal –- had carried word of this strangest of festivals to many corners of the Jewish world that had never heard of it. As a result, there were groups of Jews atop the Empire State Building, at Golden Gate Bridge, at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, at many other moments of the rising sun, who came together to celebrate the One Who gives light and warmth to our earth to that blazing source of energy.

Even then, seven years before James Hansen first publicly told a Senate Committee about “global warming,” we turned our hopes to solar energy. Even then, we glimpsed the destructive implications of our dependence on oil and coal. Menorah actually carried an article by Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, who had been trained as an engineer, calling on us to draw on the sustainable solar energy whose creation we were celebrating.

That same afternoon, I finished writing my book on the cycle of Jewish festivals — Seasons of Our Joy. So I decided to write in the book itself the meaning of this day:

“Today, as I complete this book, is perhaps the strangest of all the seasons of our joy — for it will not come again for twenty-eight years. It is the day of the Blessing of the Sun-Birchat Ha-Chamah. On that day, according to the Talmud, the sun returns to where it was in the Heavens on the fourth day of Creation. That was when God set the sun and the moon to “serve as signs for the seasons.” (Gen. 1:14). So today it is in a sense the season of the seasons, the cycle of the birth of all our cycles.

“Why today? Because alongside the view that the Creation of the World occurred in Elul and Tishri, at Rosh Hashanah time, the Talmud preserves another view: that the Creation occurred in Nisan, the first of the months, in spring. Evidently to the rabbis it felt particularly appropriate that the birthday of the sun should be at the spring equinox, when the sun emerges from the womb of winter and crosses the Equator coming northward.

“The Torah teaches that the sun was created at the beginning of the fourth day — Tuesday evening, to use our present labels. So the moment when the sun is again where it was at the beginning comes in a year when the equinox — as the rabbis defined it — comes on Tuesday evening in Nisan.

“Then why are we celebrating today — the eighth of April? Surely it is not the equinox! The rabbis’ calculation of the length of the year was a few minutes off — and in 2,000 years that has added up to a few weeks.

“And why only every twenty-eight years? By assigning Tuesday evening as the moment, the rabbis made the moment hard to come by. For the year does not divide into four equal seasons of full days. There is a day-and-a-quarter left over. So if the equinox comes on a Tuesday evening this year, it will come next year a day-and-a-quarter later. It will take four years for it to come ‘round to the evening again — and then it will be five days away from Tuesday. Only after seven times four years will the moment come back to a Tuesday evening.

“By working out this cycle of twenty-eight years, the rabbis accomplished something else: by celebrating the sun only once a generation, they gave us a way to look ahead and look back that is worthy of the sun. Of all the specific objects in our created world, the sun and planet Earth are the most crucial for the life and well-being of the human race. So a celebration of the sun’s creation is a good moment to ask ourselves: what have we done with the sun’s light, warmth, energy, in this past generation? What do we intend to do in the next generation?

“So this morning at 5:43 a.m., at sunrise, at the Jefferson Memorial on the shores of the Tidal Basin in Washington, under the windy, tattered cherry blossoms, several hundred Jews recited “Baruch atah Adonai eloheynu
melech ha-olam oseh ma-aseh b’reshit. Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of time and space, Doer of the deeds of Creation.”
“And danced in circles, sang songs like “Here Comes the Sun” and “Morning Has Broken” and psalms about the sun, rising in strength and joy and radiance like a bridegroom coming forth to his wedding.

“And we signed a scroll to be saved for the Blessing of the Sun in the year 5769 of the Creation, on April 8, 2009:

“In this day that begins the 206th cycle of the sun since the Beginning,

We pledge ourselves to make a new beginning:
To hand on to the next generation an earth that is washed in sunlight,
not poisoned by waste;
To see in the sun’s light the light of Torah;
To feel in the sun’s warmth the warmth of the human community;
To use through the sun’s energy the strengthof the One Who Creates.
Blessed be the Doer of Deeds of Beginning.

“And we sent greetings to Jews at the top of the Empire State Building, in front of Independence Hall, on the shores of the Atlantic in New England and in Florida, at Golden Gate Bridge and in the Redwood Forest, in the prison yard at Attica and at the Wall in Old Jerusalem, who were also joining in our prayers.
“I would like to end this book with that look back and forward. When the sun was blessed twenty-eight years ago, there were far fewer Jews who knew about this festive day or took joy in doing it.

“The renewal of our tradition has been one of the great works of this past generation. It is still beginning, still gathering strength.”

In much of what we dreamt of doing to renew and enrich Jewish life, we have greatly succeeded: –

In regard to our promises to ourselves and God about solar energy, we failed.

The price of oil and gasoline went down, and the world deepened its addiction to fossil fuels. Even as scientists began to chronicle the evidence of global climate “warming,” scorching, the great Drug Lords of that addiction prevented us from breaking our addiction to their drug.

Just as with such other addictions as nicotine and heroin, individual users –almost all of us — bear some responsibility, but giant drug lords and a network of drug pushers bear far greater responsibility to end the addiction. When a giant oil company like Exxon-Mobil first denies the existence of a climate crisis, then denies the crisis has anything to do with burning oil, then says the cost of ending our addiction is too great for our economies to bear – that is a Drug Lord bartering the web of life for its own profits.

For many of the last 28 years, we snoozed and wheezed in oiloholic daydreams, taking larger hypodermics full of oil as our addiction worsened. But at last, in the past few years, we are awakening to the fits and jolts that addicts often suffer.

What can we do to kick the habit?

That should be one of the central goals and priorities of the Jewish community.

We can begin by making the entire year that begins this fall on Rosh Hashanah a Year of Blessing the Sun. That focus should shape our prayers, our hands-on actions to green our households and our congregations, and our work for major changes in public policy.

In that year, the Blessing of the Sun on April 8, 2009, should be a focus, a climax, but neither the beginning nor the end. As we bless the One Who does deeds of creation, of beginning, we need to make this a beginning for the work that will take a generation.

If we do, when the Blessing of the Sun comes round again in 2037, our whole society will have freed itself from our addiction to fossil fuels, will have actually controlled our planetary scorching, and will be drawing joyfully on the sustainable energy of the sun with healing in its wings.

* Rabbi Arthur Waskow is the director of The Shalom Center, a pioneering creator of eco-Judaism, the author of Down-to-Earth Judaism (Morrow), and the editor of Torah of the Earth (Jewish Lights). Both these books are available at discounts from The Shalom Center; write for information.

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