Get Ready – It's Almost Time to Bless the Sun
by Daniel J. Lasker
לזכר אבי מורי ז"ל
In less than two months, on April 8, 2009 (Erev Pesah, 14th Nisan, 5769), the once- in-28-years Blessing of the Sun (Birkat ha-Hammah) will be recited, celebrating the occasion when the sun returns to the position where it was when it was first created, on the same day of the week and the same hour of the day as it was then. For those with short and medium range memories, and for those who were toddlers or perhaps not even born in 1981, it is useful to review the reason for this ceremony, one of the very few Jewish events which follow a solar calendar rather than our standard Jewish luni-solar calendar. This year's Blessing is the first one in the internet age, so it is appropriate to publicize it on a blog; one can only imagine what technological breakthroughs will be around at the time of the next Blessing in 2037.
The Talmud Berakhot 59b states: "He who sees the sun at its tekufah, the moon in its power, the stars [or planets] in their orbits, and the signs of the zodiac in their orderly progress, should say, 'Blessed be the Maker of Creation' (ברוך עושה בראשית)." The Talmud continues: "And when is that? Abbaye said: 'Every twenty-eight years when the cycle is repeated and Tekufat Nisan falls in Saturn on the evening of Tuesday, going into Wednesday." It should be noted right away that Abbaye is commenting only on the first event described in the baraita, namely, "seeing the sun at its tekufah," and that parallel passages (Tosefta Berakhot 6:10, Jer. Berakhot 9:2 [13d], and Leviticus Rabbah 23:8) do not include Abbaye's explanation. It is that explanation, however, which is the basis of the ceremony of Birkat Ha-Hammah.
What does Abbaye's comment mean? First of all, Tekufat Nisan refers to the vernal equinox, the exact time when spring begins, when the sun rises exactly in the east and sets exactly in the west. Since night and day are then equal, sunrise and sunset on those days are at 6:00 AM and 6:00 PM respectively (in local time; not necessarily in standard time). Second, the ancients believed that there are seven planets (Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn); and each hour of the day is controlled by a different planet on a weekly rotation (each planet controls 24 different hours during the week, repeating the cycle every seven days). For instance, the planet which controls the 6:00 AM hour names that particular day: Sunday (Sun); Monday (Moon); Tuesday (Mars – think the French mardi); Wednesday (Mercury – mercredi); Thursday (Jupiter –jeudi); Friday (Venus – vendredi); and Shabbat/Saturday (Saturn). The 6:00 PM Tuesday hour, namely the onset of Wednesday according to the Jewish practice of beginning the day at night, is Saturn; thus, "Saturn on the evening of Tuesday, going into Wednesday." According to Abbaye, when the vernal equinox falls every 28 years on Tuesday at 6:00 PM, the blessing of the sun is to be said. Since at the time of equinox the sun sets on Tuesday at 6:00 PM, the halakah maintains that the Blessing of the Sun is to be recited on Wednesday morning after sunrise. April 8, 2009, is the Wednesday after the Tuesday on which Tekufat Nisan occurs at the 6:00 PM for the first time in 28 years.
But why does the vernal equinox fall at 6:00 PM on Tuesday night once every 28 years? This assertion is based on a number of assumptions: 1) The world was created in Nisan (actually at the end of Adar) and not in Tishrei (actually the end of Elul), following R. Yehoshua's view in Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a. 2) When God created the sun on the fourth day, He wasted no time and did so at the very first minute of the fourth day, namely, what we call Tuesday evening at 6:00 PM. 3) The sun was created at the moment of the vernal equinox (Tekufat Nisan). 4) The solar year is exactly 365 ¼ days long. On the basis of this calculation, the tekufot (the equinoxes and the solstices) progress each year by one day and six hours (365 ¼ days is 52 weeks, one day and 6 hours). If the first Tekufat Nisan was on Tuesday night at 6:00 PM, the next one is Wednesday night at midnight; the next one was Friday morning at 6:00 AM; then Saturday at noon; Sunday night at 6 PM, and so forth. The first time after creation that Tekufat Nisan fell again on Tuesday night at 6:00 PM was in the year 29 AM, 28 years after creation. On 14th Nisan, 5769, the vernal equinox will be at 6:00 PM on Tuesday for the 207th time (5769/28 = 206 with a remainder of 1). To celebrate this event, the blessing "Blessed be the Maker of Creation" will once again be recited.
The perceptive reader may have noticed that the assumptions upon which the obligation to recite the Blessing of the Sun are based are highly problematic. There are more than seven planets and they do not revolve around the earth (which itself is a planet); and most people do not believe that each hour of the day is ruled by a different planet. Our celebration of Rosh Hashanah on the first of Tishrei seems to indicate that the world was not created in Nisan (e.g., we say: היום הרת עולם). The Bible gives no indication that the sun was created on the equinox (either vernal or autumnal), or that it was created at 6:00 PM on Tuesday night (after all, before the creation of the sun, there was no 6:00 PM). But most significantly of all, the year is not exactly 365 ¼ days long.
There are a number of consequences of the discrepancy between the actual length of the year and the approximate length of 365 ¼ days (called Tekufat Shmuel [cf. Eruvin 56a], which is the same calculation which is at the base of the Julian calendar; see my contribution to the Seforim blog on November 30, 2007, in the context of a discussion of the prayer for rain in the diaspora, also calculated according to Shmuel's imprecise length of the year). One consequence is that the Blessing of the Sun is moving progressively forward vis-à-vis the Gregorian calendar. In 2121 the blessing will be said on April 9, not April 8. In 2205 it will be said on April 10, and so on (the Hebrew date changes every time since the Blessing is based on the solar calendar). More importantly, however, the Jewish world is blessing the sun as it returns to its original time at the vernal equinox on a date which has nothing to do with the true vernal equinox (which is this year on March 20, 11:44 UTC).
Why, then, do observant Jews observe a commandment which is so questionable (especially this year when it falls on the eve of Pesah, not the most convenient time to have a ceremony which is intended to be performed in as large a group as possible – ברוב עם הדרת מלך)? Is it just another example of Jewish stubbornness and inertia – holding onto an ancient ceremony even when it is based on questionable assumptions (perhaps like the second day of holidays in the diaspora because of calendrical doubts which were laid to rest over a thousand years ago)? Or is it a sign that in matters of religion, especially when it comes to halakhah, logic is not the only important factor or perhaps not a factor at all. The Hatam Sofer ruled (Responsa, Orah Hayyim 56) that once the great Rabbis of Israel (Maimonides [H. Berakhot 10:18], Yosef Karo [Orah Hayyim 229:2], et al.) had codified the practice of blessing the sun, the matter was closed. It would seem that, indeed, tradition, even illogical tradition, has had a strong hold on Jews; it is this Jewish loyalty to tradition which has maintained us during our long history.
And so, let us hope that on this 14th of Nisan/April 8, the skies will be clear, the sun will be bright, and we can once again thank God for making the works of creation!