Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Misunderstood Blessing On The Sun

This is the first in what will hopefully be a series of posts on this subject over the next year.

On Erev Pesach next year (April 8, 2009), we will have the opportunity to perform a very unique mitzvah. Looking back on the last time I was personally able to do this mitzvah, it is very moving and inspiring. I am speaking of the blessing on the sun, birkas ha-chamah. This is a blessing that is recited only once every 28 years, for reasons we will explore shortly. The common understanding of this uncommon blessing is that it marks the return of the sun to its place at the time of Creation and we take this opportunity to praise God for creating and sustaining the universe. This is, to me, a very powerful message and its infrequent occurrence emphasizes it. However, as we go through some of the details underlying this mitzvah, we will find that things are more complicated and the message is less obvious.

Click here to read moreI. The Source

The Gemara (Berakhos 59b) quotes a baraisa that states:

תנו רבנן הרואה חמה בתקופת... אומר ברוך עושה בראשית ואימת הוי אמר אביי כל כ"ח שנין והדר מחזור ונפלה תקופת ניסן בשבתאי באורתא דתלת נגהי ארבע
Our Rabbis taught: He who sees the sun at its turning point... should say: Blessed is He who performs the act of Creation. And when does this happen? Abayei said: Every twenty-eight years when the cycle begins again and the Nissan equinox falls in Saturn on the evening of Tuesday, going into Wednesday.
This passage requires a little explanation. Often, when someone starts talking about the Jewish calendar everyone within earshot automatically tunes out. Let me try to simplify this issue so even those with short attention spans can understand it.

The solar year is approximately 365 1/4 days. Let's say that the sun was created first thing on a Wednesday night. Every subsequent year, the sun would return to its same position on a different day of the week and at a different time because 365 1/4 is not a number that is divisible by the 7 days of the week. Since we are dealing with quarters of a day, it would take 4 years for the sun to return to its position at the same time of the day. But the day would also have to cycle through all 7 days of the week until it returns to Wednesday. Therefore, in order for the sun to return to its position at the same time and day of the week as in Creation, it would take 4 x 7 = 28 years until all the times and days are cycled through and it returns back to Wednesday morning.

That is why, according to Rashi and others, we recite birkas ha-chamah once every 28 years. It is a blessing to mark the occasion of the return of the sun to its original position. This is what I was taught when I was 8 years old in 1981, and my entire school gathered together outside to recite this blessing in a very memorable ceremony.

However, there are problems with this explanation that complicate this already complex matter.

II. The Time Of Creation

The implication of the above explanation of the blessing is that Creation occurred in the month of Nissan. However, this is the subject of a Tannaitic dispute (Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a). According to R. Eliezer, the world was created in Tishrei. According to R. Yehoshua, the world was created in Nissan. The conclusion (12a) is that we count years from Tishrei, like R. Eliezer, and we count tekufos (seasons) from Nissan, like R. Yehoshua. Rashi (12a sv. chakhmei) and Tosafos (12a sv. la-mabul) explain that we hold like R. Yehoshua, that the world was created in Nissan, but we count years from Tishrei because there are multiple times of the year that we call Rosh Hashanah for various purposes (cf. Rosh Hashanah 2a) and Tishrei is the beginning of the year for the counting of the sabbatical and jubilee.

The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 27a) points out that the Rosh Hashanah prayer that calls the day the "beginning of Your acts" implies that the world was created in Tishrei, like R. Eliezer. Tosafos (sv. ke-man) quote Rabbenu Tam who says that the Gemara eventually rejects this position and explains that the prayer means that Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of God's annual judgment, which culminates on Yom Kippur. After pointing out that there is a prayer by R. Eliezer Ha-Kalir for Shemini Atzeres that implies that the world was created in Tishrei and a different prayer by the same author for Pesach that implies that the world was created in Nissan, Rabbenu Tam suggests that in Tishrei God thought about creating the world and in Nissan He brought His plan to fruition.

However, the Ramban in his commentary to the Torah (Gen. 8:5) writes:
ודע כי אחרי שהסכימו שבתשרי נברא העולם כאשר תקנו זה היום תחילת מעשיך זכרון ליום ראשון
And know, that [the Sages] agreed that the world was created in Tishrei, which is why they instituted the prayer "This is the day of the beginning of Your acts, a remembrance of the first day".
Similarly, the Ritva (Rosh Hashanah 27a sv. ke-man) disagrees with Rabbenu Tam and explains that the Gemara concludes like R. Eliezer, that the world was created in Tishrei.

The Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Shemitah 10:2), as understood by the Kessef Mishneh, seems to imply that the world was created in Tishrei (see also the unnamed commentary by R. Ovadiah ben Yosef to Hilkhos Kiddush Ha-Chodesh 9:3). The Ran (Commentary to Rosh Hashanah 16a sv. br"h) writes that the world was created on the 25th of Elul and Adam was created on the first day of Tishrei. This, the Ran suggests, is the basis of the custom in Barcelona (and Ashkenazic communities) to say selichos on the few days prior to Rosh Hashanah. That is when God was creating the universe. However, the Ran concludes that the world was really created in Nissan, which he suggests is the basis of the different custom in Gerona for selichos.

R. Yerucham Fishel Perlow (Sefer Ha-Mitzvos Le-Rasag, aseh 56, p. 237d) points out that the Rif and the Rosh, in their restatements of the Gemara (12a), omit the debate between R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua. He believes that this implies that they follow R. Yehoshua, that the world was created in Nissan.

What we see is that the Tannaitic debate over when Creation took place continued among medieval commentators. However, doesn't the blessing over the sun conclusively indicate that the world was created in Nissan? Perhaps R. Yehoshua disagreed with the blessing or when it should take place, but how could the Ramban and others ignore the Gemara that describes this blessing? According to them, when we recite birkas ha-chamah we are months away from the time of the year during which Creation took place.

III. Calculating The Year

As described above, one way of calculating the length of a year is to assume that it is 365 1/4 days long (365 days, 6 hours). This is a fairly accurate approximation and is one that I frequently use in spreadsheets. In Talmudic times, it was championed by the Amora Shmuel and is therefore called Tekufas Shmuel.

R. Adda bar Ahavah advocated a more precise approximation of the length of the year: 365 days 5 hours 55 minutes and 25.44 seconds (365.2468 days). This is called Tekufas Rav Adda.

Ibn Ezra, in his Sefer Ha-Ibbur (link - PDF), claims that there was no disagreement between Shmuel and R. Adda. Rather, Shmuel gave a simple calculation of the year that is useful to the general population while R. Adda gave a more complex calculation that is only appropriate for scholars. However, the Rambam describes the two approaches to calculating the length of the year in Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Kiddush Ha-Chodesh, chapters 9 and 10. He writes ( 9:1):
שנת החמה יש מחכמי ישראל שהוא אומר שהיא שלוש מאות חמישה ושישים יום ורביע יום שהוא שש שעות ויש מהן שהוא אומר שהיא פחות מרביע היום. וכן חכמי יוון ופרס יש ביניהן מחלוקת בדבר זה.
The solar year -- some Jewish scholars say that it is 365 days and a quarter, which is six hours, and some say that it is [365 days plus] less than a quarter of a day. There is a similar debate among Greek and Persian scholars on this matter.
It seems to me that the way the Rambam describes it, there are two conflicting views and not just a simplification and a more precise calculation.

[Contemporary scientists set the length of the year -- the vernal equinox year -- at approximately 365 8/33 days (365.2424), although the length of the year fluctuates due to a number of largely but not completely offsetting phenomena.

R. Menachem Gerlitz (Birkas Ha-Chamah Ke-Hilkhasah p. 137) quotes the following suggestion from his father: The solar year at the time of Creation was exactly 365 1/4 days long but has been steadily decreasing at (if I recall correctly) the rate of 4.4 millionths of a second per year. However, based on my limited understanding of the astronomy involved this seems to be incorrect.]

If we accept Tekufas Shmuel as our guide to practice, then we can easily establish a 28-year calendar cycle. It is not hard to see the place for birkas ha-chamah in such a paradigm. If we use Tekufas Rav Adda, then the calendar has to be more complex to account for the fractions but a 19-year calendar cycle can be constructed.

For the past over millennium and a half, Jews have been using a 19-year calendar based on Tekufas Rav Adda. That is why your Hebrew and secular birthdays coincide every 19 years (assuming a secular leap year does not interfere). However, we still calculate the time for birkas ha-chamah based on the 28-year cycles of Tekufas Shmuel. This disconnect means that next Erev Pesach we will recite the blessing on a day that is two weeks after the proper day according to our calendar. R. Yehuda (Leo) Levi (Facing Current Challenges, ch. 46 n. 6) points out that after taking into account other astronomical phenomena, we are reciting the blessing 18 days too late. In fact, in the year 1841, the blessing on the sun was recited on the second day of Pesach even though halakhically Pesach must fall in the spring season, after the new cycle begins (R. Shlomo Kluger [Chokhmas Shlomo to Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 229] reports that in his town, Brody, it was cloudy on that day in 1841 and they were only able to see the sun at 11am). This happened because according to the calculations of R. Adda spring had begun but according to the calculations of Shmuel spring only began on the second day of Pesach, when the blessing was recited.

IV. Resolutions

What all this tells us is that the connection between the blessing and the sun being in the same place it was at the time of Creation is tenuous. Actually, there are other explanations of this blessing.

The Arukh (sv. chamah) evidently has a different version of the Talmud from the text quoted above and has no mention of the blessing being recited every 28 years. Instead, the Arukh suggests that the blessing is meant to be recited after any period of at least three days during which the sun is not visible due to cloudiness. By reciting the blessing we are thanking God for the benefits of the sun that we have missed while it was hidden. This is also the position of Rabbenu Chananel (Otzar Ha-Ge'onim, Berakhos p. 65, cited in Yechaveh Da'as 4:18:1).

R. Yosef Kafach, in his edition of Mishneh Torah (Hilkhos Berakhos ch. 10 n. 35), suggests that according to R. Saadia Gaon, the blessing is supposed to be recited every year just like a blessing is recited over the new moon every month (cf. Rabbenu Bachya's commentary to Gen. 1:14; Encyclopedia Talmudis sv. birkas ha-chamah, vol. 4 col. 454 n. 14a). Both blessings are about the continuation of the natural cycles and the complex beauty of the universe.

However, neither of these approaches have been accepted as the normative practice, which leaves us with the two problems described above.

On the one hand, these problems are sufficiently significant that R. Akiva Eiger (Glosses to Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 229:2) makes it seem that this is the reason for the Maharal's practice to recite the blessing without God's name. On the flip side, R. Tzvi Pesach Frank (Responsa Har Tzvi, Orach Chaim 1:119) writes that since there is a doubt whether we follow Shmuel or R. Adda, and since this blessing is one of praise and we recite blessings of praise even in cases of doubt, that is why we recite this blessing. However, I am not sure where he found a doubt in this matter. It seems that we unquestionably follow R. Adda.

The Chasam Sofer (Responsa, Orach Chaim 56) acknowledged this difficulty and leaves it unresolved. He quotes the Sheyarei Knesses Ha-Gedolah (229:2) who says that in previous generations this blessing was never recited. However, the Chasam Sofer writes that since the custom in his region is to recite the blessing every 28 years, then we must follow this custom and continue the practice.

Later authorities have generally adopted this approach of the Chasam Sofer, with the Minchas Yitzchak (8:34) going so far as to say that the blessing is not dependent on reality:
ועכ"ח דהברכה לא הוי משום המציאות אלא כך תקנו חכמים
We are forced to say that this blessing is not [a direct result] of the real phenomenon but because this is the way the Sages established it.
This blessing, like almost all, is a rabbinic enactment. If the Sages established that it should be recited every 28 years, then that is the nature of the mitzvah and what we have to do. Why don't we simply change the timing of the blessing and recite it every 19 years? The most basic reason is that it is not in our power to change an enactment.

Secondly, R. Yechiel Mikhel Tukaczinsky (Tekufas Ha-Chamah U-Virkasah, 1981 edition, p. 25) writes that the 19 year cycle is a mathematical convention and doesn't represent the completion of any real cycle. No heavenly body completes its orbit in 19 years. It is merely an effective cycle for avoiding rounding errors in R. Adda's calendar system. That is why reciting a blessing at that time is inappropriate.

The Birkei Yosef (Orach Chaim 229:1) writes that while according to the Rambam the world was created in Tishrei, we still recite the blessing in Nissan because it is the first day of the cycle of counting the seasons. In other words, there is evocative meaning in reciting the blessing in Nissan even though the sun is not in the same place as it was at Creation.

What we have seen is that according to certain assumptions, the time once every 28 years that we recite the blessing over the sun is meaningful. Even though those assumptions are not universal and do not apply to our situations, they inform the meaning we are intended to find in this ceremony. Yes, this is a somewhat artificial occasion. There is much less wonder than if we would actually be witnessing the sun returning to its position at Creation. Nevertheless, the blessing itself is supposed to "encourage us to look beyond the mechanical laws of nature, and to be inspired by the wonder inherent in them" (R. Yehudah Levi, p. 322).

[There are those who criticize the approach of R. Natan Slifkin to Creation because it renders the birkas ha-chamah meaningless. I think the preceding establishes that this is not the case. According to all contemporary authorities, we do not recite the blessing when/because the sun returns to the position it was in at the time of Creation.]

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