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For the week ending 21 March 2009 / 25 Adar I 5769

Here Comes the Sun

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Mark in Rockville, MD

Dear Rabbi,

At the local JCC there was a note reminding people to say the “blessing on the sun”. I never heard of this before, so forgive me for saying this, but it sounds like idol worship to me. What is this? Thanks.

Dear Mark,

This is a brilliant question, though I assure you, the blessing on the sun is not idolatry but rather a tribute and testimony to the wonder and glory of G-d’s creation. Its intention is to commemorate the return of the sun to its original position in the sky (relative to the earth) as at the time of Creation. If you’re still in the dark, allow me to shed more light on the topic.

The Torah describes that the sun was fixed in the firmament in the first hour of the evening of the fourth day of Creation, which was Tuesday night going on Wednesday (recall that the Jewish day starts at night). Therefore, according to the opinion of Rabbi Yehoshua in the Talmud that Creation took place in the spring month of Nisan, the sun began its course (relative to the earth) on the spring equinox on Tuesday night. The sun then rose over the Land of Israel twelve hours later in the first hour of the morning of the fourth day (Wednesday).

The blessing over the sun, or birkat hachama, is thus recited when the sun rises in the same position relative to the earth as during Creation, specifically on a Wednesday. This doesn’t happen every year, but rather only once in twenty-eight years. Here’s why:

Although generally the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, its exact position changes slightly day by day, drifting northward in summer and southward in winter, such that its location varies significantly through the seasons of the year. On the summer solstice, the rising and setting of the sun is at its northernmost point. The sun then rises and sets further to the south each day until on the winter solstice the rising and setting of the sun is at its southernmost point. The midpoints of this north-south movement of the sun, when it rises and sets due east and west, are the autumn and spring equinoxes.

The time it takes for the sun to complete this cycle, for example from spring equinox to spring equinox, is a solar year. However, for a few reasons, the solar year rarely begins on the same day as last. For one, the solar year is more than 365 days. It’s actually quite close to 365¼ days. Also, the 52 weeks of the year equal only 364 days. This means that the calendar year lags behind the solar year by 1¼ days. So, for example, if the spring equinox of a particular year is at noon on Sunday, then the next year it will be 1¼ days later at 6 P.M. on Monday, then at midnight on Tues./Wed. and so on. Only after 28 years, when the equinox will have advanced exactly 35 days (28 times 1.25 = 35, which is divisible by 7 yielding 5 whole weeks) will the equinox return to the same day and hour as in the first year.

Thus, this blessing marks the 28-year cycle of the sun’s return to its position on the first hour of the fourth day of Creation. This is the explanation behind what the Sages taught, “One who sees the sun at the beginning of its cycle…recites: ‘Blessed is the One Who made the Creation’. And when is this? Abaye said, “every 28 years” (Berachot 59b). Rambam elaborates further, “When the sun is at its ‘tekufah in Nisan’ [the spring equinox], at the beginning of the cycle of 28 years, on Tuesday evening, then one who sees the sun on Wednesday morning should recite the blessing: ‘Blessed are You, G-d our Lord, King of the Universe, Who makes the works of Creation” (Hilchot Berachot 10, see also Shulchan Aruch 229). Over time, an elaborate prayer service has evolved which accompanies this blessing, including verses of praise to G-d and various supplications. This is not found in a standard prayer book, but is printed and distributed especially for the occasion.

Some practical laws regarding this blessing are as follows: It is recited when the sun has fully risen and its whole disk can be seen, rather than when it first appears over the horizon. It should be recited ideally by the third hour of the day, but if it was impossible to do so by then, for example on an overcast day, the blessing may be recited until noon. If one was delayed until after midday, the blessing is recited without pronouncing G-d’s name. It should ideally be recited together with as many people as possible. But if this is not possible, or if doing so would result in losing the sun in clouds or passing the appointed time, one may recite it individually. Women are exempt from making this blessing as with other time-bound mitzvot.

Some additional interesting information on this blessing: 1] The beginning of the solar cycle as reckoned above always occurs in the month of Nisan, and always on Tuesday night (as explained above). However, it does not always occur on the same day of the month. This is because the Jewish months are entirely lunar based while the sun determines hours, days and years. Thus the cycle is regulated by the sun’s return its position at Creation on the day of the week and hour of the day, but not the day of the month. Only once in 532 years does the cycle begin on the same day of the month as it did at Creation. 2] The total number of 28-year cycles is short one year of the years since Creation. For example, this year, Nisan 5769 will mark the completion of 206 solar cycles, which when multiplied by 28, equals only 5768. Our Sages attribute the discrepancy to the fact that the natural order of the world was suspended during the year of the Flood.

A very interesting aspect of the conclusion of the current 28-year cycle is that this year is one of the few years that birkat hachama occurs on the special day of Erev Pesach. One of the great Chassidic Masters, Rabbi Meir Yechiel HaLevi of Ostrovtza (1852-1928), noted the significance of such an occurrence by comparing it to two other such instances: Passover and Purim. On Erev Pesach of the Exodus, on the day the Jews were preparing for redemption and G-d was preparing the overthrow of their enemies, the solar cycle of Creation was renewed. Similarly, in the Purim story, the 13th, 14th and 15th of Nisan, when the Jews were fasting, repenting and making themselves worthy of redemption and G-d was orchestrating the turnabout, was also a year in which the cycle was renewed on Erev Pesach. So too, he wrote long ago, when in the future birkat hachama occurs on the Eve of Passover, the complete and final redemption of Israel is not long to follow (Me’ir Einei Chachamim, p. 52).

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