For the week ending 5 August 2017 / 13 Av 5777

Orbital Omens

by Rabbi Daniel Freedman
Become a Supporter Library Library

On Monday August 21, 2017, the contiguous United States will be plunged into darkness. No, I’m not a prophet. This is actually a total solar eclipse that will cover most of the United States. This eclipse is different from many other eclipses that have occurred because it is a total eclipse over a region of the world populated by millions of people that hasn’t seen a similar eclipse since 1979. For astronomers this is a banal occurrence that has very little significance since eclipses come and go in a cycle that was known to the ancients as the “Saros” cycle. This cycle predicts accurately when the next eclipse will take place. Please note that one should never directly look at any solar eclipse for any length of time since this can cause irreversible damage to one’s eyes.

The moon travels around the earth in an almost circular orbit, in an imaginary line that traces its path around the earth. The sun is about four hundred times larger than the moon, but is also about 400 times further away, which creates the effect that the moon’s disc completely covers sun during a solar eclipse. The moon’s orbit, however, is not in a direct plane with that of the sun. The centers of the moon, earth and sun do not match up exactly in a straight line. In other words, the moon varies its orbital plane such that it doesn’t always come directly between the sun and the earth. If it would, then every new moon would cause a solar eclipse, and, by extension, every full moon, a lunar eclipse. Rather, the moon’s plane moves up and down, so to speak, relative to the orbital plane of the earth and sun. This means that the earth, the moon and the sun come into direct alignment only once in every eighteen years or so. When they do they create a solar eclipse if the moon comes directly between the sun and the earth, and a lunar eclipse when the earth comes directly between the sun and the moon.

The Gemara in Succah (29a) states that when an eclipse of the sun occurs it is a bad omen for the world, and an eclipse of the moon is a bad omen for the Jewish People. We know that in 1914 the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarejevo on June 28, which portended the August 2 invasion of Luxembourg by Germany. This began World War I. That date was 10 Av 5674, the Sunday of Tisha B’Av that was pushed forward. In that same year on August 21 the European continent experienced a total solar eclipse. This was part of a cycle of eclipses (called a series) that lasted until 1917. In 1917 World War I ended with the Treaty of Versailles. There was a total lunar eclipse on November 7, 1938, over Europe and Africa. Just two days later Jewish shops and synagogues around Germany were looted and desecrated, and that infamous night would come to be known as Kristallnacht. A purview of eclipses during the period of World War II also reveals that a total solar eclipse appeared in September 21, 1941, over Asia and Japan. (Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japan on December 7 of that year). It seems that eclipses — specifically total solar or total lunar over regions of the world that are occupied by significant populations — do not portend well regarding world or Jewish events.

While we can’t make any predictions about what exactly will happen as a result of the upcoming eclipse on August 21, we can be sure that as the Gemara continues: If the Jewish People fulfill the desire of G-d, they will have no need to fear omens.”

Our holy prophets have spoken about astronomical omens and how they are suggestive of great events to come. The words we say in the Passover Haggadah on Seder Night right before the ten plagues — “blood and fire and pillars of smoke” — portend these great future times. The full verse in Yoel 3:3 reads: And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth — blood and fire and pillars of smoke. We recite this verse at the Seder as a reminder of the great and wondrous miracles that G-d did for us when He took us out from Egypt, and as a reminder of the miracles that will occur at the end of days. The Navi continues: The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the coming of the great and awesome day of G-d (Yoel 3:4). This is a description of the sun turning to darkness and the moon turning a blood-red. The Ibn Ezra, besides being a great medieval Torah scholar was also a noted astronomer. He describes how this verse refers to the position of the moon during an eclipse of the sun and moon, and subsequently the eclipse of the earth and moon causing the moon to glow a reddish hue. The portent is a great and awesome day where there is blood on the battlefield, where many nations will be destroyed before the coming of G-d. The message may sound somewhat disconcerting. However, another verse sheds light on this omen of the sun and moon with a positive message.

The Prophet Yeshayahu (59:19) tells us that: So shall they fear the name of G-d from the west, and His glory from the rising of the sun. When affliction comes like a flood, the wind of G-d shall drive it forth. And a redeemer shall come to Zion, and to those in Jacob who turn from transgression, says G-d. The world of physicality is compared to night or darkness (Bava Metzia 83b), and the coming of the rising sun is a metaphor for a dawn of spiritual awareness. This begins in the lands of the west (such as Europe and America) where Jews live and come to fear G-d from hearing the news from afar in the east (Malbim). Our Sages of blessed memory teach how our enemies persecute us, causing us anguish and strife, which is symbolically expressed as a flood, and hints to the war of Gog and Magog mentioned in Yechezkel (39:1-20). Afterwards the Redeemer of Israel will come to those who turn to G-d. In this respect, although the description in Yoel may seem bleak like the darkness of the night, we should be clearly be aware that this stage is only temporary, like an eclipse, and will herald in the final days when the world reaches new spiritual heights when the whole world will recognize G-d.

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