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ברכת החמה

Birkhat HaChama

Many Jewish rituals are cyclical: daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, or even every seven years. In the time of the Jewish commonwealth, there was also Yovel, which happened once every fifty years. This coming week, we will get an opportunity to perform the rarest cyclical mitzva - at least, in modern times, when there is no Yovel - that for most people only occurs two or three times in a lifetime: Birkhat HaChama, the blessing on the sun.

The custom is based on a Gemara in Berachos1. The context of the sugya is a discussion of when we recite the beracha oseh ma'asei bereishit - "Blessed is He who makes [works of] creation". This blessing is generally recited upon seeing an awesome or wonderous natural phenomenon - for instance, lightning, or very tall mountains. The gemara says:

תנו רבנן: הרואה חמה בתקופתה לבנה בגבורתה וכוכבים במסילותם ומזלות כסדרן, אומר ברוך עושה בראשית. ואימת הוי? - אמר אביי: כל עשרים ושמונה שנין, והדר מחזור ונפלה תקופת ניסן בשבתאי באורתא דתלת נגהי ארבע

Our Rabbis taught: On seeing the sun at its tekufah, the moon at its strength, the stars in their paths, and the Zodiacal constellations in their order, one says Blessed be the Maker of creation. And when does this happen? Abaye said: Every 28 years when the cycle begins again and the Nisan equinox falls into Saturn on the evening of Tuesday, going into Wednesday.

Abaye's explanation is based on a couple of assumptions:
  • That the world was created in Nisan. This is the subject of a machloket between Rav Yehoshua and Rav Eliezer2; the gemara concludes3 that we follow Rav Eliezer's opinion - that the world was created in Tishrei - with regard to counting the years, and we follow Rav Yehoshua - that the world was created in Nisan - regarding Tekufot (seasons).

  • The opinion of Shmuel, who said4 that each season is 91 day and 7 1/2 hours long, and a year is 365 1/4 days.5 Assuming that the sun was set into its position at the begining of the fourth day6, and that "days" begin on the preceding evening, the sun would have been set in its place at 6:00PM on Tuesday evening in year 1. In year 2, it would return to its place one day and 6 hours later, at midnight Wednesday night; in year 3, Thursday 6:00AM - and so on, where the next time the sun will be in the exact same position at 6:00PM on Tuesday evening will be 28 years later, in year 29.
[As far as the the reference to Saturn: Rashi explains that each of the 7 planets that are visible to the naked eye - Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury, and Moon - "rules" for one hour at a time. This cycle would come full circle at the end of 28 years, as well.]

This year, on April 8th - erev Pesach7, we mark the begining of the 207th cycle. For you gematria geeks, that is the numeric value of אור = Ohr, light. :-D

It seems that through this mitzvah, חז״ל are trying to remind us that Hashem's Hand continually guides the world. The Ramban writes at length that the open miracles of yetziyat Mitzrayim were a marker that God not only created the world but continues to oversee its day-to-day existence. Perhaps this is why we specifically say Birkhat HaChama in Nisan, close to the time of Pesach, when this lesson is especially clear. And perhaps the fact that we make the beracha of oseh ma'asei bereishit, normally reserved for awesome phenomena, also serves to emphasize the lesson that even the everyday "natural" occurrences, like rising of the sun, are actually miraculous events.

The actual blessing is said in the morning, when the sun becomes visible. Since there is a daily obligation to pray in the morning, that takes precedence8, so the custom is that people get up early to daven at the earliest possible time, and say Birchat HaChama immediately afterwards.9

Many communities have large gatherings to perform the mitzvah together. One warning: if you plan to get together with a large group, make sure to get a permit if it is needed - the Rabbis in New York city in 1897 failed get one, and here's the New York Times report of what ensued:


1 Berachos 59b

2 Rosh HaShana 10-11

3 ibid 12a

4 Eruvin 56a

5 The most obvious problem with all of this is ... a year is not exactly 365.25 days. The average time it takes the earth to return to its position relative to the sun is actually 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds - about 11 minutes and 14 seconds less. This difference will create an extra full day every 128 years. This partly explains why Birchat HaChama will be observed on April 8th, while the actual vernal equinox fell on March 20th.

It is likely that Shmuel - who said of himself, "The paths of heaven are as clear to me as the pathways of Nehardea" - knew this, but made the calculation simple for the sake of the average person, since the mitzvot associated with tekufot are observed by everyone. [In contrast, the cycle of calculating Jewish leap years that was set up by Hillel based on Rav Adda's calculation of Tekufot is a little more complicated (7 out of 19 years), and a little closer to reality - but still off by around 6.66 minutes.] It seems clear that Shmuel (and Hillel, as well) fully expected that the final redemption will occur before the discrepency causes serious Halachic issues - for instance, Pesach must fall in the Spring. If we continue based on the calculation alone, this could be compromised in a few thousand years..

You may wonder - if everyone knows that this time is not really the "moment the sun returns to its original point and completes the cycle", why are we blessing the sun at this time? It is pretty obvious to me that the Rabbis are simply using this "cycle" as an opportunity for us to realize that Hashem created the world and to demonstrate our appreciation and thanks, as mentioned. There are many opportunities to do this, and (as also mentioned at the outset), these are mostly cyclical. This is just another in the cycle of life - a slightly longer cycle. Judging by the number of articles I have seen over the past weeks and months, the very rarity of the event itself has caused a lot of awareness and interest and excitement.

6 Bereishit (Genesis) 1:14-19

7 There was some buzz about a year or two ago when it was realized that this time Birchat HaChama would fall on erev Pesach. It was rumored that a certain Chassidic Rebbe had written that Birchat HaChama fell out on erev Pesach 3 times in history: the year of Yetziyat Mitzrayim, the year of Purim, and .... "soon". It turns out that this statement was enigmatic.

8 Shulchan Aruch - Orach Chaim 229:2

9 Based on the talmudic priciple of tadir ve-sh'eino tadir, tadir kodem

Additional links:
  • has a good overview of the astronomy background.
  • My friend Rabbi David Pahmer, put together a nice pdf presentation to accompany an introductory lecture he has given.
  • wikipedia

Posted by joem on Apr 05, 2009 12:30 am

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