A solar eclipse deserves a blessing
We are on a fantastic journey, over which we have precious little control. As our universe expands, we are pushed deeper and deeper into space. We travel along, like some pebble carried with the tide. Our own galaxy, like hundreds of millions of others, rotates, and it does so at about 168 miles per second. On one of the spiral arms of our galaxy, our solar system has its own rhythms. Within the solar system, our home planet goes around our local star, the Sun, and our moon orbits around our home planet, even as the Earth and the Moon spin too.
Once in a while, in the midst of all this motion, the Moon travels between the Earth and the Sun in such a way as to block the light of the Sun from reaching us. It casts a shadow on our planet. The blockage may be partial or complete. We call this event a solar eclipse. In a total eclipse, when the Moon obscures the entire solar disk, the fullest form of the Moon’s shadow, the umbra, lasts no more than a few minutes in any one spot, but the effects are stark as darkness literally covers the Earth and the temperature drops.
We will ooh and ah as the eclipse begins, but we know that this too shall pass. All that was will be again and soon. Normalcy will return. One might think that it would be an occasion for a blessing, a b’rakha. After all, Jews seemingly have blessings, or b’rakhot, for every event and circumstance, from the sublime to the mundane, and from the time they arise to the time they go to sleep. And there are well recognized blessings for similar occurrences. For instance, when one sees a comet or lightening, there is Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheynu melekh ha’olam, oseh ma’aseh v’reyshit (Blessed is the Eternal One, Sovereign of the universe, maker of the works of creation). When one sees something beautiful like a tree or an animal, one might say Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheynu melekh ha’olam, she’kakha lo b’olamo (Blessed is the Source of wonder, Ruler of the cosmos, that such things are in the world). There are blessings on reaching the ocean, on smelling fragrant grasses and spices, even on witnessing an earthquake. But traditionally, there is no blessing for an eclipse. Why? To answer that question, we need to understand some science and some Judaism.
An eclipse is, of course, a phenomenon entirely the product of natural forces. It depends primarily on a few basic facts. First, at present and on average, the Sun is about 400 times farther from the Earth than is the Moon and, in a grand coincidence, the Sun’s diameter is about 400 times larger than that of the Moon. So, in general, the Moon now is just the right size at just the right distance to be able to block light from the disk of the Sun. Second, the orbit of the Moon is tilted slightly to that of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. For there to be an eclipse, the Moon’s path must intersect with the Earth’s orbital (ecliptic) plane. Third, neither the orbit of the Earth around the Sun nor that of the Moon around the Earth is circular. Rather, both are elliptical. This means that one satellite or the other is sometimes closer and sometimes farther from the object around which it rotates.
Knowing the orbits of the Earth and Moon, astronomers can calculate when solar eclipses have occurred in the past and can predict when they will occur in the future. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (“NASA”) has created a catalog of solar eclipses of all varieties reaching back four thousand years and looking ahead another millennia.
Though solar eclipses may be visible up to five times a year somewhere on Earth, they are still a relatively rare event at any particular place on the planet. The last total solar eclipse to be seen in the lower forty-eight states of the United States cast its shadow over several states in the northwest part of the country on February 26, 1979. The next one will be on August 21, 2017. It will be observable as a total eclipse in a path extending east and south from Salem, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina. We won’t have to wait as long for the total solar eclipse that will follow. It will be visible from Texas to New England on April 8, 2024. The paths and dates for future total eclipses in the U.S. can be seen here.
Mentions of eclipses appear long ago in the early annals of human records. From Mesopotamia, for instance, we have references to the Ugarit Eclipse dated to 1375 BCE and the Assyrian Eclipse of 899 BCE. In the East, in China, eclipses were described in writings from the Shang Dynasty and the Bamboo Annals regarding events in the fourteenth and ninth centuries BCE, respectively. Further west, in Greece, the epic poem Odyssey credited to Homer refers to the obliteration of the Sun and unlucky darkness, perhaps inspired by an actual eclipse in 1178 BCE. Later in the sixth and fifth centuries, BCE, the historians Herodotus and Thucydides and the poet Xenophon spoke of eclipses, generally in connection with military engagements. Indeed, the interval between lunar eclipses, known as the Saros cycle, was apparently recognized by astronomers in Chaldea (now southern Iraq) as far back as 800 BCE.
So, it is quite surprising that eclipses are not mentioned directly either in the Torah or the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, which were written, edited and canonized in the first millennia BCE. Are eclipses not mentioned because they were unknown to the authors and editors or were they simply understood to be natural and not supernatural phenomena and, therefore, not worthy of mention?
The curious absence of any mention is highlighted, perhaps paradoxically, by two passages, in the Tanakh, one in the book of Joshua and the other in the book of Amos. According to the book of Joshua, during a battle between the Israelites and five Amorite kings at Gibeon, the Sun stood still for twenty-four hours, presumably to allow the Israelites to win. (See Josh. 10:1-15.) Recently, some Israeli scientists have advanced the idea that the author of Joshua was really referencing an eclipse on October 30, 1207 BCE. This seems more than a plausible stretch, though. Putting aside whatever evidence may or may not exist concerning the historicity of the battle itself, to sustain their argument, the scientists must first translate the Hebrew word “dom” not as it has traditionally been understood as describing the Sun becoming still or stopping, but as the Sun having been merely clouded over or darkened. True, translations are often, subjective, but then the scientists must also essentially disregard the biblical claim that the event lasted an entire day, not the very few minutes that would mark the duration of a total solar eclipse. (See Josh. 10:12-15.) If the author of Joshua was trying to describe a rare solar eclipse, the author could easily enough have noted the growing darkness and the re-emergent light and cast the scene as an omen for Israelite victory. But the author made no mention of an eclipse’s effects or progression, and claimed an entire day of shining sun to be unique – which indeed it would have been.
In the book of Amos, the prophet was railing against those who would defraud consumers. (See Amos 8:4-10.) He said that God would not forget the miscreants’ misdeeds and that punishment would come by making the Sun set at noon and darkening the Earth on a sunny day. Again, some might argue this is a reference to an eclipse, but, here, too, the description is wrong and the rhetorical point seems to echo an earlier message about the “day of the Lord,” a time when Israel would be saved. (See Amos 5:18-20.)
The earliest clear references to eclipses from Jewish sources appear to be the philosopher Philo and the historian Josephus, both of whom lived in the first century of the Common Era. In one work, Philo recognized eclipses as the “natural consequence” of rules governing the Sun and Moon, but also stated that they were “indications” of doom, such as the death of a king or destruction of a city. (See here.) In his treatise on the history of the Jews, Josephus mentioned an eclipse and did so as part of a story about Herod’s treatment of the high priest Matthias and Herod’s death. A reader could infer that the eclipse was an omen of Herod’s demise, but it was clear from Josephus’s account that Herod was quite sick anyway and had prepared his will in anticipation of his death. (See Antiquities 17, Ch. 6, Sec. 4.)
By the time the main text of the Babylonian Talmud was completed around the end of the fifth century of the Common Era, a negative view of a solar eclipse had clearly crystalized. In connection with a discussion of the view that rain on the festival holiday of Sukkot suggests heavenly displeasure, the rabbis engage in a series of analogies, including a discussion of eclipses. That discussion begins with the following proposition attributed to the Sages: “When the sun is eclipsed, it is a bad omen for the entire world.” (See BT Sukkah 29a.)
For those involved in this discussion, that idea only raises other questions.
- Why is it a bad omen for the world? According to the Talmud, because the Jewish people calculate their calendar primarily based on lunar cycles and other nations base theirs on the solar cycle.
- Can we be more specific about those at risk? The Talmud states that when the eclipse is in the eastern or the western sky, it is a bad omen for the residents of that area. When the Sun is eclipsed in the middle of the sky, the entire world is in danger.
- And what is the signal that the eclipse is giving? The answer found in the Talmud is colorful, literally: “If during an eclipse, the visage of the Sun is red like blood, it is an omen that war is coming to the world. If the Sun is black like sackcloth made of dark goat hair, then arrows of hunger are coming, because hunger darkens peoples’ faces.”
- But why would the Sun be eclipsed at any time? The Sages have answers here, too, in fact, multiple sets of them. In one view, the Sun is eclipsed on account of (1) a president of the court who dies and is not eulogized properly, (2) a betrothed young woman who screamed in the city that she was being raped and no one was available to rescue her, (3) homosexuality, and (4) two brothers whose blood was spilled as one. Alternatively, the sun is eclipsed on account of (1) forgers of a fraudulent document intended to discredit others, (2) those who provide false testimony, (3) those who raise small domesticated animals in Eretz Yisrael in a settled area, and (4) those who chop down good fruit producing trees.
As the recognition grew that solar eclipses were predictable events, part of the natural order, traditionalists tried to square the philosophical circle and reconcile the regularity of such events with presumably irregular eruptions of bad times and occasions of sins requiring divine intervention and punishment. (See, e.g., here and here.) According to one of his followers, because he understood an eclipse as a warning, as a time to take care, the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem M. Schneerson (1902-1904) explained that eclipses were “meant to be opportunities for increasing prayer and introspection – as opposed to prompting joyous blessings, [and so] we do not recite a blessing when witnessing one.”
This approach, however, is insufficient and unconvincing, regardless of the value of prayer and introspection. It fails to acknowledge the reality that science confirms about the regular order of local orbits. It fails to dispel expressly and strongly the general – but totally false -notion of a causal connection between natural events in the sky and human behavior on Earth. It fails to reject specifically the unsustainable rationales in the Talmudic passages cited above speculating why eclipses occur, and it fails to refute the false equivalencies among the various circumstances noted there.
This approach is also inconsistent with the traditional practice of offering blessings, as noted above, for more frequent, often more terrifying and clearly more dangerous events. After all, a total eclipse of the Sun is no less impressive than is lightening or an earthquake. And, further, this approach runs counter to the long standing tradition expressed in the Talmud (Menachot 43b) which calls on us to recite b’rakhot frequently during our waking hours, even to the extent of one-hundred a day. On the day of a solar eclipse, we should focus on ninety-nine other things and not note that the disk of the Sun is being obscured?
Even more importantly, the preclusion of a b’rakha regarding an eclipse undermines the emotional and intellectual benefit of a blessing, a principal purpose of which is to raise the level of consciousness of the person saying it. The words give literal expression to the remarkable thing or event which the individual’s senses have encountered or soon will. A blessing, then, is an empowering act, and to deny an individual, any individual, the opportunity to acknowledge, realize, concentrate, appreciate and grow can only limit a person’s mind and spirit, stunting his or her humanity.
With an orientation of modern, reality based Judaism, we can and should appreciate the order in the cosmos, especially the regularity of orbits. We can and should recognize the total dependence of all life as we know it on the energy that we receive from our local star. As the umbra approaches and recedes in a total solar eclipse, we can see the light change, sense the drop in temperature. Even as it compels us to look to the sky, that sight, that feeling should unite us, and draw our attention away, if just momentarily, from the troubles on Earth.
All of this elicits awe and gratitude, two primary bases for blessings. How appropriate then, as one looks (very carefully and with appropriate equipment) upward during a solar eclipse to acknowledge one’s awe and express one’s gratitude for having reached this season and being able to observe and to feel the works of creation. Here is one way:
As the eclipse nears . . . Barukh Atah – Blessed is the Source of Life that fashioned the stars, that sends forth heat from the Sun to warm us and light from the Sun to nourish the food we eat and provide the wonderful colors that so enrich our lives.
When standing in the shadow . . . Modim Anakhnu Lakh – We are thankful for the opportunity to be reminded how fleeting and precious our time here is, how bound we are, one to the other, how much we should treasure the moments we have and the people with whom we share this most amazing planet.
As light reemerges . . . Barukh Atah – Blessed is the Sustainer of Life. May we be refreshed and renewed by the harmony of the spheres, and may our lives be worthy of the gift we have received and continue to receive through the arrangement of the cosmos.
Your words may well be different. Write them. Share them. We do need blessings now.
A version of this essay was published previously at www.judaismandscience.com.