Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Eclipses in Jewish Thought

On August 21st there will be a solar eclipse. For some of us it will be a total solar eclipse. Is there any significance to eclipses in Judaism? In the Book of Joel (found in the 12 ''minor prophets" - known for their shorter prophecies - not lesser significance) there is reference both to a solar eclipse and a lunar eclipse: 

"The sun shall turn to darkness, and the moon to blood, prior to the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord" (Joel 3:4). The sun turning to darkness is a solar eclipse, the blood moon is a lunar eclipse. Rashi in his commentary to Joel says that the solar eclipse is a sign for sun worshipers to realize that God is not a sun. 

Jeremiah has this piece of advice "So says the Lord: of the way of the nations you shall not learn, and from the signs of the heaven be not dismayed, for the nations are dismayed from them." (10:2)

You can find the main literature on eclipses in the Talmud in Tractate Succah 29a. It brings 3 opinions for what an eclipse means. The first is that a solar eclipse is a bad sign for the world. The analogy is of a master preparing an evening meal for his servants and then removing the candles. The second opinion is that both solar and lunar eclipses are bad for the Jewish people. The 3rd position is that solar eclipses are bad for those who follow a solar calendar and lunar eclipses are bad for those who follow a lunar calendar. However, the Gemara concludes with the verse from Jeremiah and states that if we are serving Hashem wholeheartedly we have nothing to fear. Despite this third opinion the Gemara and the rishonim - (Rabbis between 1000 - 1500) considered the Gemara a bad omen and even gave reasons for why eclipses happened. 

Today, we have a better understanding of science we have to ask a fundamental question. What is the Gemara talking about? This is just an act of nature it doesn't mean anything good or bad! The general approach of the acharonim - the latter commentators is that the eclipses were set up by Hashem in his rules for nature. They are there to remind us that sometimes we are blocking our own ability to connect with Hashem in a deeper way. 

Do we make a beracha on an eclipse? There was a thought to say the beracha - baruch dayan ha'emet - the blessing after the loss of a loved one. But the loss of sunlight is so short  the consensus is not to make a beracha. The consensus is not to make a beracha because it is not mentioned in the Gemara. Why did the Gemara not mention a beracha - probably a combination of it being short lived and because it is a bad omen. 

Rav Haim David HaLevy, the former Chief Rabbi and Av Beit Din of Tel Aviv was asked perhaps with the new knowledge that eclipses are not bad omens perhaps we should make a beracha. He writes the following "Our Rabbis instituted blessings over acts of creation and powerful natural events, like lightning and thunder and so on. However, they did not do so for a lunar or solar eclipse. And if only today we could institute a blessing when we are aware that an eclipse is indeed an incredible natural event. But we cannot, for a person is forbidden to make up a blessing. If a person still wants to make some form of a blessing, he should recite the verses “And David blessed…blessed are you, G-d, the L-rd of our father Israel, who performs acts of creation."

If you'd like to read more about halachic and hashkafic nature of eclipses please click here to read this scholarly work by Dr. Jeremy Brown. For more on whether to make a beracha click here to read an article by Rabbi Dov Linzer

I hope you enjoy the eclipse. Please remember to use the correct eyewear if you plan to look at the sun. 

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Preparing for Tisha B'Av 5777/2017

Preparing for Tisha B'Av

I'm calling this blog post preparing for Tisha B'Av because the mourning customs we have leading up to the fast day are all designed to prepare us for the intensity of the day. Without preparation a person can struggle to really feel the significance and poignancy of the day.

In just under 3 weeks we will commemorate Tisha B'av when we will mourn the destruction of our two holy temples and every Jewish tragedy that has befallen our people from the sin of the spies to the holocaust. There is no other day like Tisha B'Av. At the same time it is hard to feel a personal tragedy for the destruction of the 2nd temple that happened almost 2000 years ago. This is something our rabbis understood very well and as such they instituted a number of mourning customs to lead up to this sobering day.

The customs of different Jewish communities vary, I will try and concentrate on the main ones and explain them a little bit. 

There are four stages of mourning. The first stage is the 17th of Tammuz till Rosh Hodesh. In this period Sephardim don't listen to music or wear new clothes or say the blessing of Shehecheyanu on a new fruit except on Shabbat. When it comes to buying new things the general rule is it is forbidden unless the sale is an unusually great sale. Then the purchase can be bought and used after Tisha B'Av. Likewise for major purchases like a car or a house, one should avoid the purchase unless the availability will vanish if delayed. Such purchases should not be used till after Tisha B'Av

The next period of mourning intensity is from Rosh Hodesh Av till Shabbat. The third period is called Shevua Shechal Bo - the week that Tisha B'Av falls. (E.g. if Tisha B'Av falls on a Monday night/Tuesday then Shevua Shechal Bo is from Saturday night until midday the day after the fast.) Finally we have the most severe mourning customs on Tisha B'Av itself. Generally speaking the Sephardic customs are more lenient than for Ashkenazim. 


Starting on Rosh Hodesh and including Rosh Hodesh Jews from Turkey, as well as Ashkenazim have the custom to abstain from meat (including chicken) and wine until the 10th of Av. The exception being on Shabbat when we eat meat to the same level that we would on a regular Shabbat. Other Sephardic communities including many from Rhodes refrain from meat from the 2nd of Av till the 10th. When it comes to drinking the wine/grape juice after havdallah, Ashkenazim give the cup to a child whereas for us we follow Rabbi Yosef Caro and drink it ourselves.

Shevuah Shechal Bo
Starting from Saturday night, Sephardic men refrain from haircuts and shaving. (Some follow the custom of our Ashkenazic brothers and do not have haircuts for the entire three week period from the 17th of Tammuz.) We do not do any laundry, we only take short showers out of necessity, we only change our undergarments or any clothes that are soiled. We also aren't allowed to go swimming for pleasure (and most people don't have swimming lessons either since they can be fun too).

When Tisha B'Av is nidche (pushed off) to Sunday. Many halachic authorities do not consider there a need to have a Shevuah Shechal Bo at all. As such it is permitted to do laundry and shower and even to swim. Most people are strict and avoid having haircuts. 

Erev Tisha B'Av
The day before Tisha B'Av we continue to learn Torah until sunset. (Ashkenazim stop learning regular Torah portions at midday.) After this time we are only allowed to learn Torah that is upsetting such as reading Eicha - The book of Lamentations describing the destruction of the First Temple, Sefe Iyov - The Book of Job, Sections from the prophet Jeremiah, Sections from the Talmud dealing with the destruction of the First and Second Temples and Kinot - poems about Jewish tragedies throughout the ages.

On Erev Tisha B'Av we have a Seudah Hamafseket. This is the last meal before the fast. The meal should consist of only one cooked dish. Two foods that are normally cooked together are considered one dish. So for example a dish of egg and lentils would be ok to eat. One can also eat bread with this meal too. My practice, has been to have a normal pre fast meal a few hours before the fast. Then just before the fast I have a piece of toast and I sit on the floor and think of the destruction. 

When Erev Tisha B'Av is on Shabbat none of these laws apply and we treat the day like a regular Shabbat. However, one must be careful to finish Seudah Shelishit before the fast starts. Please note that the fast begins before Shabbat ends. 

Tisha B'Av
Apart from learning Torah that makes us happy there are five things which are prohibited on Tisha B’av. Eating and drinking, washing, rubbing one’s body with oils or lotions, wearing leather shoes, and marital relations. Although not strictly forbidden, it is strongly recommended to take the day off on Tisha B'Av or at least not to work until halachic midday (1:15pm). Since we are all considered mourners on this day, we do not greet each other.

Ladies who have given birth within 30 days are exempt from the fast. Similarly, anyone who has a serious illness or would become ill from fasting is exempt.

The liturgy on Tisha B'Av is very powerful and the tunes are very moving. Although one isn't supposed to enjoy the tunes on Tisha B'Av, my grandfather of blessed memory would love to hum the melodies of Tisha B'Av throughout the year. One of the powerful kinot contrasts the festival of Pesach with Tisha B'Av using the famous "Ma Nishtana - Why is this night different from all other nights?"


On Tisha B'Av night the lights are dimmed low, or tea lights are used. We sit on the floor and read Eicha - The book of lamentations. On Tisha B'Av day we don't wear talet and tefillin in the synagogue and we continue to sit on the floor. (Some Sephardim have the custom to wear them privately at home before coming to services but that is not the SBH minhag). We again read Eicha and more sad kinot. After midday we are allowed to sit on regular seats and at minha we wear talet and tefillin. Since we are forbidden to learn Torah on Tisha B'Av, if one learns daily, that learning should be done either the day before or the day after Tisha B'Av. Tehillim may be recited on Tisha B'Av itself but only after halachic midday (1:15pm).

The mourning practices are in reverse to those of a loved one. Instead of most intense to least intense, we go from least to most. The idea being that we must prepare ourselves for it. If we were to go straight into the strict mourning of Tisha B'Av without the three weeks of preparations we would struggle to find meaning. Instead we build up gradually. As we do that this year let us work on our mitzvah observance and the way we interact with others. May Hashem grant peace in Israel.

When the fast finishes, one should still not eat meat or drink wine until Midday the following day. The reason being that when the Second Temple was destroyed it continued burning for much of the 10th of Av. Other restrictions such as showering and shaving etc. are permitted from the end of the fast. (Ashkenazim wait until midday for those too).

When Tisha B'Av is commemorated on the 10th, one does not need to wait until midday of the next day.