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. 

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