Jewish groups gear up for rare ritual
By Ben Harris
NEW YORK (JTA) — As sunrise broke over New York City on the morning of April 8, 1981, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi — at the time he was known just as Zalman Schachter — stood on the observation deck of the Empire State Building and sounded the shofar.
For more than two hours after, Schachter-Shalomi led some 300 mostly young adults in an obscure Jewish ritual known as Bircat HaChamah, or blessing over the sun, a prayer recited once every 28 years when, the Talmud says, the sun reaches the same spot in the firmament as when it was created.
According to an account of the service in the New York Times, participants raised their hands in prayer, asked for healing for individuals and the earth, and released 70 balloons. At the conclusion, some worshippers joined in the singing of a Hebrew version of “Let the Sun Shine In” from the rock musical “Hair.”
The rite, Schachter-Shalomi told the Times, “helps us renew our relationship with the solar system and increase our awareness of the sun as a source of energy.”
Twenty-eight years later, Jews across the denominational spectrum are gearing up again for the observance with a range of planned celebrations, many of them environmentally focused. The sun prayer will be said, as it will several times in the 21st century, on April 8, which this year falls on the eve of Passover.
In the northern Israeli city of Safed, an eight-day festival is planned featuring several environmentally and kabbalistically inspired events, including the ceremonial burning of leavened bread on the morning before Passover by concentrating the sun’s rays through an optic lens.
“Over the last 28-year cycle, we have suffered from pollution and the depletion of natural resources,” said the festival founder, U.S.-based artist Eva Ariela Lindberg, in a news release. “Let us use this extraordinary opportunity to co-create the next cycle by seeking alternative solar energies and a purer environment, recharging ourselves and learning how to honor the earth, our neighbors and ourselves. This is a time to renew, and bring fresh blossoms to our world for the next 28-year cycle.”
In the United States, 14 Jewish organizations have joined to launch blessthesun.org, a Web site with links to various educational materials and ideas for April 8 activities. The site asks users to sign a Covenant of Commitment in which they “pledge to hasten the day of environmental healing, social justice and sustainable living for all.”
Five of the groups also are sponsoring an art competition for works “interpreting aspects of the sun and exploring the relationship between Judaism and the environment.” And the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism has designed a 68-page study text on the prayer emphasizing environmental themes.
“Growing up, there was almost a fear in recognizing that our holidays and calendar are indicative of an earth-based religion,” said Nati Passow, co-founder of the Jewish Farm School, one of the groups behind BlessTheSun. “That doesn’t necessarily mean idol worship or earth worship, but it means that the calendar and the cycles were a reflection of people who lived with a greater awareness of natural cycles than we have now. And so any time you can teach people about elements of our tradition that are earth-based, and especially the ones that are hidden and not as well known, it’s a way of bringing people into Judaism.”
The prayer, whose origins lie in the Talmud, blesses God “who makes the work of creation” and is the same blessing said over other rare natural phenomena, like lightning or a meteor.
Its Talmudic origins mean that the sun blessing is hardly the sole province of liberal Jewish environmental groups.
ArtScroll Publications, an Orthodox publishing house, has reissued an updated version of Rabbi J. David Bleich’s seminal 1981 book “Bircas HaChammah,” probably the most definitive English-language treatment of the subject. And Canfei Nesharim, an Orthodox environmental group, is working on a number of initiatives. One was a sun-themed mishloach manot, the food baskets traditionally given on the holiday of Purim, which fell about a month before the date of the sun blessing this year.
Bleich’s book includes a rigorously detailed discussion of the evolution of the Jewish calendar and the complex calculations of lunar and solar cycles that determine the dates of Jewish observances.
“The blessing on this occasion, it would seem, is evocative rather than responsive,” wrote Bleich, a professor of Jewish law and ethics at Yeshiva University. “It is designed to arouse man from his lethargy, to force him to reflect upon this cosmic phenomenon, to summon him to contemplation. Marking yet another solar milestone in the calendar of eternity, the occasion calls out to man: Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these?”
Despite the complexity of the Talmudic discussion, the determination of April 8 is almost certainly inaccurate, Bleich told JTA. But the sages of the Talmud ordained the blessing not as a precise astronomical commemoration, Bleich said, but as a pedagogic device to impress upon future generations God’s continuing role in sustaining the universe.
Asked about Jewish groups that want to infuse the blessing with an environmental message, Bleich said, “I wish them luck.”
Many congregations around the Metroplex will be blessing the sun. Check with your synagogue or temple for info.
DFW residents to recite once-in-28-years blessing on sun
By Rabbi Peretz Shapiro
Hundreds of Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex residents from all walks of life will gather at 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday, April 8, at synagogues across the Metroplex to perform the rarest event on the Jewish calendar. They will gather together, peer upward toward the sun and recite a benediction known as “the Blessing of the Sun.”
Local participants will join millions of others across the globe who will perform the outdoor ritual at synagogues, schools, beaches, public parks and private homes. This year’s worldwide ceremony, which occurs only once every 28 years, is expected to be the most diverse and best-attended one ever recorded in history.
The highly-anticipated ritual — called Bircat HaChamah in Hebrew — is performed only once each 28 years, on a specific Wednesday morning in the spring when it is calculated that the sun returns to the same position in the sky it occupied, and at the same time of the week, as it was at the time of Creation, 5769 years ago.
The focus of the service is to thank G-d for “re-enacting the works of creation,” and includes a brief selection of Psalms and other texts. A second blessing expresses one’s gratitude for having “granted us life, preserved us and enabled us to reach this moment.” During the course of the program, Rabbi Peretz Shapiro will deliver a short address on the significance of this event.
Although the liturgy is brief, the novelty of the Blessing of the Sun is expected to draw men, women and children from all walks of life, and all levels of religious practice, to join in the Metroplex’s ceremony, along with millions of others at points throughout the globe. Individuals from as far away as Arlington and Fort Worth plan to participate in the event. A sampling of the worldwide locations is browsable at www.chabad.org/835257.
“More Jews in more places will participate in this rare opportunity than ever before,” noted Rabbi Mendel Dubrawsky, director of Chabad of DFW. “From Jerusalem to New York, Dublin to Dallas, this unique ritual will connect people in always remembering the Divine miracles of daily existence.”
According to local Dallas congregant Greg Schwartz, “Our children are really excited to wake up early and make the blessing over the sun.
“Some Jewish observances are accessible each moment, others only once a year. This rare ritual is something my children will tell their children about, please G-d,” Schwartz noted.
In his address, Rabbi Shapiro will share a teaching from the late Lubavitcher rebbe about lessons that the sun can teach us in our everyday lives.
The short event will culminate with the completion of a Talmudic tractate as well as with light refreshments.
‘Year of gathering people’
“The world has changed drastically since the last time this blessing on the sun was recited,” observed Rabbi Zvi Drizin of Chabad of Intown, citing the creation of the World Wide Web and the breakup of the Soviet Union as examples. “But blessing G-d for His natural wonders reminds us to reflect on the miracles and blessings in our daily lives, to focus on the fact that G-d continues to sustain our universe.”
In his remarks, Rabbi Shapiro will also discuss the significance of global participation in this rare ritual. This year, being the year following a Sabbatical year, is also known as a year of hakhel, or gathering, during which Jews throughout the world commemorate an ancient unifying pilgrimage to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem by convening gatherings focused on study and good deeds.
Web site launched; class scheduled
In preparation for the rare event, and as part of its ongoing communal education efforts, Chabad has launched a comprehensive Web site at www.chabad.org/sun about the Bircat HaChamah. The section contains an overview of the ceremony and the text of the Blessing of the Sun ceremony in Hebrew and English, as well as in-depth information on the astronomical calculations involved in calculating the date. The Web site also maintains a global directory of classes and events relating to Bircat HaChamah. On the morning of April 8, the Web site will host a live Webcast of Bircat HaChamah ceremonies around the world — from New Zealand to Hawaii.
This year, the Blessing of the Sun will be performed on the very morning before the Passover seder. While there is no overt ritual connection between the blessing and Passover — in fact, this is only the second time in over six centuries that the Blessing of the Sun has coincided with the eve of Passover — Rabbi Shapiro will talk about the connection between the two, and will also facilitate people’s final opportunity to prepare for Passover by disposing of leavened foods or selling them for the duration of the holiday. (Leavened foods, such as bread and pastries, are prohibited throughout the Passover holiday, from late morning of April 8 through April 16 at nightfall.) Handmade shmurah matzah will also be available.
Background on blessing the sun
According to the Talmud, Bircat HaChamah is recited every 28 years, on a Wednesday, the day of the week on which G-d set into orbit the sun, moon and all the heavenly bodies. Each solar year begins 365 days and about six hours after the prior year started, which is 52 weeks and about 1-1/4 days. Thus, it takes 28 cycles for the solar year to start again at the same point of the week. It is at this point when we recite the Bircat HaChamah.
Due to the fact that this solar/week alignment is rare — occurring only every 28 years — the ritual is highly anticipated and the blessing is customarily recited amid large public gatherings. Indeed, this occurred only three times in the 20th century (in 1925, 1953 and 1981).
(Please note: The Blessing of the Sun is a prayer to G-d thanking Him for the sun, NOT a prayer to the sun. Jewish tradition absolutely forbids worship of, or prayer to, any entity other than the one G-d.)
For more information, contact Rabbi Peretz Shapiro at 972-818-0770, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.chabad.org.
Jewish groups gear up for rare ritual