The Entire World Must be Upside Down!
Twenty-eight years ago, on Wednesday, the 4th of Nisan, which in the solar (Gregorian) calendar corresponded to 8th April, I joined about 100,000 other Jews at the Kotel haMa'arvi at about 4 a.m. to pray as early as is possible, (Kriyath Sh'ma before sunrise and Shoma Esrei at the "exact" moment the sun rises). This was eleven days before Pesach.
But the reason we were all there so early in the day on that specific morning (back then vatikim attracted just a few score men on a regular weekday. Especially in the summer. Fortunately Israel was then not yet suffering from the need to change our clocks to match the whim of some golf loving businessmen*.
We were there to bless the fact that the Sun and the Moon were in the "exact" position in which God placed them on the fourth day of creation. This positioning occurs only once every twenty eight years!
I had arrived in Israel just a few days earlier. I had come to learn at the Mercaz haRav Yeshiva. I was previously unaware of this "unique" benediction. This is not too surprising as the previous time it was said, I was only three months old (to the day). So, although I had learnt the G'mara (in Brachoth) which says "He who sees the sun in its 'period', blesses, 'Blessed be the Lord our God, King of the universe, who carries out acts of creation'", it was sort a theoretical thing, much like the "holy rooster"**.
About what is this G'mara speaking? A little background. First halacha. Our calendar is essentially a lunar one, as we find haShem telling Moshe and Aharon in Egypt, just before the departure of the Children of Israel. However, the Torah tells us that Pesach, Passover, is a spring feast. If we base ourselves purely a lunar calculation, then we would be in the same situation as our Arab neighbours. The Moslem lunar calendar cycles every thirty-five years. But as they have no agricultural connection to their festivals, it does not bother them that their Feast of the Sacrifice, Eid al-Adha, for example, sometimes falls in the summer and sometimes in the winter.
In order to prevent this from happening to our calendar, we adjust for this discrepancy by occasionally (seven times every nineteen years) adding a thirteenth month to the year. This intercalation is based on the mathematics of the third century sage, Adda bar Ahava, who made very exact calculations of the length of the year. An additional calculation is mentioned in the Talmud, that of Mar Shmuel. His calculation is really an approximation based on the Roman calendar of the time. This system, which later came to be called the Julian calendar, was eventually found to be inadequate and inaccurate, though it took Rome some 1,500 years to realise this, and some countries a further 400!
It is quite possible that Mar Shmuel intended his calculation as a useful shortcut, much as the Talmud's approximation of three for Pi. The Rabbis certainly knew this was an incorrect value, but for most day-to-day uses, the rough value served its purpose and it was certainly easier to work with.
The problem with the Mar Shmuel/Julian calendar is that over a long period of time, you start to get out of sync. Also, given the Roman's mistaken value for the vernal equinox to 25th March instead of the 21st, the calculation is presently out by eighteen days. (Refer to the eastern church's dates currently out by thirteen days.) In other words, instead of saying the "sun blessing" on the 21st March, we recite it on the 8th April -- and after the year 5860, it will move to the 9th!
Ibn Ezra warns us (in parsat ki thisa) not to follow "Mar Shmuel's calculation for anything". In fact the Catholics "corrected" the Julian calendar in 1582 to what we today call the Gregorian calendar. This actually brought it line with Rav Adda's arithmetic.
So why did perhaps millions of people around the world "celebrate" the sun benediction, including maybe 150,000 at the Western Wall? What is the Talmud in Brachoth telling us? Well, it's problematic. None of our Talmudic commentators, who copy sections of the Talmud that are halacha, quote this section in their work. In fact Talmud Y'rushalmi (B'rakhoth 9:2) and WaYiqra Rabba (23:8) tell us the B'rakha should be recited whenever one sees the sun and is moved by its power and majesty, say after three days of cloudcover or a beautiful sunrise, something which may happen occasionally, and surely may be subjective. You recite the same blessing when you see a comet, a bolt of lightening, a majestic mountain or a mighty river.
When one internalises the fact that this is a manifestation of HaShem's wisdom and power, one makes this brakha. According to Rav Sa'adya Gaon, the brachah is recited annually at the summer solstice (21st June). Rav Dawid Bar Hayim of Machon Shilo discusses this question further.
As an interesting aside, the whole world today accepts that the sun is the (sole) source of energy and light for the world, and no more than that (post Copernicus, Keppler and Newton). No-one today "worships" the sun, not as a god nor even as an agent of the God in heaven, the mistaken notion of the generation of Enosh which lead to the introduction of idolatry in the world. In a vision of the prophet Ezekiel (8:15-16), Yehezkel describes being taken to the Holy Temple and shown twenty-five men bowing down to the rising sun, their rears pointing to the Holy of Holies [cf. Moslems on the "Temple Mount" bowing towards Mecca, their derrières firmly aimed towards Omar, the Dome of the Rock]. Yehezkel is told that this is an abomination. Well I must say, our modern "sun worshippers" at least faced both the Temple and the risen sun . . . and of course did not bow to it -- no I am not intimating they were involved in idol worship, but the comparison is there for the taking. Indeed, Rabbi Yehuda, in the Tosephta Brachoth, chapter 6, says, "He who blesses the sun -- this is a different way", i.e. it certainly looks a little like avodah zarah.
I really don't believe anyone thinks they are blessing the sun itself. Everyone knows they are blessing the Creator of the source of light. And yes, I accept the "right" of the Rabbis to fix things based on the [incorrect] science of their time -- but as I have shown above, not even all the Rabbis of the Talmud are in full agreement.
But all this discussion is not my true concern here. This is not why I am upset. Unfortunately to many, this may be largely academic. My concern, however, is far deeper.
This year the 8th of April occurs on the eve of Hag Matsoth, Passover, Pesah, the day of the annual Pascal Sacrifice.
Erev Pesach. The Kotel. Har haBayit.
What is a Jew supposed to be doing near Har haBayit on the day before Passover? He is supposed to be bringing his lamb or kid to the Temple for the special annual (only to be performed in the) Temple service on behalf of his family and his guests. He will then take his meat home for a barbecue dinner, celebrating the Seder, relating to his children the exodus from Egypt. The Torah commands us to this annually. It is one of the only two positive commandments for which the punishment is excision, kareth, being cut off from the Jewish nation.
We do not need a standing Temple to perform this mitzva, we just need the place of the mizbeach, the sacrificial altar.
We don't need a copper nor golden altar; we can make "an altar of earth".
And if all of Israel is ritually impure, we can carry out our Torah obligations in our impurity.
And if we are Yerushalayim, and we do not sacrifice and eat the Korban Pesach, the Pascal Lamb, our punishment is excision. Today, we are no longer stuck in Santa Maria, Romania, or out in the middle of the Kurdistan desert -- read a few verses and sections of the Talmud describing the Pesach ceremonies, to aid in remembering what we are supposed to do. No! Today we are right here, in the Holy Land of Israel! in the city of Jerusalem!
150,000 ecstatic Jews, go to the Holy City on the day of the Pesach sacrifice, not to carry out God's eternal commandment, but to be excised? They can't use the excuse that they were "far away" (one of the two reason to be excused from the Pesach). They're right there! They came willingly.
150,000 Jews arriving at the entrance to Har haBayit, on 14th Nisan, each bearing a lamb . . . no force in this world could stop us from carrying out our obligation in the place chosen by God.
I don't know about you, dear reader, but this really freaks me out!
Sadly, am I the only one?
27th April, 2009, 14th Nisan, 5769
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* Summer Time Also called Daylight Savings Time. Started in 1916 in response to fuel shortages during World War I, first in Germany and Austria, and soon after in England. But, according to Bill Bryson in Made in Amerca, the real non-war push came from a "businessman named William Willet, who wanted it primarily so that he could have more daylight to play golf in the evenings . . . the responses were vociferous. The New York Times called it an 'act of madness' and others seriously suggested that they might equally change thermometers to make summers appear cooler and winters warmer. As one historian has put it, 'the idea of altering the clocks to suit human whim made daylight saving seem both unnatural and almost monsterous to its opponents'. . . it wasn't until 1966 that America got univesal summer time." [chapter 5 page 80]
**The holy rooster There's an old story/joke about the yeshiva student that never left the study hall. One day he was convinced to go into the outside world, and as he was walking down a country path, hears an awesone, unfamiliar sound, "Cock-a-doodle-do, Cock-a-doodle-do", the terrifying scream sounds out. "What was that?", asks the young man. "That's just a rooster crowing." A rooster? Oh you mean the "holy rooster of the Talmud?!"