Why bless the Sun on the wrong date?

Although we celebrate our festivals according to a lunar year, our Sages recognized that it had to be adjusted from time to time to the solar cycle.

April 7, 2009 09:52

The ancient Egyptians blessed the sun every morning, and the reason was simple. Orthodox Jews bless the sun every 28 years, and the reason is complex. The Egyptians worshiped the Sun. We do not, but we want to bless it when it returns to the date and the position in the sky in which it was thought to have first appeared at the Creation. In time that was on the fourth day of the first week of the world, and in space it was at the Equinox of the Spring, when the day and the night are of equal length. Although we celebrate our festivals according to a lunar year, our Sages recognized that it had to be adjusted from time to time to the solar cycle, and they calculated in the late fourth century CE that the lunar year was 354 days, and the solar one 3651/4. Every solar year was 11/4 days longer than a full number of weeks, and in 28 years that would add up to 35 days, a full number of five weeks. Thus, one could see the sun again every 28 years on the fourth day of the week, in the position it was presumed to have occupied at Ma'aseh Bereishit, or Creation. The Spring equinox is equivalent in the Hebrew calendar to the tekufa of Nisan, literally the "turning" of the spring month, which will occur this year between April 7 and 8, or the Hebrew date of Nisan 14, 5769. As we can really only bless the Sun when it is visible, the ceremony will therefore take place this secular year of 2009 on the morning of Wednesday April 8, the eve of Pessah. That is exactly 28 solar years since the last Blessing on Wednesday, April 8, 1981, or Nisan 4, 5741 on the Hebrew calendar. So now on April 8 this year we shall gather outside the synagogue, face the rising Sun, recite Psalm 148 ("Praise the Lord from the Heavens"), and bless the Lord, King of the Universe, Maker of the work of Creation. Now the Egyptians got it right, every day of every year; they could hardly fail, since Egypt has little cloud and less rain. But our date is more problematic - in fact, it is patently wrong. As it was wrong 28 years ago, when I recall that this was pointed out at the ceremony in Golders Green and in Cricklewood, London, but no rabbinic or halachic authority has cared to correct it, in spite of having 28 years to do so. As a result, this year we are conducting the ceremony again on the wrong date. Why wrong? Because the solar equinox is not on April 7 or 8, but each year on March 21 or 22. This means that the Tekufa of Nisan is 18 days later than the correct astronomical date, which is a fact of Nature, a matter of God's Creation. How has this discrepancy arisen? The calculation of the solar year as 3651/4 days is an approximation, a pretty good one, but one that is a little bit more than 11 minutes too long. So that by now the accumulated over-run, after nearly 2,000 years, amounts to some 17 or 18 days. We say 2,000 years because the Hebrew calendar, although calculated in the fourth century CE, followed the lead of the Roman or Julian calendar, which was fixed by order of Julius Caesar in 45 BCE, when his astronomers assured him it would be accurate for ever. But they were wrong, and pope Gregory XIII admitted that in 1582, when he ordered 10 days to be excised from the year to make the correction. Unfortunately, we Hebrews did not follow the pope and stuck to Julian, through thick and thin. Thus that 10-day discrepancy has now grown to 17 or 18 days. The Hebrew calendar is a very complicated one and has stood the test of time rather well. It is carefully calculated to avoid Pessah starting on a Monday and Yom Kippur falling unsuitably on a Friday. The intricacies of the calendar are due to the guidance of the Patriarch Hillel II, in 358 or 359 CE, and based on the initial calculations of the Babylonian sage, Mar Shamuel (Third Century CE), who claimed to know his way around the heavens as well as he did the streets of his home town of Nehardea (rumored to be today's Falujja). It was an older contemporary of Hillel II, the Babylonian teacher Abbaye, who died in 338 CE, who had laid down that the Blessing of the Sun should be held every 28 years on the fourth day of the week, at the Tekufa of Nisan (the Spring Equinox) at the first hour of the previous night, but delayed until the sun appeared in the sky the following morning. With the considerable weight of all these famous authorities behind it, our present-day rabbis are unwilling to make any changes, they are indeed, as they say, unable to make any changes. This is a great shame as we are finding that the halachic decisions concerning the Blessing of the Sun are quite out of step with the realities of the heavens. It is not a question of Religion versus Science, it is Text versus Nature itself, and surely, the rabbis should argue, it is God Himself who created Nature. So how can we dare to make a blessing that goes against the facts of Nature, even if it is ordained by the great sages of the past? The collective forces of Shamuel, Abbaye and Hillel II are impressive, but they are after all miderabbanan, that is, the rabbinic opinions of the sages, and not midaraita, the word of the Torah itself, as is the Creation of the Sun. Surely a way can be found to make the correction which would bring the Blessing of the Sun back into line with the astronomical nature of that great luminary. From the point of view of the ultra-Orthodox, the danger of making such a correction is that it would appear to undermine the other opinions of the rabbis. And any tampering with the Hebrew calendar, which is still working well, will open up a real can of worms, if one may be excused for using such an expression about the Halacha. One should perhaps remember that the matter of the calendar, such as the dates of the festivals, was at the core of the disputes between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, who differed on the date of Shavuot (Pentecost), and between the High Priests and the Qumran Sect, who differed on the dates of all the festivals. It was even at the heart of the famous dispute between Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabban Gamliel, on the date of Yom Kippur at the assembly in Yavne, shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple. That was when Rabban Gamliel had to put his foot down and assert that he, as the Nasi (community head) was the arbiter of the calendar, and so Rabbi Yehoshua had to back down. Here, however, the situation is different, we are facing the deterioration of the Hebrew calendar, which is proceeding ever further beyond the facts of Nature. Now it is 18 days out of sync and it will get progressively further and further ahead of the astronomical truth. In fact, within a few hundred years we shall find that Pessah is no longer within the solar month of Spring, and then we shall be infringing the Torah rule to "Observe the month of Spring, and keep the Passover" (Deuteronomy 16:1) and that will be a serious fault. Our haredi friends tell me not to worry - that cannot happen before the Hebrew year 6,000 (231 years from now), before which the Messiah is bound to arrive. He will sort out these problems, plus many others. Maybe, but such promises have been made before, and to little avail. I think that we humans should do what we can to correct our calendar in line with Nature and surely, with the right dose of goodwill, an assembly of rabbis can achieve that. For, if they cannot bring the calendar back in line with the true Creation of God, what incentive is there for us to follow them in other matters? The writer is a senior fellow of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem

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