Solar eclipse 370.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As millions of Americans geared up for the rare solar eclipse that occurred on Monday, rabbis across the spectrum weighed in on the event and its significance.
For a wide swath of the United States, the sun was eclipsed at some point on Monday, leaving residents – and those who traveled to see it – in darkness for about two minutes. It’s the first time in 38 years that an eclipse has touched the US.
There are Jewish blessings prescribed for seeing lightning, hearing thunder, viewing a rainbow or even smelling a flower. But what about witnessing an eclipse? Rabbi Joshua Heller, the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Torah in Atlanta, Georgia – which is just off the path of the eclipse – wrote that there are two options of appropriate blessings to recite.
One is the blessing you would say upon witnessing an earthquake or tornado, which is “Blessed is God, whose strength and power fill the world.” The second option Heller considers is the more general “Blessed is God, who performs the work of creation,” which is said over thunder or a meteor shower.
According to Rabbi Eliezer Melamed of the Beit El Yeshiva, the former blessing is recited over scary events, while the latter is for more common, less frightening occurrences.
Is the solar eclipse a scary event? There are no direct dangers from the eclipse’s occurrence – unlike with a tornado or earthquake. However, viewers can harm their eyes if they look directly at the sun, and the dangers of car accidents during those two minutes are certainly high.
But many rabbis have been wondering more allegorically if the eclipse is a bad omen for the Jewish people – and perhaps should not occasion a blessing at all. After all, the Talmud in Tractate Sukka says that “when the sun is eclipsed, it is a bad omen for the entire world.”
Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau reportedly said in 2001 that since there was no Talmudic blessing prescribed for such an event, it could not be added today. He suggested instead reciting Psalms, particularly those praising God’s glory.
Others, however, ruled against reciting a blessing, because an eclipse is considered a bad omen. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher rebbe, said in 1957 that an eclipse is a bad sign and the result of human sin, as the Talmud says.
Rabbi Nicole Guzik, of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, meanwhile, sees the eclipse as a reminder of the world’s beauty.
“This world is a museum of God’s beauty, and if we are lucky enough to be active patrons, we will notice artwork that, prior, never caught our eye,” she wrote on Facebook.
“God’s artistry is ours to discover. Be it with the sun, moon or stars, may God’s light illuminate the many divine wonders just waiting to be enjoyed.”
Rabbi Joshua Yuter, the former rabbi of The Stanton Street Shul on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, who now lives in Jerusalem, said that while he has studied issues of superstition in Judaism, he “didn’t quite come up with an answer.”
Though he shared the Talmudic sources with his followers on Twitter, he expressed some doubts that the eclipse should be viewed as a bad omen, especially considering the many contradictory sources on the topic.
“It’s possible they viewed these things theologically,” Yuter told The Jerusalem Post, and it’s “also possible it was their idea of science.” Meaning, at the time the Talmud was written, the sages may not have understood that an eclipse is a predictable natural occurrence, the way we do today.
He pointed to another source, in Tractate Ketubot, which addresses all sorts of omens and the ways in which they can be interpreted differently.
“They talk about various sorts of signs, portents, omens,” he said, “which people will interpret as they so choose.”
While the discussions are plentiful, Yuter said what is missing is a call to action – i.e., what to do when an eclipse occurs – and he’d rather not guess. “I personally try not to engage in historical telepathy.”