'As the sun rose over the Kotel, a real feeling of unity'

50,000 people attend Birkat Hahama at the Western Wall; Chabad webcasts blessings from New Zealand to Honolulu.

sun 88 (photo credit: )
sun 88
(photo credit: )
As the night sky slowly lit up to an awesome turquoise, the fading of a full, incandescent moon was the prelude to the occasion for which tens of thousands had gathered at the Western Wall at dawn on Wednesday. An estimated 50,000 worshipers chanted the once-in-28-years Birkat Hahama (Blessing of the Sun) prayer, made even more meaningful by its coincidence with Pessah. The magnificent sunrise shimmering over the Dead Sea and gradually lighting up the desert expanse may have made Masada the most spectacular site for the ritual, while Chabad claimed to have reached the most people, webcasting blessings from seven locations across the globe, from New Zealand to Honolulu. The prayer in Jerusalem was led by Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the most prominent halachic authority of the Lithuanian yeshiva world, and the Gerer Rebbe, Rabbi Ya'acov Arye Alter. There was good mix of haredi and non-haredi Jews, as well as dozens of curious onlookers and photographers from around the world. "There was a real feeling of unity for a few minutes when we were saying the bracha as the sun was rising over the Kotel," said Steven Flax, who drove from Ra'anana early in the morning with his family. "It was well worth the drive - it only happens once every 28 years. It was choc-a-bloc full with a very diverse range of people." Several tourists who had come to watch said it was an experience that would remain etched in their memories. "This is the first time I've ever heard of this holiday," Jen Sonenklare of Connecticut told The Associated Press. "If you want to give your kids a religious identity, this'll give them something fun to remember." As thousands of people converged on the capital's Old City for the prayer, and then left in unison, some felt a bit menaced by the swarming crowd. "I was worried about being trampled over in a stampede, like the pilgrimage in Mecca," said one person, who asked not to be identified. "It was quite scary." Large gatherings were also reported at Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn (it also approached 50,000) and in the sunny city of Eilat at a blessing also organized by Chabad, as well as in Safed, Bnei Brak, Ashdod, Netanya's beachfront, Tel Aviv's Hayarkon Park and on top of Masada. Chabad offered live Webcasts as the sun moved across the Earth, starting in Christchurch, followed by Brisbane, Jerusalem, London, New York, Colorado Springs and Honolulu. In New York City, it was a cloudy morning as a prayer was held on the deck of a 17th-story penthouse near Ground Zero, the site of the demolished World Trade Center, dedicated to the memory of the nearly 3,000 victims of the 9/11 attacks. Twenty-eight years ago, a Birkat Hahama ceremony was held on the 107th-story observation deck of the World Trade Center's South Tower. Some commentators were convinced the juxtaposition of Birkat Hahama and Pessah augured a miracle. "Incredible as it seems, we might be in for another miracle on the same scale as those which accompanied the redemption from Egypt and the Purim miracle," wrote Israel Rubin from Beit Shemesh, who is writing a book on prayers. "The Talmud states that the Jews were redeemed from Egypt in Nisan and in Nisan they will be redeemed in the time to come. Just as Birkat Hahama, celebrating a renewal of the cycle of the sun, occurs in the month of our redemption, so may we celebrate the upcoming Birkat Hahama as a precursor of our redemption."