Rabbinic Reflections: Issue 205

April 5, 2024 - 27 Adar-2 5784

Parashat Shmini - What to Say on Monday?

Dear Friends,

I hope you had a good week and that this correspondence finds you well and in good health.

This Shabbat will be extra special at CBIOTP when we celebrate the Aufruf of Beth Gerson and David Isaac’s daughter Amy and her fiancée Sean during our morning service, which starts at 10:00am. As Amy and Sean prepare to stand under a Chuppah (wedding canopy) on Sunday as bride and groom, we will offer them a special blessing. We wish a huge Mazal Tov to both of them and their families! We also thank Beth and David for sponsoring our Kiddush in honor of the family celebration, so please be sure to join us.

This Shabbat will mark Shabbat HaChodesh, the third of four special Shabbatot preceding Pesach. This week’s special portion (Ex. 12:1) shares the first Mitzvah given to the Jewish people as a free nation. Hashem charges us to mark our own calendar, celebrate our own festivals, and relish in the newfound freedoms bequeathed upon a liberated community, including the opportunity to be responsible for our own time.

One of my favorite blessings reads, “Praised are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who fashions the wonders of creation.” This blessing is invoked when experiencing the rarest of beauties of the physical world. We may say this blessing when seeing a beautiful sunset, a gorgeous mountain range, or witnessing the power of Niagara Falls.

I was wondering if on Monday, April 8, we could say it while looking (although not directly, please) at the upcoming solar eclipse. After all, the next such event will not be observable here in the USA until August 23, 2044. (Perhaps a Shechiyanu blessing, for arriving at a special occasion, is also appropriate?) And, while I personally like the idea of acknowledging this eclipse with the aforementioned blessing, the correct prayerful response to an eclipse is ambiguous at best.

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon comes between the Earth and the sun, casting a shadow on Earth, according to the Canadian Space Agency (and NASA). A total solar eclipse is when the moon perfectly aligns with the Earth and sun, completely blocking the sunlight and causing darkness for some time. In a partial solar eclipse, the moon blocks only part of the sun as the two are not perfectly aligned. This year, an estimated 31 million people will be able to experience the eclipse simply by stepping outside.

Ironically, the Babylonian Talmud (Sukkah 29b) says that an eclipse is a sign of divine displeasure. “Our Rabbis taught: When the sun is in eclipse it is a bad omen for the whole world. To what can this be compared? To a flesh and blood king who made a banquet for his servants and put a lamp in front of them. When he got angry with them, he said to his servant, ‘Take the lamp away from them, and let them sit in the dark.’"

On Monday, while we are sitting in the temporary dark, recall that the Talmud, while aware of many meteorological phenomena, omits formulating a specific blessing for an eclipse. One could certainly respond with any number of texts from our tradition, which speak of inspiration derived from celestial bodies (e.g. Psalm 121, Psalm 148, or the "El Adon" from the Shabbat Morning Shacharit). Moreover, one could argue that a solar (or lunar eclipse) is certainly an unusual phenomenon that evokes awareness of the power of God in nature, so it would seem that a blessing would be called for. In the absence of such a specific blessing, perhaps reciting a more general class of “blessings of nature” would be appropriate.

Current responsa literature suggests a text deriving from the second Mishnah in chapter 9 of Tractate Berachot. That Mishna offers two "generic" options for natural phenomena. The first, I mentioned above as one of my favorites. The second of these blessings, however, is recited when seeing shooting stars, earthquakes, lightning, or violent winds. In all of these cases we say, “Praised are You, Adonai our God whose power and might fill the universe." (עולם מלא וגבורתו שכחו) Most authorities contend that blessing #2, and not my favorite, is the blessing that we should recite on Monday, sunglasses and all!

Finally, as the galactic giants retake their independent paths, perhaps Monday’s unusual afternoon experience of moving from darkness to light will serve as holy inspiration; I pray that the eclipse will provide the impetus for the world to forsake darkness for light, replace evil with good, promote harmony over dissonance, and endorse love over hate.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Eric L. Wasser, EdD, Hon.DM
Tel: 201-562-5277

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