O Me of Little Faith

Today is a unique day in Judaism. A lot of you may not be aware of it — I wasn’t until Delaware Ken put it on my radar (he’s good at that sort of thing) — but today is an event that only happens once every 28 years. It’s Birkat Ha-Chamah, the blessing of the sun.

To put it in its most simple terms, traditional Jewish teachings assign a specific position of the sun on the day of its creation. When the sun returns to that position, on the same day of the week (the 4th day) as when it was created, the Jews recite a special blessing.

The last such blessing was April 8, 1981. After today, the next won’t be until 2037. This one is particularly meaningful because it occurs during Passover Week. I’m not Jewish, so I asked Rabbi Josh Rose (at right) of Congregation HarHaShem in Boulder, Colorado, to explain the significance of this event for us. You might remember Rabbi Josh from the tacky Christian art exchange.
Below he discusses the origins of the event, its significance to Jews, its impact on Creation care and ecological thinking, and what we all can learn from it.

JB: First, can you explain in layman’s terms what Birkat Ha-Chama is?

Rabbi Josh: Birkat Ha-Chamah means “Blessing (birkat) of the (ha) Sun (chama).” It happens every 28 years and represents the very moment, according to the calculations of the rabbis in the period of the Talmud, that the sun is in the same position in the sky as it was when it was created. Its coincidence with Passover is spectacularly rare, so there is a lot of excitement within the Jewish community at having an opportunity to perform this mitzvah (commandment). There is a traditional set of readings read as part of the morning service that includes Psalm 150, Psalm 17 and others. We also read the passage from the Talmud describing Birkat Ha-Chamah. The high point is saying the blessing, “Blessed are You, God, Sovereign of the Universe, performer of creation” as the sun actually rises (though you can say it later in the morning).

What is the significance of the 28-year solar cycle between these events? Where did that originate?

The 28-year cycle reflects early rabbinical attempts to draw together the solar cycle and the lunar calendar, which forms the basis of the Jewish liturgical year. Usually we don’t really pay attention to the solar calendar. According to rabbinic tradition, creation took place in the month of Nisan, and as we all know, the sun was created on the fourth day. So the rabbis sought to find the moment when the 4th of Nisan coincided with the Spring equinox. The calculations at that time (which, given their antiquity, were stunningly good) had the solar year at 362.25 days long. We now know that they were off — by just over 11 minutes. This helps explain why the ceremony is now taking place not on the 4th of Nisan but on the 14th.

What does Birkat Ha-chama mean to Jews, as a whole? Does its occurrence during Passover week add to its significance in any way?

This can give rise to the religion/science debate: “Ah, see that proves that ancient assumptions about the universe have been disproven by science! Hah!” True, but not very interesting to me. I get it: modern science right, ancient world wrong. For me, Birkat Ha-Chamah is one more opportunity to cultivate a sense of awe — a word that is probably overused in religious language. I would use nora, but few of your readers would know what I’m talking about. We can just sort of slide through the ruts of daily life but the tradition is constantly pushing us out of those ruts to stand in amazement in the face of creation and our existential condition. There is a blessing that we say in the daily morning prayers that thanks God for “renewing each day the works of creation.” Much of the liturgy points the way to seeing God as actively engaged in an ongoing dance with humanity. Not as the Creator who did Cool Things a Long Time Ago but as the One who is currently engaged in sustaining the universe and regenerating it and us. I see Birkat Ha-Chama and its blessing as drawing our attention to this reality. Not that the blessing is not “God who made creation” but rather “God who makes creation.”

Yes, its occurrence during Passover is beautiful. I’ve been learning some Chasidic teachers who describe Passover as an opportunity for hit’chad’shut, or renewal. One of the teachings that I like is that the rabbis really focus in on the word “chodesh” in talking about Passover because in the first commandment in the Torah given to the entire people Israel — just as they are leaving Egypt — God says “this chodesh (the month, Nisan) will be for you the rosh chodashim” – the beginning of all the months (i.e. a new year). Our commentators really pick up on the repetition of the word chodesh/chodashim. Chodesh means month and it shares the same root as the word chadash, which means new. So the rabbis interpret the command to mean something like “The Month of Nisan should be the Beginning of Renewal” or “the Beginning of Becoming New.”

I see the coincidence of the renewal of creation (that the sun is revisiting its birthplace, so to speak) and Passover’s potential to offer us personal renewal as we flee our own personal Egyptian bondage as an affirmation of our essential dependence on the created world and as a statement about the link between human freedom on a moral level and our place in the created world. There is ethical content to this: we have to see ourselves as caretakers of our world and to understand that we do not own it — we are borrowing it and have an obligation “to till and to tend.” This doesn’t mean yay or nay for this environmental policy or the other, but we need to treat the created world as a kind of being with whom we are in relation. There is also, for want of a better word, spiritual content: all of the material world, including us, is in a constant state of flux and renewal. This ceaseless process of birth, death and rebirth challenges our (innate?) sense that we are apart from materiality.

You’re a young guy. Is this your first Birkat Ha-Chamah?

It’s my second Birkat Ha-Chamah; the first one during which I’ll be paying attention.

I know it’s customary for the blessing to be recited among large gatherings of people. How will you and your congregation be celebrating tomorrow?

I will be leading a 6 am service (sunrise is around 6:30) at the “Sunrise Amphitheatre” in the mountains overlooking Boulder, facing Jerusalem (east). Should
be spectacular.

What should it mean, if anything, for Christians like me? Can (or should) it have significance?

There’s probably some secret message of interfaith harmony in the correlation of the Solar/Gregorian and Lunar/Jewish calendars. We could talk about that, but I’d rather encourage you to come join us. Don’t worry — not everyone is doing this at 6 am. It can be done, according to some rulings, as late as noon.


Thanks for your insight, Rabbi Josh. For more about Birkat Ha-Chamah, read this detailed FAQ.

If any of you are participating in this blessing, or know someone who is, I’d love to hear from you.

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