The Inner Light
The Blessing of the Sun is a Jewish holiday you can’t get too much of.
by David Holzel

Sun King, by Ray Feibush

Here’s a mathematical problem that must have been dropped from the standardized tests ages ago:

How many years does it take the sun, in its revolution around the Earth, to return to the spot it was on at the fourth day of creation?

a. 7 years
b. 28 years
c. 1,200 years

If it helps you with your answer, we’re talking about biblical creation. While no longer a relevant mathematical or

astronomical problem – the answer is 28 years, by the way – it is a point of some religious interest. Every 28 years since… since forever… the sun has returned, like clockwork, to its point of departure on the evening of the fourth day of creation (see Genesis 1:14-19 for details).

And the following morning, for nearly that long, Jews have marked the event with their own event: Birkat Hachamah – the Blessing of the Sun.

The celebration is almost upon us again. The next Birkat Hachamah is Wednesday, April 8, 2009, on erev Pesach.

For Rabbi Stephen Weiss, Birkat Hachamah is a twice-in-a-lifetime (and counting) experience.

“I was in my first year at the University of Judaism. Everyone on campus was talking about it and I didn’t know anything about it,” says Rabbi Weiss who, 28 years later, leads Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, near Cleveland. “You get up at the crack of dawn and look to the east and say, ‘Blessed is the maker of the wonders of creation.’”

The origin of the blessing is a brief remark on page 59b of Talmud’s Tractate Berakhot:

The Rabbis taught: Anyone seeing the Sun at its turning point... should say "Blessed is He who made the Creation." And when is this? Abaya said: every 28th year.

The turning point, according to tradition, is the spring equinox at the fourth day of creation. The reason the turning takes place every 28 years is fairly easily explained:

“If a year is 365 ¼ days, for every year the calendar is off by four hours,” Rabbi Weiss says. “It takes 28 years for the date to be back in the same place.”


Astronomy isn’t what it used to be, and religion isn’t either. Still, the idea behind Birkat Hachamah persists as a powerful metaphor.

“It’s this incredible marker of the passage of time,” Rabbi Weiss says. “What have I done with my life? Where am I taking my life? It makes us take stock." The 28-year-cycle, he says, raises the question, "Where are we taking the world from generation to generation?”

The circularity leads to an appreciation of creation. For Rabbi Charles E. Simon, it’s a reminder of the power of the sun. Rabbi Simon is executive director of the Conservative movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, which launched a program to encourage synagogues to trade in their gas guzzling Eternal


Doesn't Shemesh Mean Sun?
Shemesh is the common Hebrew word for sun. Its synonym, chamah (from the word for "hot"), appears in the Tanakh a only handful of times. But it was the word the rabbis chose when talking in the Talmud about the return of the sun.

Here's more on Birkat Hachamah:

Ritualwell's Birkat Hachamah page

On the calendar, laws and text from the Berachot Site.

Quick guide from Kehillaton

Birkat Hachama prayers

Lights for a solar-powered ner tamid.

“Every synagogue has at least one ner tamid, a symbol of God’s eternal presence…. Ironically, a significant percentage of the power needed to maintain this symbol is derived from oil that originates in the Middle East. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate if this symbol were powered from the sun?” he wrote in CJ magazine.

“As the symbol of God, the ner tamid should be powered by something practically eternal – the sun,” he told me in an interview. “This is an opportunity to create a symbol around which the community can gather for environmental purposes.”

Sixteen congregations have purchased the solar ner tamid kits, which cost about $1,000, he says. Temple Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks, California was one of the first. With the replacement of a 50-watt bulb with a brighter but more efficient LED, the monthly electrical cost for the ner tamid dropped from  $6 to “zero or close to zero," according to a FJMC press release. 

But much of the power is in the symbolism, according to Rabbi Richard Spiegel of Etz Chaim. But he doesn't underrate that power.

"The ner tamid does not use a lot of energy compared to the rest of the many lights in our temple," he says. "But a ner tamid is by its nature symbolic. It reminds us of a divine presence that is always with us especially in times of darkness. The ner tamid is the light of learning or of faith. Today the importance of renewing our covenant with the earth is especially important and the fact that our light occupies such a prominent place in our sanctuary is very moving."

The ner tamid may be only the first change Etz Chaim is making. With sunshine so abundant in Thousand Oaks, the congregation is looking into roof solar panels to power the entire synagogue campus, Rabbi Spiegel says.

It's a  hopeful sign, much as the eternal return of the sun is a hopeful sign. Still, how hopeful should we be? What will the world be like at the next Birkat Hachamah, in 2037?

For now, along that imagined ellipse, as the sun draws close to its beginning, celebrants will try to get themselves back to the Garden, or maybe even a couple days before the Garden. Going back improves the chances of going forward, Rabbi Weiss says.

“It's the chance to go back to the innocence and purity of the Garden of Eden and to gain strength from it to fix things," he says. "We’ve broken the world a lot since then.”

Copyright © 2009 by David Holzel



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