Significance of Birkat Hahammah

In Birkat Hahammah (the Blessing of the Sun), the rabbis acknowledged the power of nature, but put the emphasis on its Creator.

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On April 8, 2009, Jews will celebrate the 206th anniversary of the creation of the sun, as calculated by the rabbis. Birkat Hahammah, the Blessing of the Sun, is a once-every-28-year occasion, when Jews gather at sunrise to praise God for the life-giving energy of the sun, and recite the blessing: “Blessed are You, God, who continually does the work of creation.”

Rabbinic Calculations

Sun, for Birkat HahammahAccording to the first chapter of Genesis, Wednesday, the fourth day of the week, is the day of the sun’s creation. The rabbis thought it fitting that the sun’s celebration would always fall on a Wednesday. The question for the rabbis was, which Wednesday? The best moment they imagined was that of the vernal equinox. At that moment the sun is due east, its celestial home, and thus in its imagined birthplace.

But how did the vernal equinox (generally considered to be March 21, the northern hemisphere’s beginning of spring) slide to April 8?

The rabbis calculated the solar year as being 365 1/4 days long. While that is very close indeed, it is still off by about 11 minutes. Add that cumulative discrepancy to a fixed date event, and compound that with 10 days inserted in the calendar by the Gregorian reform in 1582, and you have a mismatch between the occasion of the equinox and the date of Birkat Hahammah.

But this celebration is not so much technical as it is symbolic.

Celebrating Nature

Jews are not strangers to commemorating nature. The Torah commands us to celebrate the appearance of the new moon (Rosh Chodesh). During Temple times, Jews brought special sacrifices and there are a fistful of psalms, special prayers, and a Torah reading added today to mark this celestial event that helps us measure time.

We also pray for rain and dew in the Amidah and celebrate harvests at Shavuot and Sukkot. We praise God for turning night into day and day into night. In the daily morning blessings we acknowledge the rooster for crowing at dawn. But none of the Jewish celebrations of nature is directly about the sun, except Birkat Hahammah.

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Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin the Director of the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network and past General Consultant to COEJL.

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