Author Archives: Rabbi Nina B. Cardin

Rabbi Nina B. Cardin

About Rabbi Nina B. Cardin

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

Significance of Birkat Hahammah

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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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We Are Not Alone

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Self-scrutiny is an essential part of High Holiday observance. It is the first step in the process of repentance. The High Holiday imagery of God sitting in judgment over us can make this a frightening process. This article looks at various elements that smooth the path toward repentance. It is reprinted with permission fromThe Tapestry of Jewish Time: A Spiritual Guide to Holidays and Lifecycle Events (Behrman House).

According to tradition, we do not have to travel the road to renewal alone. We have two partners in our journey: the people and God. There is comfort in knowing that around the world and for thousands of years, Jews have spent that time learning and pursuing the lessons of renewal. And for those who believe, there is an added incentive and perhaps an urgency in knowing that the Almighty, in love and in justice, watches over that personal accounting.

We can imagine that along with desiring to witness our regrets and our intentions to do better, God delights in the recounting of our achievements, and in our declaring our hopes for the future. For perfection belongs to the realm of the heavens. Here on earth, we must settle for lesser goals.

Francis T. Vincent, Jr., former commissioner of baseball, could have been giving a High Holiday sermon when he said, “Baseball teaches us how to deal with failure, that failure is the norm in baseball–that those who hit safely in one out of three chances become star players. I also find it fascinating that baseball, alone in sport, considers errors to be part of the game, part of its rigorous truth.”

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Book of Life

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Reprinted with permission from
The Tapestry of Jewish Time: A Spiritual Guide to Holidays and Lifecycle Events
(Behrman House).

One grand lesson of Rosh Hashanah is not that we have to be perfect, but that we are, and can continue to be, very good. It is sufficient if we strive to achieve our potential. It is only when we fail to be the fullness of who we are that we are held accountable.

Rabbi Zusya said, “In the world to come, they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?'” 

The language of our prayers imagines God as judge and king, sitting in the divine court on the divine throne of justice, reviewing our deeds. On a table before God lies a large book with many pages, as many pages as there are people in the world. Each of us has a page dedicated just to us. Written on that page, by our own hand, in our own writing, are all the things we have done during the past year. God considers those things, weighs the good against the bad, and then, as the prayers declare, decides “who shall live and who shall die.”

book of life

In order to make sense out of the conundrum of life and death, many Jews of old came to believe that death is a punishment for our sins. Others came to believe that death not only punishes–for what value lies therein?–but also atones for our wrongdoings. After the atonement, we greet the afterlife pure and cleansed, ready to enter the garden of Eden, paradise.

This theology of punishment and atonement held sway for centuries and is preserved in much of our liturgy. It is easy to understand why, for that belief brings order and meaning to the world. People find it preferable to believe that we are responsible for own suffering than to imagine that suffering is random and meaningless. It is tempting to choose a world of guilt and punishment over a world of capriciousness, in which there is no apparent moral relationship between our actions and our suffering or our rewards.

Nonetheless, while classic rabbinic theology promotes belief in sin and punishment, it takes every opportunity to soften that belief. The best punishment is the one that is averted. That is, the goal of the theology of retribution is not to punish but to redirect. “I set before you life and death,” God says in the Torah, “therefore choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19). That is why, according to the rabbis, the rules of God’s court are different from those of a worldly court. In a worldly court, the task is to discover the facts of the case and mete out justice. In God’s court, the task is to explore the goodness that dwells inside each person, and to help it grow.

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The Sukkot Paradox

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This excerpt is reprinted with permission from The Tapestry of Jewish Time: A Spiritual Guide to Holidays and Lifecycle Events  (Behrman House).

Sukkot is a holiday of paradoxes: We erect a building to mark the holiday of journey; it is the last in the pilgrimage holiday cycle but comes first, after Rosh Hashanah; and we leave the sturdy shelter of our homes for the flimsy shelter of the sukkah (singular of sukkot) just as the weather is turning colder (in much of the Northern Hemisphere) and rainy (in Israel).

Shaking the lulav and etrog in the sukkah

Those paradoxes combine to pose the question, Where is the true shelter in our lives? Is it in the human constructs of bricks and mortar, in the security of walls of wood and locks of steel? Is it found in the consistency of our thinking? In filtering things out? In not letting other things in? In knowing which is which?

Most days of our lives we find a measure of security in our walls and our bricks and our boundaries. “Good fences make good neighbors.” And that security–as God learned in the desert–is essential to our well-being. And yet, there are times when our ordinary world meets extraordinary challenges, when our boundaries are penetrated and our fences fail.

What then? What will comfort us in the presence of dangers that walls cannot repel: the dread of illness and loss, the pain of shame and uncertainty, the shadow of hopelessness or despair, the fear of failure, the struggles with aging?

Sukkot reminds us that ultimate security is found not within the walls of our home but in the presence of God and one another. Indeed, there is a midrash that says that sukkot are not buildings at all but the glory of God. This holiday helps us understand that sometimes the walls we build to protect us serve instead to divide us, cut us off, lock us in.

The walls of our sukkot may make us vulnerable, but they make us available, too, to receive the kindness and the support of one another, to hear when another calls out in need, to poke our heads in to see whether anybody is up for a chat and a cup of coffee. In contrast, our walls of concrete and steel can enslave us in our own solitude and loneliness. Sukkot reminds us that freedom is enjoyed best not when we are hidden away behind our locked doors but rather when we are able to open our homes and our hearts to one another.

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Moon and Women

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Reprinted with permission fromThe Tapestry of Jewish Time: A Spiritual Guide to Holidays and Lifecycle Events (Behrman House).

Rosh Chodesh is a holiday for everyone, but women have a special attachment to the day.  For at least 2,000 years, Jewish women have celebrated the appearance of the New Moon in their own way, most notably by refraining from sewing, spinning, weaving or doing any needlework. It was a day on which women were free of family chores, a one- or two-day vacation they honored every month. In some communities, women would gather to light candles (perhaps recalling the bonfires of Israel), tell one another stories, enjoy one another’s company.

the moonMany societies associate women’s bellies with the moon. In Judaism, the rabbis offered the following explanation for the special relationship between women and the new moon: After the Exodus, while Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Torah from God, the Israelites, impatient and worried, succumbed to idolatry. They pooled their gold and made the golden calf. But in this case, the rabbis tell us, “the Israelites” means only the men. The women refused to participate; they refused to offer up their gold and jewelry for such an abomination. Yet when the time was right, they proved themselves generous, for upon Moses’ return and the building of the Tabernacle, they gave abundantly of their mirrors and other prized belongings to help make the sacred instruments of the Temple. God rewarded the women for their devotion and their generosity by granting them the New Moon as their holiday.

In the 1970s, Jewish women around the world began to reclaim Rosh Chodesh. Once again women are celebrating the day, alone or together, as they light candles afloat in pools of water in crystal bowls. They sing songs, share stories, study Torah, comfort one another in response to recent losses, or rejoice at one another’s successes and pleasures, large or small. It is a time of caring and connecting, of knowing that they belong. And for some, it is a moment of reconnecting to a tradition that they had thought had no place for them.

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