Thursday, April 24, 2008

Birkat haChamah/Blessing the Sun 2009, Erev Pesach, and Bad Astronomy, Part I

[Part 2 is here, Part 3 is here.]

If you thought this year’s Erev Pesach was unusual, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Next year we have, of all things, Birkas haChamah on Erev Pesach - Wednesday April 8, 2009.

Yes, you heard me right - we will be reciting a once-in-28-years blessing, and it will fall out on Erev Pesach, of all days. In the morning, specifically. Right after the siyyum for the firstborn. While we’re trying to get rid of all of our chametz, and prepare Pesach food. And the Seder. And a 3-day Yom Tov.

I have to think that we’re going to organize a communal celebration for Birkas haChamah - how could you not do that, for something that comes up less than 4 times per century? So it’s going to be a huge, massively fun, mess.

And, of course, it likely will rain (or snow?) just to wreck Birkas haChamah, put out the Chametz fire, and make life in general more chaotic.

And do you want to hear the funniest part? Birkas haChamah, according to some very big halachic names of the past few centuries, is observed on the wrong day.

Don't hang me for a heretic; let's look at the sources:

Talmud Bavli, Berachos 59b:
The sages taught: One who sees the Sun בתקופתה, the Moon in its strength and the stars in their paths and the constellations in their order says “Blessed is the Creator of Bereishit.”

Which is followed by Abayye’s explanation:
When is this? Abbaye said: Every twenty-eight years, when the machzor returns and the tekufah of Nisan occurs in Saturn, on the night after the third day, the beginning of the fourth.
In other words: The sun, as seen from Earth, is said to pass through various Houses in the heavens. When we see the Sun return to the beginning of the House in which it was created - a point in space we calculate based on our calendar calculations - then we recite this berachah.

Note: The Yerushalmi (Berachos 9:2) cites the view of R’ Chuna who disagrees in explaining what this blessing is all about: Rabbi Chuna said: This is only in the rainy season, after three days. (See Chasam Sofer Orach Chaim 56 who explains why seeing the sun after 3 non-sunny days would rank a blessing on “The deeds of Creation.” Or just figure it out yourself; it’s logical enough.) As the Beit Efrayim (Orach Chaim 7) noted, this is probably a debate about reading the word בתקופתה or בתוקפתה, the former meaning “at its circuit” and the latter meaning “in its strength.”

In any case, Rambam (Hilchos Berachos 10:18) and Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 229:2) agree with the Bavli view of Abayye, that this is a berachah recited once every 28 years, when the sun reaches the start of its circuit again.

And so everyone (except some odd Italian communities noted by the Chida (Tuv Ayin 18:58), and except for the Raavad (cited in Minchas Yitzchak 8:15), who said it for his community in order to avoid berachos in vain if we are doing it improperly) goes out to recite a berachah upon seeing the Sun next Erev Pesach, and wish it a happy birthday as it starts its new circuit of the heavenly Houses.

Well, almost.

As the Masat Binyamin (101), Chasam Sofer (Chasam Sofer Orach Chaim 56), Rav Meshulam Roth (Kol Mevaser 2:51) and many others pointed out many, many years back: If we know anything at all, it’s that our 28-year calculation is wrong.

1) We have two different traditions for how to measure the sun’s circuit, one credited to Shemuel and the other to Rav Ada. Shemuel’s, which is based on a 365.25-day solar year, gives us a 28-year cycle; Rav Ada’s, somewhat more accurate in its estimation of the solar year, gives us a 19-year cycle. (For more on their calculations, click here.)We follow Rav Ada for most halachos - so why are we following Shemuel for this one?

2) According to many authorities, as well as our liturgy, we follow the Tannaitic view that the world was created in Tishrei, not Nisan. Therefore, this event should be in Tishrei!

3) We are quite well aware that although the sages’ calculations are sufficiently accurate for most halachic purposes, they are not quite precise - and so we shouldn’t be using this day at all!

Various authorities present fascinating answers for the first two problems, but the third is pretty intractable. The Chasam Sofer concluded that the numbers are wrong, but leaves it as צריך עיון גדול and recited the berachah anyway.

Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank (Har Tzvi ibid) had a very interesting approach. He accepted that these are problems, but argued (based on a very interesting responsum of the Rashba regarding Shehechiyanu at the birth of a baby) that the whole berachah is optional. If I understood him correctly, he was saying that we can recite the berachah when we recognize the beauty of Bereishis, even if that’s not the precise moment in time described in the gemara.

I plan on a Birkas haChamah Part II post (now available here!), and perhaps a Part III, to discuss how/when Birkas haChamah is said, and whether we should have mass gatherings for it or avoid having such gatherings, and more, but I think this should suffice for now.

[Note: You may find considerable good material on this mitzvah here.]


  1. Wow, I'd never even heard of this bracha before. I can tell you, living in Oregon, you'd definitely want to say a bracha when seeing the sun for the first time in three days.

    So does this mean that if it's cloudy, you cannot say the bracha? The whole thing seems a little preposterous, since it's based on an assumption that you WILL see the sun on a particular day.

    In Yerushalayim (where we will all be for next Pesach), this may in fact be true, so maybe you won't have to worry about that. :)

  2. I don't see why that would be "preposterous" - there are many berachos which are contingent on experiencing a given situation, which may never happen. Particularly those berachos specified in the 9th chapter of Berachos - where this one appears as well.

    As far as the cloudy day - wait for Part III...