Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The New York Times on Birkat haChamah, the “Blessing of the Sun”

The New York Times on Birkat haChamah, The Blessing of the Sun, April 8, 1897:


Rabbi Arrested for Observance of an Ancient Talmudic Ceremony In Tompkins Square.


No Permit Had Been Thought Necessary for the Gathering and Policeman Foley Could Not Understand What It Meant – Occurs Once in 28 Years

Orthodox Hebrews in every part of the world celebrated yesterday what is familiarly known among them as “the new sun.” The festibal comes once every twenty-eight years, on the fourth day of the first week of the Hebrew month Nisan, corresponding practically to the month of April. The celebration in New York was spoiled for some hundreds of people by the interference of two park policemen with a gathering in Tompkins Square, the arrest there of Rabbi Wechsler, and the flight of Rabbi Klein.

See the whole piece here, in the New York Times archive.

My favorite quote:
The celebration is rather a complicated matter to explain to anybody. Rabbi Klein’s knowledge of English is slight, while Foley’s faculties of comprehension of matters outside of police and park regularions and local events are not acute. The attempt of a foreign citizen to explain to an American Irishman an astronomical situation and a tradition of the Talmud was a dismal failure.

Gotta love it.

And the result:
Both became excited, and the people who clustered around them increased the confusion. When Foley was told in broken English about a “new sun,” he was doubtrful whether it was an attempt to guy him, or whether some new infection of lunacy had broken out on the east side. His demonstrations became so threatening that Rabbi Klein understsood that he was in danger of being arrested and clubbed, and chose the easiest and fastest plan of escape.

Only in New York, folks.

[For specifics on this mitzvah, see my three other posts linked under Birkat haChamah.]


  1. That's great! Thanks for posting it!

    Presumably, Officer Foley didn't understand why we stick with Shmuel's metonic cycle, given that Rav Ada's is so much more accurate.

    Also, wow, newspaper reporting was so much more fun to read then

  2. Isaac-
    Seriously... if they still wrote that way, they might have readers!

  3. RH - yes, they'd have readers, but they'd get sued a lot more, too.

  4. i think we should go back to calling Birkat Hahhama "The New Sun"

  5. My favorite line was, "The one fact which that official's [the police officer's] perceptions grasped was that there was no permit."

    But in fairness to the police officer, who I'm sure wasn't overly bright, the journalist didn't get it either. The article says that Birkat HaChamah is recited on the "fourth day of the first week" of Nisan, and later that it is on the "fourth day" of Nisan. In 1897, it was the fourth day of the first full week of Nisan, but the date was 5 Nisan, and in any case it was just a coincidence. This year, it's the second full week.

    Thanks for the chuckle, although I admit, I feel a little bad laughing about this, because poor Rabbi Klein, who "ran away at full speed," probably thought another pogrom was beginning!

  6. Thanks for all of the comments.

    I also find it interesting from a sociological perspective; clearly, this was a product of the 1880's influx of Russian Jews. I wonder what sort of celebration, if any, was held in 1868!

  7. "this was a product of the 1880's influx of Russian Jews."

    wechsler and klein were hungarian, not russian





  8. Lion-
    True, but my comment was about the influx of Jews who would actually observe Birkat haChamah.

  9. RH:

    1) klein (assuming i identified the correct klein) was the rav of a large hungarian shul, so it is not unlikely that a lot of the participants in the ceremony were hugarians from his own shul. (wechsler had earlier been the rav of another hungarian shul, but i don't remember the composition of the shul where he served in 1897).

    2) was birkat ha-hamah only a "russian" thing? (in any case, even if so, there were plenty of
    "russian" jews in america in the 1860s and even in the 17th c.)

    the fact that the NYT mentioned the 1897 ceremony doesn't mean that it was a new practice in this country, but merely that it was the first time the ceremony produced an altercation between rabbis and police.

    שבת שלום

  10. Lion-
    A couple of thoughts:
    1) The 1880's influx was not exclusively Russian; I only single them out because of their flight, in significant numbers, from the Pale of Settlement. More than 2.2 million Jews left Russia between 1882 and 1920.
    2) There were Russian Jews in America beforehand, sure, but not in the same numbers.