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A Bracha on the Eclipse? Reflections on the Eclipse and Charlottesville

August 22, 2017

With all that is going on this past week, I’m sure that some of you can understand that my mind naturally turns to the movies.  There is one scene in particular that I keep coming back to, from the great classic The Blues Brothers.

In this scene, Elwood (Dan Aykrody has just picked his brother Jae (John Belushi) up from jail.  They are making their way back to Chicago when they are stuck in a traffic jam.  There is a policeman walking among the traffic and John Belushi asks him:

Jake: Hey, what’s going on?
Cop: Those bums won their court case, so they’re marching today.
Jake: What bums?
Cop: The f@?!ing Nazi party.
Elwood: Illinois Nazis.
Jake: I hate Illinois Nazis.
At this point Elwood pulls his car out of the line of traffic, floors the gas pedal, and drives straight for the bridge, causing all the marchers to jump off the bridge into the water below.

The parallels to last week’s events in Charlottesville are obvious.

There is another, much less obvious reason I have been thinking about this scene, or more broadly about the Blues Brothers.

Before Charlottesville happened, I had been looking forward to speaking about this Monday’s eclipse.  There is another famous line from the The Blues Brothers right before the epic car chase at the end of the film.  Dan Akyroyd says:
” There are 106 miles to Chicago, we have a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark and we’re wearing sunglasses.”

OK, it may not be the strongest connection to the eclipse, you know, sunglasses…eclipse…

Many rabbis, educators, have been writing about what significance, if any, there is from a Jewish perspective to the eclipse.  The most common question is whether one says a bracha over an eclipse?   This question presents an excellent test case for the functioning of Halacha and how we as Modern Orthodox Jews bridge our commitment to Halacha and our commitment to science, nature, and the pursuit of knowledge.

For everyone, the question of whether to say a bracha on an eclipse begins with the Mishnah in the 9th perek of Brachot.

מתני׳ הרואה מקום שנעשו בו נסים לישראל אומר ברוך שעשה נסים לאבותינו במקום הזה מקום שנעקרה ממנו עכו”ם אומר ברוך שעקר עכו”ם מארצנו על הזיקין ועל הזועות ועל הרעמים ועל הרוחות ועל הברקים אומר ברוך שכחו וגבורתו מלא עולם על ההרים ועל הגבעות ועל הימים ועל הנהרות ועל המדברות אומר ברוך עושה בראשית רבי יהודה אומר הרואה את הים הגדול אומר ברוך שעשה את הים הגדול

One who sees a place where miracles occurred on Israel’s behalf recites: Blessed…Who performed miracles for our forefathers in this place. One who sees a place from which idolatry was eradicated recites: Blessed…Who eradicated idolatry from our land. One who sees conspicuous natural occurrences recites a blessing. For zikin and zeva’ot, which the Gemara will discuss below, for thunder, gale force winds, and lightning, manifestations of the power of the Creator, one recites: Blessed…Whose strength and power fill the world. For extraordinary (Rambam) mountains, hills, seas, rivers, and deserts, one recites: Blessed…Author of creation. Consistent with his opinion that a separate blessing should be instituted for each individual species, Rabbi Yehuda says: One who sees the great sea recites a special blessing: Blessed…Who made the great sea…

For many, including a large list of Rabbis living in Baltimore, the discussion ends with this Mishnah as well.

Their argument is that the Mishnah does not list an eclipse as one of the events for which one should say a bracha, therefore we don’t say a bracha.  This argument is augmented by the general stringencies that we have adopted when it comes to questions of unnecessary or doubtful brachot, as well as the strong sentiment that we are not allowed to contravene the rulings of Chazal.

As was recently published in Baltimore Jewish Life, a statement issued by the Star-K:

  1. Is a bracha recited on an eclipse? A. No. Although a bracha is recited on other niflaos haboray such as an earthquake, thunder, and lightning, a bracha is not recited upon viewing a solar or lunar eclipse.

This is a compelling argument and one which makes good sense, especially for anyone who has spent any time studying Halacha and Halachic reasoning.

The argument against a bracha is strengthened by the second sources that anyone thinking or writing about the eclipse quotes.  The Gemara in Sukkah 29a

ת”ר בזמן שהחמה לוקה סימן רע לכל העולם כולו משל למה הדבר דומה למלך בשר ודם שעשה סעודה לעבדיו והניח פנס לפניהם כעס עליהם ואמר לעבדו טול פנס מפניהם והושיבם בחושך

The Sages taught: When the sun is eclipsed it is a bad omen for the entire world. The Gemara tells a parable. To what is this matter comparable? It is comparable to a king of flesh and blood who prepared a feast for his servants and placed a lantern [panes] before them to illuminate the hall. He became angry at them and said to his servant: Take the lantern from before them and seat them in darkness.

While the Gemara continues and offers varying explanations of whether the siman ra (bad omen) associated with a solar eclipse is the same as that associated with a lunar eclipse, the Gemara believes an eclipse is a סימן רע, bad omen.    Thus, those who were already inclined to forbid saying a bracha bolster their argument by pointing out that an eclipse is a bad omen.  Why would anyone want to make a bracha over a bad omen?!

A final argument against making a bracha is that the eclipse is a natural phenomenon.  We understand exactly what is happening and why it is happening.  Perhaps in ancient times when they had limited understanding of science, they would see it is a bad omen, but this no longer holds true.  At the same time, since we understand what is happening during an eclipse, there is need to say a blessing.

This final argument is very weak.  After all we have a whole list of natural phenomena for which we do say a bracha, even though we have very good scientific explanations for all of them: thunder, lightening, earthquakes, rainbows, etc.  But still we will return to this point in a little bit.

This is a basic summary of those who argue against saying a bracha over the eclipse.

Rabbi Linzer penned a teshuva on this question as well.  Those of us who are familiar with Rabbi Linzer can already guess, his approach is quite different.  (Rabbi Linzer’s Teshuva can be found here.)

The first point Rabbi Linzer raises is to question whether the list in the Mishnah is exhaustive or illustrative.  He acknowledges the position that says it is not listed explicitly in the Mishnah.  But then he questions: Does it really make sense that a valley should get a blessing but not a waterfall? As the Talmud says elsewhere (Gittin 33a): “Do you then expect the author of the mishnah to list everything announcing his wares like a spice merchant?”

With this we turn to the deeper philosophical debate at hand.  Yes, we must maintain fealty to Halacha and the Halachic source, but we cannot ignore the question that Rabbi Linzer poses:

“What does it mean when our religious impulse to praise God and see God in the world is not able to find expression in halakhic forms, such as the recitation of brakhot?  Does this not run the risk of making halakhah an experience only of following rules?”

He cites an apocryphal story:
It is well known that when Ben-Gurion completed the public reading of the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel in Tel Aviv, on May 14, 1948, R. Yehudah Leib Fishman (Maimon) stood up and recited the she’hehiyanu blessing.

Afterwards, a man came to the Rabbi and asked, “I don’t understand. How could you make this brakhah? Where does it say in Shulkhan Arukh that you make a brakhah for an occasion like this?”
Rabbi Fishman responded, “You don’t understand. I just got a new tie. I was making a
brakhah for that.”
“Oh,” said the man, “Now I understand. Thank you.”
To which R. Fishman replied: “What are you thinking?! You would make a brakhah for a tie, but you wouldn’t make a brakhah for the founding of a Jewish state?!”

To address the argument “we already know and understand what’s happening, “we turn to the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:

“Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious person’s attitude toward history and nature. One attitude is alien to his spirit: taking things for granted, regarding events as a natural course of things. . . He knows that there are laws that regulate the course of natural processes; he is aware of the regularity and pattern of things. However, such knowledge fails to mitigate his sense of perpetual surprise at the fact that there are facts at all. . .”

And finally, to address the argument that says we should not be saying a bracha over an eclipse because it is a bad omen.

First, it is worth noting that there are many phenomena listed in the Mishnah that have the potential to be much worse than an eclipse.

An earthquake, or as many of us experienced a few weeks ago her in Baltimore, thunder and lightning, etc.

But the same Mishnah that serves as the basis for so many to rule that a bracha should not be said over an eclipse because an eclipse is not listed, famously says:

חייב אדם לברך על הרעה כשם שמברך על הטובה

A person must bless over the bad, just as they do over the good.

The most familiar manifestation of this halacha for most of us is the bracha of Dayan haEmet that we say when God forbid a loved one passes away.

We have a religious obligation to make a bracha over bad news and over bad events.  Of course, this drives home the point that EVERYTHING comes from Hashem.  We may not always like it or understand but we recognize the Hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence) in everything that occurs in our life.

At the same time reciting a Bracha helps us to express wonder, awe, and gratitude to Hashem.  When, God forbid, the bracha is over an ominous event, the bracha helps us to focus ourselves to Hashem – for only God can help us in some situations.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe was one of the rabbis who did not allow reciting a bracha over the eclipse.  Both because the Mishnah does not mention it and because it is mentioned as a bad omen.  But, he said that while a formal bracha is not allowed, we should use the bad omen of an eclipse (and other similar ones) as an opportunity to turn to Hashem in prayer and introspection.

With this thought in mind, let us turn back to the tragic events of Charlottesville. With all the marches, protests and counter protests taking place today, taking place maybe right now, I am terrified to check the news after Shabbos.  This is not a question of politics.  If ever there was a time that our country needed the message of the Mishnah, it is now: כשם שמברך על הטוב כך מברך על הרעה.  Just as one must bless over the good, e/she must bless over the bad.  First and foremost, this requires us to be able to recognize what is good and what is bad.  What has happened this past week is not good.  And the Mishnah teaches that there is a bracha for this.   We must turn to Hashem in prayer and recognize that for this too there is an appropriate religious response.  There is a necessary religious response.

I would like to conclude by inviting you to join me in saying two brachot.  One bracha that the US will find healing and experience moral clarity that has been sorely lacking. There should be no more violence in our streets.

And I invite you to join me on Monday – at least symbolically, as we will not be in the same physical location (with safety glasses of course) to recite the bracha of עושה מעשה בראשית (Blessed is God who makes the works of creation).  In the concluding words of Rabbi Linzer:
This coming Monday, go out and view the solar eclipse. Safety first, so make sure to view it only through proper glasses; you will risk injuring your eyes if you look at it straight on. And when you safely observe the eclipse, give religious and halakhic expression to our sense of wonder when contemplating God’s glorious creation and recite the brakha of oseh ma’aseh bereishit. Truly, mah rabu ma’asekha Hashem!

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From → Halacha

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