And God said: Let there be lights in the vastness of sky to separate day from night… And they shall serve as lights in the vastness of space, to shine upon the earth. And it was so.
— Genesis 1:14
Rabbi Levi Langer vividly recalls the last time he recited the Birkat Hachama, the so-called sun blessing. He was a yeshiva student in Monsey, N.Y. and the moment, he admitted, sort of came and went.
“It was quite uneventful, to tell you the truth,” Langer said. “After morning prayers, we just went out and did it.”
Despite the 28-year hiatus between recitations of this blessing, Langer’s recollection of the last time he said it isn’t so surprising. The blessing itself takes less than 30 seconds to say (even faster depending on your davening skills), and while some psalms are traditionally recited with it, the whole process is over in a few minutes.
“When I was a kid, it (the blessing) was a riddle,” Langer said. “‘What prayer do you say in 28 years?’ we used to stump kids.”
But that was then and this is now, and Langer, the rosh kollel of the Kollel Jewish Learning Center, believes the Birkat Hachama can and should have special meaning for Jews — especially this year when the time for its recitation falls on the eve of Passover.
The Birkat Hachama (blessing for the sun), is said every 28 years when the sun returns to the same position in the sky where it traditionally was at the time of creation. This year — Wednesday, April 8, at sunrise — Jews around the world will gather to recite it.
In English, the text of the Birkat Hachamah is generally interpreted as “Blessed are you, O God, King of the universe, who works the act of creation.” (Baruch atah adonai aloheinu melech haolam oseh maseh vrashit.)
If it’s cloudy that morning, the blessing may still be recited so long as the form of the sun is visible through the clouds. If the sun cannot be seen at all, then prayers to mark the occasion may be said, but not the blessing itself. (Some rabbinic opinions hold the blessing should be recited regardless of conditions.)
In Pittsburgh, the observant will gather for a sunrise service at Frick Park (BlueSlide), at 6:52 a.m. Another gathering will be held at 9 a.m. at the Hillel Academy parking lot.
According to the Torah, the sun was created on the fourth day (Tuesday night/Wednesday), and tradition teaches that it was created at the tekufat Nissan (the beginning of Spring; another tradition says the world was created on Rosh Hashanah). For this reason, many Jews remember the work of creation by reciting this blessing upon seeing the sun fully risen on the morning after a tekufat Nissan that occurs at the beginning of the fourth day of the week, which occurs every 28 years.
The blessing is recited only if the sun (or at least its light) is visible.
At the same time, jinsider.com, a Jewish news Web site, has collected information, event listings and videos about. On April 8, people at home can follow the blessing by uploading a program or watch the blessings from around the world. Judaism.com is partnering with jinsider.
Astronomically, Langer said, the sun doesn’t really return to the same spot in the sky at this point in time; that’s merely an estimation. But the prayer’s message goes much deeper than the physical phenomenon.
“It’s an opportunity to contemplate,” said Langer, who lectured on the subject this past Sunday at the Kollel. Too often, when Jews pray, he lamented sometimes the prayers are recited mechanically, without much thought to what’s being said and why?
But a prayer that’s said every two and one-third decades, and praising God for the creation of something so absolutely vital to human existence? Now that should give the most mechanical davener pause to reflect.
“You never stop and think about it, and that’s what this prayer is all about. It makes you stop and think about it.”
This year, at least, he equated the prayer to the Kabbalat Shabbat, the series of psalms and poems recited every Friday night before the Barchu, it’s intent being to get the worshippers into the proper mental state of mind to prayer deeply and meaningfully.
Arguably, the Birkat Hachama could be used the same way to prepare Jews for the seder.
“You don’t just want to barge into Pesach,” Langer said. “You want a prelude that gets you in the right frame of mind. It (the blessing) helps us get into the experience.”
Perhaps that’s why the Birkat Hachama appears to be attracting the imagination this year of Jews from all levels of observance.
COEJL – the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, held an art competition based on the Birkat Hachamah
The competition was designed to celebrate the Jewish contemporary experience through the arts and create an artistic image that would bring greater awareness and appreciation to event, according to COEJL statement. At the same time, “This year, the energy and climate challenges that face our world give Birkat Hahammah and its first 21st century celebration a great urgency.”
The Philadelphia-based Shalom Center, has on its Web site a service that can be used for the recitaton. It integrates support for solar energy in the world with the other three of the Four Worlds of Kabbalistic thought: the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual aspects of the ceremony.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, director of the of the Pennsylvania Region of the Union for Reform Judaism, said the blessing poses an opportunity for liberal Jews
“Here again we have an opportunity to say, ‘yes, I’m a resident of this planet. I don’t just identify myself as a resident of this house and this city, I live on this beautiful planet.”
But there’s another side to it as well.
“It reminds us of our responsibility to know more about the changes in the earth, Elwell said. “I know there is disagreement about global warming, but it’s our responsibility to learn as much as can about climate change. We’re all living with climate change; we have to know more about it.”
Rabbis say the Birkat Hachamah is one of many blessings and instructions contained in the tradition to protect the earth. The majority of the laws concerning tzedakah are based on agriculture. Prayers for rain and dew also exist, and there is a prohibition against destroying fruit trees in times of war (Deuteronomy 20:19).
Langer acknowledged the importance of environmental and conservation messages, but the original meaning of the Birkat Hachamah should not be overshadowed, he said.
“Don’t allow the old meaning to be displaced by the new,” he said.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)