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Birchas HaChammah: Rarest of Rites

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"Raise your eyes aloft and see Who created these (Isaiah 40:25)". Of all celestial objects seen from earth, the sun clearly is the most prominent. It is the source and sustainer of all life on this planet. Genesis relates that on Day 4 of Creation: "God made two great luminaries, the greater luminary to dominate the day and the lesser luminary to dominate the night ...God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth (1:16-17)" "They shall serve as signs, and for the festivals, and for days and years ...(1:14)".
The unchanging pattern of successive phases of the moon presents a natural monthly opportunity - Sanctification of the Moon ('Kiddush Levanah') - for recognition of God's mastery of Nature. Surely, too, the sun ought even more evoke such a response. Its appearance, though, is unchanging. Its declination from the horizon, though, does vary over the course of the solar year, synchronous with the seasons. "[The sun] goes towards the south and veers toward the north (Eccl 1:6 )." Starting at the Winter Solstice, when the sun's rising is at its southern maximum, it then proceeds towards the Vernal Equinox, when day and night are of equal duration, continues rising ever more northward, till reaching its northern maximum at the Summer Solstice, then turns southward, passing through the Autumnal Equinox onward towards the Winter Solstice.
Any point along this annual cyclical path could serve as its starting point. The above turning points ('tekufos'), generally, but the common point of the Equinoxes, specifically, seem the most natural choice. Since, in the Northern Hemisphere, the Vernal Equinox heralds the rebirth of Nature, that likely would be the preferred one for marking the sun's creation. Were there to be such an annual ceremony, however, that might appear too much akin to pagan Nature worship. Indeed, in the Temple, to counteract any such intimation, the morning sacrifice was at the western side of the altar, opposite the sun's rising, and the late afternoon sacrifice, on the eastern side. The Rabbis, instead, opted for a Biblical textually based referent time. The Blessing of the Sun ('Birchas HaChammah') is to be recited at the same time and the same day of the week as the Vernal Equinox's presumed first occurrence, i.e. 6 P.M. on a Tuesday evening. In practice, the
ceremony itself takes place, after sunrise, on Wednesday, the fourth day of the week.
What is the rationale behind such precise timing? In accordance with the terminology of Genesis: "And it was evening, it was morning", the Jewish day begins at sundown. At the equinoxes, that would be 6 P.M. The time between successive Vernal Equinoxes, occurring at any specified time and day of the week, is 28 years. The approximate length of a solar year in 365.25 days. Noting that that is 52 weeks plus one day plus 6 hours, successive Vernal Equinoxes will occur one day of the week and six hours later than the previous one. Every seven years, the day of the week will repeat, every four years, the time of day. Since 28 is the first number divisible both by four and seven, that is when the two cycles will first again coincide.
Why is determination of the Vernal Equinox so important?. The Jewish calendar is lunisolar, i.e. lunar but solar adjusted. Inserting 7 leap months over 19 successive years, produces virtually the same number of days as in the solar years over that period, exceeding the Gregorian period by only 2 hours, 8 minutes and 15.3 seconds. Ritual reasons mandate such calendric alignment. Passover, the holiday of Spring, must fall after the Vernal Equinox. Tabernacles, at the time of the Fall harvest, must conclude after the Autumnal Equinox.
The Julian calendar, introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C.E., introduced the concept of a leap day, Feb. 29, every four years, to account for that extra quarter day per year. The Julian year was, however, longer that the actual solar year by 11 minutes and 14 seconds. Consequently, every 128 years, the Vernal Equinox, which fell in that initial year on March 25, would arrive one day earlier on the calendar. By 1582, it had retreated to March 11. The Gregorian calendar sought to rectify what was a roughly three day discrepancy over a period of 400 years by eliminating a leap day in those century years not divisible by four. Thus, 1900 did not have a leap day, but 2000 did. By eliminating 10 days that year - October 5 was followed by October 15 - the Vernal Equinox was advanced back to March 21. Not coincidentally, that was the date of the Vernal equinox in 325 C.E., the year of the First Council of Nicea, which fixed the
date of Easter as the first Sunday after the Full Moon following the Vernal Equinox. It was deliberately intended not to coincide with the Jewish celebration of Passover. In this, observers then noted, the ecclesiastical calendar was "wrong with the moon rather than right with the Jews".
While the current calendar is quite accurate, it does not, indeed cannot, totally correspond to celestial cycles, inasmuch as its years consist solely of whole days. Although it is commonly believed that the solar year is 365.25 days long, that is not precisely so. In actuality, its length is 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds. That is, as the phrase goes, "close enough for government work". The accumulated difference over a long period of time, far longer the many successive human life spans, however, can be appreciable, in fact one day in 3326 years. Even the astronomical seasons vary in duration. Since the Earth, in its elliptical orbit, is closest to the Sun during the Northern Hemisphere winter, and farthest away during its summer, it moves fastest in winter and slower in summer. producing seasonal durations of 89.02 and 93.6 days, respectively.
Birchas HaChammah, at the Vernal Equinox, and the 60 day post Autumnal Equinox start of the Fall/Winter rain request recital of Tal Umatar are both based on the calculations of the eminent Babylonian sage, Shmuel, which reflected the then extant Julian calendar. Though now known to be somewhat inaccurate, their method of dating was left unchanged. Due to their intended use by a widely dispersed general public, "accuracy was sacrificed for simplicity". By the time the current Jewish calendar was fixed in 358/359 C.E., it was based on the more precise computations of Rav Adda. Those posited a solar year only 6 and 2/3 minutes longer than the true solar year, an improvement of some 4 and 1/2 minutes. Nonetheless, each date in the Jewish calendar now occurs later in the solar year by one day every 216 years. That should not be cause for undue concern. Passover will just be falling somewhat later in Spring. With the anticipated revival of the Sanhedrin,
it would be empowered, on the basis of totally accurate direct visual observation, to declare New Moon and intercalated leap months.
The prescribed totality of Birchas HaChammah consists only of the same blessing recited upon encountering a number of exceptional wonders of nature: "Blessed art Thou, HaShem, our God, King of the Universe, Who makes the work of Creation". Such is this rite's rarity - at most a thrice in a lifetime experience - it typically is enhanced with preceding and following psalms and other prayers. For example, Psalm 148:Praise God from the heavens ... Praise Him, sun and moon; praise Him all bright stars", prior to the blessing. That would be followed by a prayer from the Sabbath morning service: "Who has fashioned [the luminaries] with wisdom, insight and discernment", and Psalm 19: "The heavens proclaim the glory of God and the firmament tells the work of His hands".
Though perfunctory and clearly based on artifice, "evocative rather than responsive", Birchas HaChammah serves a much larger purpose. It provides yet another opportunity to celebrate God's Creation of the Universe. His handiwork, fully evident within it, is seen in the interdependence of its myriad moving masses, and the self-sustaining regularity of their motion. Such wonderment felt by the ancients has only been enhanced by the findings of modern science. The same Laws of Physics and Chemistry observed on earth have been shown to apply even to the Universe's furthermost reaches. There's not a chance that that happened by chance. No wonder the Psalmist's ecstatic exclamation: "How abundant are Your works! (Ps. 104:24)".

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