Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Pesah (Zohar)

Birkat ha-Hamah: Some Heretical Thoughts

This year, the Eve of Pesah is marked by an added special occasion: the recitation of Birkat ha-Hamah, the Blessing over the Sun, recited only once every 28 years, always on one of the first Wednesdays in Nisan; this year, most unusually (some say, for the first time since the Exodus), it falls on Erev Pesah. Dozens of books and pamphlets have been written to mark the occasion; lectures and classes on the subject are ubiquitous; many will recite the blessing at mass gatherings —at the Western Wall, at the Sherover Promenade in Talpiyot (which provides an unobstructed view of both the Temple Mount and of the eastern horizon) and, for the hardy, at Metzukei Deragot, near the cliffs overlooking one of the deepest and most impressive wadis in the Judean Desert (and most challenging for snapplers). The simple, one line blessing, עושה מעשה בראשית (“He who creates the works of creation”), has been adorned with an elaborate liturgy, containing psalms, biblical verses referring to the sun, and piyyut.

What is the reason for all this hoopla? Psychologically, most people find the opportunity to recite a prayer which only comes two or three, or at most four, times in a lifetime an occasion for celebration in itself (or, in an untranslatable Israeli word-play, סיבה למסיבה). The explanation given in the Talmud at Berakhot 59b is that it marks the return of the sun, in cyclical fashion, to the exact position at which it was located at the time of Creation, which also coincides with the vernal equinox. But a closer examination raises some troubling questions.

The calculation of the 28-year cycle is based upon the assumption that the solar year is exactly 365¼ days long. Hence, each year the suns returns to its original position one and a quarter days later—if one starts from sunset Tuesday night (the blessing is recited Wednesday morning because the sun is obviously not visible at night), the next year it will fall at midnight of Wednesday, the year after that at dawn on Friday, and so on; hence, only after a complete 28 year cycle (7 x 4) does it return to the same time-period and day of the week. The current Hebrew year, 5769, is 5768 years, an exact multiple of 28, after the year 1; hence, this is regarded as the first year of the 207th 28-year cycle since Creation.

But this calculation, based upon what is known in Rabbinic literature as “Shmuel’s tekufah,” is rooted in an inaccuracy. The actual solar year is about 11 minutes short of 365 ¼ days; thus, in the course of slightly more than a century there accumulates an error of an entire day; hence, since the days of Shmuel, in late antiquity, the date for the blessing—in last century and this, April 9th—is some twenty days after the equinox (daytime today is about 12 hours 40 minutes).

It was this same deviation from an exact quarter-day that led the Catholic Church, under Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, to adapt the revision of the Julian calendar known as the Gregorian calendar, in which the century-years (except for those that are multiples of 400, such as 2000), are not leap years. This was only gradually adopted by Protestant countries, and in Russian only after the 1917 Revolution. An interesting personal sidelight: in my own family, this resulted in some confusion about the proper birthday for my father, who was born in Czarist-occupied Poland in 1906, under the Julian dispensation.

The Jewish calendar per se, through which we determine new moons, intercalate leap years, and thus celebrate our festivals, knows of this discrepancy and accurately calculates the solar year; hence, the festivals always falls in the proper seasons. Birkat ha-Hamah is one of only two observances that perpetuates this discrepancy, the other being the date for reciting tal u-matar in the Diaspora which, rather than November 20, as implied by the Talmud (60 days after the autumnal equinox), begins on December 4th or 5th.

But more than that: the very notion that the sun returns to a specific place where it was at the time of Creation implies a Ptolemiac world-view, in which the sun revolves around earth. In other words, the whole concept of Birkat ha-Hamah ignores the Copernichean revolution of the 16th century, which dramatically revised the manner in which humankind views the position of the earth in the universe—not to mention the issue of whether we understand the “Six Days of Creation” in literal fashion, or as in some sense metaphorical.

The observance of Birkat ha-Hamah thus raises some rather serious questions about Torah and science: if, in light of the above, it is difficult to regard the so-called return of the sun to its original position as in any way corresponding to any actual celestial event, what is the point of it all? Many people have waxed poetic about Birkat ha-Hamah as an occasion for us to “express our appreciation for God for the world in which he has placed us” (thus the Torah Tidbits)—but we do that in many other ways, beginning with our daily morning and evening prayers; this occasion seems ersatz, based on long-outmoded scientific notions. One can perhaps excuse the Haredim, untutored in science, who refer to the heliocentric view of the solar system as “the theory of a Polish galakh (priest)”—a factual, if insulting description of Nicholaus Copernicus. But what of those of us who believe that it is possible to synthesize and even integrate Torah u-Mada (Torah and Science) into a unified world view? (Indeed, those words are the very motto of Yeshiva University.) To my mind, the only way one can recite Birkat hh-Hamah in good faith and with some intellectual integrity is by viewing halakhah as a purely theoretical construction, totally disconnected from the concrete reality of the world. But that is a terribly arid approach, generally, and particularly in relation to blessings, whose whole point is to make us aware of God’s presence in the multitude of phenomena we encounter in everyday life.

Of course, the fact that the blessing occurs so infrequently, and that many of us may well be dead by the next time it becomes a matter of practical observance, in 2037, means that people hardly have reason to give much thought to the issue—or else get caught up in the excitement of doing something so rare and special, whatever the underlying rationale. In the end, I myself don’t know what I shall do tomorrow morning. Perhaps, as a well-disciplined Orthodox Jew, I will nevertheless recite the blessing with everyone else in my shul. But, in principle, there are serious issues here, deserving of thought. I welcome reactions and comments, even after the fact.

Four Sons: A Postscript

Near the end of my Shabbat Hagadol teaching on “Four Sons and Four Questions,” I referred in passing to an interpretation I heard from Deena Garber. As what I wrote was rather sketchy, Deena sent me the following elaboration:

What I said was that one should try reversing the order: i.e., first see the answers and then reflect on the questions…. If you look at answers 1-4 as reported in the Haggadah, you may see how each child, with the kind of communication from the father as indicated by those answers, would tend to produce parallel questions or lack of questions… The first father, with the set of clear answers, produces an inquiring, questioning talmid hakham. The father with an attitude of hakheh, putting down the very cay of questioning, produces a rebellious son, the rasha. The father who speaks of wonders produces the marveling temimut (innocence) of the tam. The parent who speaks first—at petah lo—produces a child who will never ask…

This reversal of the communication paradigm was just a thought I had once when we were learning pre-Pesah at Yakar… I thought about these pragmatics of communication viz. the four sons in the context of parents really opening up a place of true communication and thinking about answering a child's questions and wanting and being able to say, “Yes, I was really in Mitzrayim and Hashem really took me out.” We were, as I remember, thinking about this in the context of trans-generational issues in transmission of trauma and collective Jewish trauma, especially in the context of the Shoah…

I was always rather surprised by the strong effect this idea had on people. At petah lo seems to me very clear: when parents consistently don’t wait for the child to speak but jump in, the child has no space to ask… It may be that it is specifically a feminine form, referring to a certain kind of [mothering] style that interferes with the early expression of the true self—not at all teaching how to ask a question.

But perhaps the Haggadah is indeed teaching us something very much deeper about multi-generational issues, when we learn that the essence of Torah sheba’al peh—of the derashot, narrative and limmud of the Seder—is a parent child process which also transmits faith and the experience of freedom on this night.

One more side issue, inter alia related to what she said above: I realized that a linguistic clarification is in order about the phrase used in the reply to the wicked son: אף אתה הקהה את שיניו, “you should blunt his teeth.” Many people seem to think that this implies physical aggression, as if it were to be read הכה את שיניו, “You should hit ” or even “knock out his teeth.” The Hebrew root קהה is a rare one, appearing only four times in all of Tanakh: three times in variants of the folk-saying, אבות אכלו בוסר ושיני בנים תקההנה “the fathers ate unripe/sour grapes and the teeth of the sons are blunted” (Jeremiah 31:28, 29 and Ezekiel 18:2, and once in the proverb in Ecclesiastes 10:10, אם קהה הברזל והוא לא פנים קלקל וחילים יגבר (“If the iron is blunt, and one does not whet the edge, he must exert more strength”). The implication of the phrase is thus one of blunting or “taking the edge” off the hostility and negative force of the “wicked” son, not of violence or destruction.


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