The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Blessing of the Sun

This morning the sun returned to its starting place. The Jewish calendar is lunisolar, defined both by the sun and the moon. The Muslim calendar is lunar. Months don't neatly divide into years, so there's a procession of months compared to seasons in the Muslim calendar, which means that Ramadan can occur in mid-summer (which is harsh), or mid-winter (which is relatively easier). The Jewish calendar has lunar months (traditionally, someone had to witness the new moon in order to declare a Rosh Chodesh, or new month), but instead of leap days in a leap year, we have leap months. The month of Adar doubles up into Adar I and Adar II. This fixes the seasonal drift: Passover is always in spring, Shavuot in summer, Yom Kippur in fall, Hanukkah in winter.

I was born on a Jewish leap year, 5730, and my brother was born two years previously. While, in the civil calendar, our birthdays are two days apart (me February 3, him February 5), in the Jewish calendar, we are three weeks apart (me 27 Shvat, and him 6 Shvat).

There's a dopey joke about this kind of thing. Two Jews are talking. One asks the other, "What date is Passover this year?", and the other replies, "15 Nissan, the same as every year."

Anyway, this morning was the day the sun is in its starting position for this 28-year cycle. Every 28 years, the civil calendar and the Jewish calendar sync up again, and the ancient rabbis understood this. Well, at least to the degree that they understood that a solar year is not exactly 365 years, but 365 years with a remainder. Back then, they thought a solar year was 365 1/4 days, but today we know it to be roughly 365.24219 days, and we adjust the civil year accordingly. Because the Jewish year has religious significance, making adjustments for astronomical data has to be approved by a Beit Din (a council of rabbis) and due to the Diaspora, no such contemporary Beit Din would be considered definitive.

In the Talmud, there is a blessing the ancient rabbis wrote to celebrate the start of this cycle, the place the sun was when it was created. They wrote a blessing for us to say at dawn of April 8th of any BCE year that divides into 28 with a remainder of 7, or any AD year that divides into 28 with a remainder of 21, to greet the sun at the start of its cycle, called the Birkat HaChamah, or Blessing of the Sun.

Because it's so rare an occurance, most Jews (and even most rabbis) have absolutely no idea what the proper ritual is for the Birkat HaChamah. A Jew would be very lucky to have performed the Birkat HaChamah four times in his or her life. So last night I did a Google search, and ended up printing out a ritual booklet that Chabad prepared for today.

I am not a Chabadnik. I am not Orthodox, and I do not use the Ashkenazic dialect of Hebrew when I pray, as they do. I am totally opposed to Chabad Messianism, and while I admire their Jewish outreach, I do not intend ever to join them. But I am grateful that they published a guide to one of the rarest Mitzvot.

I woke up at 6 AM this morning, put on my kippah and talllit, and dressed in a new pair of pants. Why? Because one is supposed to recite the Shehecheyanu blessing, and the poor Chabad rabbi who wrote the booklet could not find scriptural or talmudic authority to justify the Shehecheyanu being recited for this occasion. One is allowed to say the Shehecheyanu when one puts on a new garment for the first time, so by wearing a new garment for the first time while performing the Birkat HaChamah, one makes sure to absolutely justify saying the Shehecheyanu. Welcome to the complicated world of Orthodox blessings.

One is supposed to look directly at the sun for a brief moment, but it was cloudy this morning. The sun was behind the buildings across the street, and I could not see it. It has been cloudy all morning, and I still haven't seen the sun, but I would imagine that the same God who put a cloud between me and the sun will forgive me for not seeing the sun directly after really trying to.

I went back in and started the ritual, using the booklet as my guide. My Hebrew skills are still fairly weak, so I started using their transliteration, but the Ashkenazic pronounciation really threw me off, so I read the Hebrew, really slowly. First there were a few lines of Psalm 148, then the actual Birkah HaChamah, then the Shehecheyanu, then Psalm 19. All of which I was not familiar with, so it was pretty rough going.

Then came Psalm 121 (I lift mine eyes up to the mountains. From whence will my help come?). A rabbi somewhat associated with my particular affiliation, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, wrote a very beautiful tune to this psalm, which I sang. Then Psalm 150, which is a favorite of mine. I used a tune I got off of YouTube.

After a passage of the Talmud I had trouble pronouncing, and Psalm 67, there was the Aleinu prayer. I'm used to saying the Aleinu prayer as the very last prayer, so it was weird to say it before my usual morning prayers. I backtracked and recited the Shema Yisrael prayer and the Amidah, and finished off with another psalm for good measure.

It was a very interesting ritual, and I look forward to doing it again on April 8, 2037. Happy Passover, everyone.

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