Sunrise, Sunset, So What?

ImageOn average, we spare little daily thought for the sun other than to its perceived influence on the esthetics of the next twenty-four hours. It is, therefore, we are. End of story.

But since the sun’s first appearance in the skies on the fourth day of Creation, according to the Torah (Book of Bereshis/Genesis), this story is not one with an ending; it is punctuated with the myths and folklore of every human culture from the beginning of recorded time and perpetuated across generations in forms apropos to each telling.

These tales comprise a portion of the collective effort to comprehend our origins amidst our mercurial environment, the relentless cycle of the seasons and our place in the cosmos. They are an amalgam of sincere theological speculation, intriguing scientific discovery with some millennial fear-mongering thrown in for spice.

In tribute to this timeless portrait of human curiosity, I’ve chosen to include a rare Jewish blessing for witnessing natural phenomena in my book, An Illumination Of Blessings.

The Birkat Ha-Chamah or Blessing of the Sun is rare because it is recited only once every twenty-eight years, most recently in April of 2009. It is not to be found in standard prayer books; rather, it is distributed to participants at each recitation ceremony. The blessing dates back to Talmudic times (first century AD) when the rabbis, wishing to acknowledge the sun’s importance to life on Earth without inviting idolatry, addressed the star theologically without attributing divinity to it.

According to rabbinical opinion in the Babylonian Talmud, the blessing is to be recited every twenty-eight years on the vernal equinox* to commemorate the sun’s return to its original position (relative to the Earth) on the fourth day of Creation when it is fully visible above the horizon at dawn. They taught: “One who sees the sun at the beginning of its cycle…recites: ‘Blessed is the One Who made the Creation’.” (Tractate Berachot 59b)

My illustration for this blessing is set in medieval Europe when rabbi-scholars like Maimonides (the Rambam) and Samuel ben Judah ibn Tibbon engaged in lively discussions of Torah and Talmud, codifying their opinions for future generations.

On a grassy hillside against the backdrop of a castle fortress-town, a prayer shawl (tallit) clad man and his son are awaiting the full sunrise as they imagine a vignette of the fourth day of Creation framed within an astrolabe. The hand-shaped (hamsa) device from which the astrolabe is suspended is meant to represent the idea that its five fingers remind us to use our five senses to praise G-d. The hamsa is also referred to as the Hand of Miriam in remembrance of her as sister to Moses and Aaron.** The boy holds a ram’s horn (shofar), which will be sounded when the sun has risen.

This image was suggested by the Birkat Ha-Chamah ceremony of April 8, 1981, led by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi who stood on the observation deck of the Empire State Building in New York and sounded the shofar amidst a crowd of 300 participants.

I think, perhaps, this is how we might understand our place in the cosmos. As witnesses to the wonders of created life, that is a dance of chaos and order, we are privileged to question it, but are never to know all the answers or the end of the story; at least, not yet.

*************************************************************************

* Why every twenty-eight years? Although the sun rises and sets in the east and west respectively, its position shifts seasonally, moving to the north in summer and to the south in winter. The midpoints of this movement are the equinoxes which mark the autumn and spring seasons. To complete this cycle requires one solar year, the length of which varies by slightly more than a day in our calendar. So the rabbis calculated that when the equinoxes have moved forward exactly thirty-five days, they will occur on the same day and hour as on the first hour of the fourth day of Creation.

** Some of you may wonder why I have not included a woman in this ceremony. This is because the Birkat Ha-Chamah is a time-based mitzvah (commandment) which women are exempt from observing. You can read more about this tradition here: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/woman_commandments.html Nevertheless, the Hand of Miriam attached to the astrolabe represents their spiritual presence.

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