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Birkat HaHammah – The Blessing of the Sun 5769 / 2009

This Erev Pesah, Wednesday 8th April, will see a ritual performed only once in 28 years: Birkat HaHammah – the blessing of the
sun. Early that morning (sunshine permitting), Jews all over the world will stand outside their homes and synagogues and with
great joy bless God as creator of the universe, accompanied by psalms, readings and perhaps even song. What is the origin of
this practice, how is it done and why only once in 28 years?

1 Background

1.1. Original source

The Talmud (Berakhot 59b) supplies a list of phenomena over which an observer should say the blessing
(God makes the works of creation). One of these is the (cycle or equinox) of the sun, which Rashi (ad loc.) explains to
refer to the return of the sun to the position that it occupied at the start of creation. The Talmud (ibid.) notes that this occurs
once every 28 years on a Tuesday evening in Nissan; as such, the blessing is recited at the first occasion after this when the
sun is visible – i.e. early the next morning. This is based on certain historical and astronomical assumptions.

1.2 Historical assumptions

a) The luminaries were placed in the sky on the Wednesday of creation (BeReishit 1:14-19). As such, the sun was in its
original position as it became dark on the first Tuesday evening of history.
b) The Talmud (Rosh HaShanah 10a-11b) records a disagreement between Rabbis Eli’ezer and Yehoshua as to whether
the universe was created in Tishrey or Nissan; elsewhere (ibid. 12a) it rules that for the purposes of sun-cycles, the
halakhah follow Rabbi Yehoshua’s view that the universe was created in Nissan.
c) The sun was first placed in the sky at the (equinox) of the month of Nissan – the vernal equinox.

Summary: the sun is assumed to have been created at nightfall (notionally 6.00pm) on the very first Tuesday evening,
coinciding with the vernal equinox.

1.3 Astronomical assumptions

a) The Talmudic sage Shmuel (Eruvin 56b) asserts that each quarter-year is exactly 91 days and 7½ hours long, and
consequently, the solar year lasts for precisely 52 weeks 1¼ days. (This is known to us as the Julian calendar).
b) As such, the vernal equinox (and indeed the other three – the summer solstice, the autumnal equinox and the
winter solstice), moves forward at the rate of 1¼ days each year relative to the days of the week.
c) Accordingly, if the vernal equinox was at 6.00pm on the first Tuesday of creation, it will have fallen at 12.00am on
Wednesday in year 2, at 6.00am on Thursday in year 3, at 12.00pm on Friday in year 4, etc.
d) Following this pattern, the vernal equinox will occur at 6.00pm on Tuesday once in 28 years.

Summary: assuming the Julian (Shmuel’s) calculation, the vernal equinox moves forward at a rate of 1¼ days each year. As
such, it will only coincide with its original day of the week and time (Tuesday at 6.00pm) once in 28 years.

2 Difficulties with the calculation

2.1 Assumptions

We have seen that the identification of the day on which the blessing of the sun should be recited is predicated on several
suppositions. While the historical assumption may be assumed for the purpose of our study, the astronomical assumptions are
certainly problematic.

2.2 The inaccuracy of Shmuel’s calendar

The true solar year is actually slightly over 11 minutes shorter than the 356¼ days of Shmuel’s calculation. This means that
Shmuel’s calendar moves ahead of the true astronomical year by one day every 128 years. This problem was corrected by the
adoption of the Gregorian calendar across Europe between the 16th and 20th centuries, reducing the discrepancy to a minute
amount.

The inaccuracy is tacitly acknowledged by the Jewish calendar which has been used since Talmudic times. Known as the
calendar of Rav Ada, it ignores Shmuel, instead adopting a system of intercalation that allows for seven 13-month years in
every 19-year cycle. While rather less accurate than the Gregorian calendar, it ensures that the festivals are celebrated in their
correct season, as required by Biblical law.

This discrepancy (demonstrated by the rabbis’ adoption of Rav Ada’s calendar rather than that of Shmuel), means that it is
certain that the calculation of the date of Birkat HaHammah is astronomically inaccurate, even if one accepts the historical
assumptions. According to Rav Ada, the vernal equinox will never fall at 6.00pm on a Tuesday, precluding the possibility of
Birkat HaHammah within the parameters set by the Talmud.

Rabbi Harvey Belovski 5769


Birkat HaHammah – The Blessing of the Sun 5769 / 2009

2.3 Approaches to the discrepancy

We have seen that Jewish sources were aware of the discrepancy between the calculation of Shmuel (which informs the
halakhah of Birkat HaHammah) and the true equinox. How then can making the blessing be justified? There are many
approaches to this conundrum, including: an approximation was sought to allow for simple calculation, even though the
inaccuracy was known (Ibn Ezra and Rabbi David Nieto); the rabbis concealed the accurate calculation to prevent sorcerers
from misusing it (Rabbi Ovadia ben David); to enable the simple-minded to work out the date (Hazon Ish).

While a small minority of rabbis ruled against saying the blessing because of the inaccuracy of Shmuel’s calculation, this view is
almost universally rejected and the requirement to say Birkat HaHammah appears in all normative halakhic codes. It seems
that celebrating the anniversary of the moment of the creation of the sun and understanding its significance carried more weight
with the rabbis than the technicalities!

3 How to do it – a brief digest of the laws of Birkat HaHammah

a) The text of the ceremony (which follows this essay) consists of the blessing , followed and preceded
by selected readings.
b) Although Birkat HaHammah is ideally said as soon after sunrise (6.20am in London on 8th April) as the entire sun is
visible, for Shul-goers, the normal practice is to say it either after immediately before or after Shaharit.
c) Birkat HaHammah may be said by everyone – men, women and children.
d) For those who do not attend Shul, Birkat HaHammah may be said alone or in a family or other group. It’s a wonderful
opportunity for a family celebration of creation, affirming Jewish life and one’s relationship with God. Celebrate it in your
garden, on your roof or through the window of a plane!
e) The blessing should ideally be said within the first three halakhic hours of the day (before 9.40am in London).
f) In the event that one is unable to say the blessing by this time, one may say it until halakhic midday (1.02pm in
London). After midday, one may say the blessing, but one must omit God’s names.
g) The blessing may only be said when either the sun is visible or one can discern the shape of the sun through the
clouds. It may not be said if the clouds completely cover the sun.
h) When saying the blessing itself (which is couched in the present tense), one should contemplate the fact that God
created the universe, and it is through His ongoing supervision and involvement that everything continues to exist.
i) If one is not able to say all of the readings, one may say just the blessing and select some of the other texts.
j) If it is a cloudy day and it is not possible to say the blessing, consider saying some of the readings, celebrating the
ideas and discussing the notions of God and creation.
k) Caution: please do not look at the sun directly, as it can be very harmful.

4 Why say Birkat HaHammah?

In contrast to the weekly Shabbat, which celebrates God’s creation of the world, Birkat HaHammah specifically acknowledges
God as creator of the sun.

In their attempt to understand their world and raison d’être, the first humans devised many forms of worship. These commonly
attributed divinity to known forces, especially the luminaries. Understandably, sun-worship was common in ancient times, as is
evident from many Biblical references. Rejecting the commonly-held early view, the Torah teaches that God created everything
in the universe, including the sun.

The great water-drawing ceremony, celebrated in the Temple on Sukkot focused on the acknowledgement of God as creator, in
place of sun-worship:

When the celebrants reached the gate exiting eastwards, they turned their faces to the west and said, ‘our
ancestors in this place turned their backsides to the sanctuary of God and faced eastwards to prostrate to the
rising sun, but as for we, our eyes are turned towards God’. (Mishnah Sukkah 5:4)

The Talmud explains the selection of Psalm 94 for recital on Wednesday:

On Wednesday, recite ‘the Lord is the God of vengeance’, since He created the sun and moon (on Wednesday)
and in the future will take vengeance against those who worship them. (Rosh HaShanah 31a)

Our blessing of the sun has always enabled us to affirm something that we take for granted, yet was a serious challenge for
ancient Man: even the sun, the most powerful observable phenomenon, was created by God. Yet it should not escape our
attention that today, anti-religious sentiments are rife; indeed, the influence of those who deny God and creation is actually
increasing. Birkat HaHammah affords a rare and timely opportunity to declare unequivocally that the sun, (and, by extension, all
of nature), was created by God and serves Him for our benefit. The blessing, which refers to God as one ‘who creates’ (in the
present tense), should sensitise us to the ongoing majesty of the universe and the constant presence of the Divine.

5 Further reading

Bleich, J.D., Bircas HaHamah, ArtScroll / Mesorah, revised and expanded edition, 2009
Rabbi Harvey Belovski 5769
BeReishit 1

! " # $ % !
& ' ( % ! %% % ) ' ( % ) ' ( % $ * ! +( ,% ( #
" ! ,% ( # $ -! +. %% %
% ( %% ( (. $ ! /%0

Yirmiyahu 31

% &01 1( 2 3 $ %! ! 3 + + 0 &01 %% 4 .
5 , %% ( 6 0 "' ( 4 . ! ( . 7 ) * 8% ) ( 1 7
9: 0 "3' ( 1 9 ( 1 * % ( .( * 8%( + 6 % ( )
9:( 0( # ( + % "% 4 3: % ( + ) 6 ) ) "3% "' 2 0
6 ( 9( % 0 8 6;

Tehillim 136

"60 . (.
"60 . $
"60 .
"60 . " ) 7 *
"60 . # *
"60 . ' ( ,%
"60 . ) *
"60 . ! %% % % #% ( %
"60 . % ++ 0 ! ( %

Selected Verses

< " "0 7 % ( =


=% 7 :6 = % $ 4=
3% . -% 7 % 2 7% + : 2 %% +% 0 8
. ' ( + 2 # )

Tehillim 148

+ .( . 0 %% 2( . + ( . ' # ( ( % 4>
( 0 ! 2 . ( % # 4 % ' #

The Blessing

! " #
Prayer

< 2 -- = 1) 0+ 9
< )* =' 9
< .= 0 " 3
< ) -= 2 0 +
<= % # 1 + 8 : =' 60
< 1 - 2
< % + . /
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One may include Tehillim 67, 19 and 121 at this point

Brakhot 59b

7 7 80 ? ? ? + ? ? @ <<< 7 0
3 ? 6

Perek Shirah

0 8/ + / (. A= % 0 >3 + = B% 0 > 18 0 %% ? ? ?

Hymn

%& !0 %) ' 6 "A )< 9 . 7 / / A * ' .


2 A $ ?% + 7 0 6% 0% A 6+ 7 +8 < . '% + " %
** 2 0 *< + 8 % A>3 7 8 - %% A % 3 0. < .*
2 A A 0 8! % #% < + +% 8 9 C2 A + : 2 * A
%& !0 97 7 * A 13 % % 7- A 2 . 0 %

A= % * 0 % / - A 0- , % ' # A : . = +8 A " $ =
;% = 7 * %

Alenu

A %. 0% * % A 0: . * A 2 3. * % A 2 1) A . 0
A, % 6 % % < / & A + ' + A/% % 7 A 0- . 0 +. 3
! - .. A 8 67% % . %$ < $ A 3 D1 + A ' #
A 0- , % A ' # $ . A= % %

A" + & < . . $ ,% 3 A=%D 1 %% 7 A $ = % .


= %7 . #- A/ % % . +- = . A . . <, % . =% 7 <= % * +
A = ?% + ' . < % % / <= % + % +1 < - = + < : + $
? A 0% % ! A, % . /% % A $% % / A= % .. + / -
0%

(In a Minyan, one may add the following, followed by the Rabbis’ Kaddish)

2 ,70 $ 9% % A 2 - % /+ 7 A * % .8 / & 2 A % 0 E
F " - "3

Final Prayer

8 3 0 ? ? 3 @ ? + @ 7 ? @ 0
0 + 8 0 + @ +8? ?+? ' @ 7 2 @ 7 8 + @
0 ? ? 0 0 7 8 + @ +8 0 0 + +
? 0 6 7 ? 0 + ? 0 ? 0 ? ? 0 + 0 @ ?? @
? 0@ @ + ? ? 0 + ? ? 0 0 ?? 0 2 , 0
@0 ? 7 +8 @ @ ? ? 0 ? ?
? ' ? 0 ? + ? 0 0 + @ +?
: 2 + 3 @ 7 + ,0

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