If you are at all interested in astronomy, you definitely want to be in the continental United States this coming August 21. On that day, the moon will pass in front of the sun and a total eclipse of the sun will be visible pretty much across the country, from the Pacific to the Atlantic. And if you happen to be on a three-thousand mile line connecting Portland, Oregon, and Charleston, South Carolina, then for a few short minutes you will witness “totality”, in which the disc of the moon completely covers the disc of the sun, and all that is visible is the solar corona, a fiery aura of plasma that encircles the sun[1].

The sun and the moon were created on the fourth day of creation [Bereishit 1:16]: “Hashem made the two great luminaries: the great luminary to rule the day and the lesser luminary to rule the night, and the stars”. Some of the medieval commentators note that the astronomers of their era already knew that the sun is a smaller-than-average star. For example, Betelgeuse, one of the brightest stars in the sky, is almost one thousand times the size of the sun. Why, then, does the Torah call the sun “the great luminary”? The Ibn Ezra answers that the Torah is not referring to the size of the sun and the moon, but, rather, to their intensity – they are by far the two brightest objects in the sky.

The sharp reader has (hopefully) noticed an incongruity in the verse regarding the size of the moon and the sun: first the Torah speaks about the “two [equally] great luminaries” and immediately afterwards the Torah speaks about one “great luminary” – the sun – and one “lesser luminary” – the moon. Are the sun and the moon the same size or are they not? Perhaps we can use the explanation of the Ibn Ezra to get some reconciliation: while the sun and the moon are both much brighter than any other object in the sky, the sun is much brighter than the moon, and so relative to the sun the moon is a “lesser luminary”. Makes sense, but there is a much more famous answer. Ask any child who has completed at least one year of Jewish preschool, and he will tell you a story that appears in the Midrash about how the sun and the moon were originally created the same size. The moon “resented” having to “share” its kingdom with the sun, and “complained” to Hashem, asking “How can two kings rule over one kingdom?” Hashem “punished” the moon, telling it to “make itself small”. Lots of quotation marks here. Unfortunately, for most people, this story has become nothing less than the absolute truth: the moon used to be physically large and then it became physically small. Well, to quote a Rabbi whose name escapes me for the moment, we must stop looking at the Torah through the eyes of a child in preschool. Not only is the concept of a shrinking moon hard to swallow, but the idea that the sun – a star – and the moon – a satellite – could be the same size is also dubious: the size of the smallest star ever measured is still over one hundred times larger than our moon.

Besides, I still have Yom Kippur fresh on my mind. In the Yom Kippur service in the Beit HaMikdash, the High Priest would offer a large number of sacrifices. Two of them concern us here [Vayikra 16:5]: “From the community of the children of Israel, he shall take two male goats as a sin offering”. One of these goats was offered as a Chattat sacrifice on the altar, and the other became the “scapegoat” that was pushed off a cliff along with the sins of Am Yisrael. The Torah refers to these goats three times as “the two goats”. The Talmud in Tractate Yoma [62b] teaches that “the mitzvah is for [the two goats] to be identical in appearance, size, and value.[2]” A similar law is learnt relating to concerning the two birds that were sacrificed as part of the purification ceremony of the metzora – a person suffering from tzara’at. The Talmud teaches that these birds also had to be identical “in appearance, size, and value”. The key word here is the word “shnei” – “two”. This word does not appear merely to enumerate the goats or the birds, but to categorize them as “two of a kind”. Taking this point and applying it to the “two great luminaries”, it seems clear that the sun and the moon must be identical in some way, preferably “in appearance, size, and value”. The Ibn Ezra could say that they had to be identical in intensity. But perhaps there is more.

And this is where the eclipse comes in. Recall that the solar corona occurs during an eclipse only when the sun is completely obscured by the moon. Hold on – how can the moon completely cover the sun when the moon is so much smaller? The answer is that while the sun is vastly larger than the moon, its size relative to an observer on earth – and only to an observer on earth – is nearly identical to the size of the moon[3]. The only reason that we do not find this coincidence shocking is because we see the sun and the moon every day. But here’s the thing: if the moon were any smaller or any further away from the earth[4] or if the earth were any closer to the sun, then the moon would not completely cover the sun. During an eclipse the moon would be visible as a small black dot traversing the sun[5]. On the other hand, if the moon were any larger or any closer to the earth or if the earth were any farther from the sun, then the moon would completely blot out the sun when it passed in front of it. What an amazing quirk of fate…

A Jew must understand that the Torah was given by Hashem to man in order that he should be able to refine himself via the performance of its mitzvot. The Midrash tells of a story in which Moshe is up in heaven being taught Torah by Hashem, and the angels are infuriated that Hashem is giving such a valuable commodity to mere flesh and blood. Hashem answers that the Torah is relevant only to man: only man has parents that he can honour and only man has a field that he can tithe. The sun and the moon teach us that even ostensibly scientific facts presented in the Torah are also human-centric: only for humans living on planet earth can the sun and the moon be considered as having the same size.

At the end of the day it all comes back to mitzvot. Why did Hashem create the sun, the moon, and the stars? Before Hashem creates the heavenly bodies, He says [Bereishit 1:14] “Let there be luminaries in the expanse of the heavens, to separate between the day and between the night, and they shall be for signs and for appointed seasons and for days and years.” The reason that Hashem created these huge balls of burning gas and frigid rock is so that man should use them in his service of Hashem. Man uses the phases of the moon in order to determine when a month begins and as a result, when the holidays fall. He uses the earth’s daily rotation in order to determine the times that he must pray. He uses the earth’s yearly rotation around the sun in order to ensure that Pesach always falls in the spring[6]. As audacious as this all sounds, if the Jewish calendar was created differently, it is all too possible that the heavenly bodies would have been created differently, as well. Conversely, if we don’t pedantically perform the mitzvot that are regulated by the stars and the planets, then why in the world were they created?

I’ve said it before[7] – with great power comes great responsibility. Something to think about as we begin the new year.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka and Adi bat Ravit.

[1] While irrelevant for the purposes of this shiur, I must still remind the readers that IT IS FORBIDDEN TO LOOK AT THE SUN. Doing so can cause irreversible damage to the eyes.

[2] Some Rabbis rule that the two goats had to be identical twins.

[3] Here is the math: The radius of the moon is 1736 km and its distance from the earth is 384,172 km. The radius of the sun is 695,700 km and its distance from the earth is 152 million km. The size of an object from earth is . For both the sun and the moon, the size is about 9 mrad, or about a half of a degree.

[4] The distance from the earth to the sun is also responsible for the mild terrestrial temperatures.

[5] Venus does this often, most recently in 2012.

[6] Because of an eleven-day discrepancy between the lunar and solar calendars, sometimes an extra month must be added in order to ensure that Pesach falls in the spring, as the Torah tells us [Devarim 16:1] “Keep the month of spring, and make the Passover offering to Hashem, for in the month of spring, Hashem brought you out of Egypt.

[7] Parashat Chukat 5776. Teddy Roosevelt, Voltaire, and Spidey also said it.