Total eclipse of the sun

Reservations made? Gas tank filled? Glasses ready?

I mean eclipse glasses of course.

Everyone is getting ready for the total eclipse of the sun taking place on Monday, April 8. (Anyone else have Bonnie Tyler’s song playing in your head now?)

As explained by NASA: A total solar eclipse happens when the Moon passes between the Sun and Earth, completely blocking the face of the Sun. People located in the center of the Moon’s shadow when it hits Earth will experience a total eclipse. The sky will darken, as if it were dawn or dusk. Weather permitting, people in the path of a total solar eclipse can see the Sun’s corona, the outer atmosphere, which is otherwise usually obscured by the bright face of the Sun.

There is a lot of excitement since the zone of “totality,” where it will get completely dark, will be experienced by millions of people across a large swath of the US heading northeast from Texas up through Illinois, Ohio, Upstate New York, Vermont, and Maine. Plenty of people are hitting the road to experience this rare event. (The next one will take place in 2044 and won’t be as accessible.)

All week long, people have been asking how does Judaism view an eclipse? An eclipse actually has deep Jewish historical and theological significance. (See HERE for my recent class on the subject.)

There are a number of Biblical references to eclipses in the Prophets. One notable verse is: And in that day – declares the Sovereign God – I will make the sun set at noon, I will darken the earth on a sunny day. (Amos 8:9) Scholars have suggested that the prophets experienced eclipses and have even identified some historical synchronicity between known eclipses and Biblica accounts.

The Talmud (Sukkah 29a) generally views eclipses in a negative light: “The Sages taught: When the sun is eclipsed it is a bad omen for the entire world.” This may be a function of the terror people felt when it got dark suddenly in the middle of the day. Nowadays, we better understand the science of eclipses and know when they will occur. While some rabbinical authorities maintain the eclipse should prompt prayer and penitence, others say we have nothing to fear from these events as they are part of the natural order.

Is a beracha, blessing, recited when witnessing an eclipse?

While there are blessings recited over natural phenomena such as seeing lightning, hearing thunder, and encountering the wonders of creation, there is no beracha specified for an eclipse. This leads many rabbis to conclude that no beracha should be recited when seeing an eclipse. There is a minority view that blessings over natural phenomena don’t require a precedent or specific instruction. The most common beracha recited over nature is “Oseh ma’aseh bereishit – God Who made the wonders of creation.” If one is inspired when witnessing the eclipse and wants to acknowledge God, then this beracha may be recited.

Blessing or no blessing, a total eclipse of the sun brings us face to face with the beauty, glory, and complexity of creation. It should excite us! We may not all decide to pack up the car, drive for hours, and make overpriced motel reservations to experience the zone of totality, but we should, at least, mark the occasion through a religious prism.

On June 29, 1927, there was a total solar eclipse visible in Eastern Europe. An account was published of how Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan of Radin, better known as the Chafetz Chaim, reacted to the event:

“And the Chafetz Chaim taps again with his right hand on the table with an expression of victory, and smiling he adds, “They should come to see. It is a mitzvah to see the sun eclipsed, to actually see that a creation was actually formed by the Creator…And he taps lightly again with his right hand, a quiet smile… [they] had already prepared for the Chafetz Chaim, a special triply thick, darkened pair of glasses which properly fit the good and trustworthy eyes of the holy and vaunted elder. The righteous one does this [looking at the eclipse] with holy trepidation, exactly as he would silently gaze at his chanukiah, from it he does not remove his eyes so long as there are sparkling remnants of oil…And behold the darkness has eclipsed the entire sphere, as if a large well of ink has spilled and filled the space … a strange darkness, not that of the twilight nor even like the thick darkness of night…Behold, a black curtain has been stretched on the face of the Sun; there remains not even one red streak. And behold the Wonder. Behold, behold, once again, born is the new sun — like the six days of creation…”

Rabbi Benjamin Blech views an eclipse as a religious message while also noting the similarity between how we watch an eclipse and a well-known Jewish ritual:

“An eclipse may be an omen but it is not a verdict or a final judgment. It is a moment in time which serves as a reminder of God’s awesome power and goodness…The awesome message of an eclipse and its meaning for us has a remarkable parallel to a universal Jewish custom. It is extremely important, NASA and other experts tell us, that we cover our eyes and not look directly at the sun when it happens. Failure to heed this counsel could lead to blindness. I cannot help but think of the very same admonition to cover our eyes when we recite the Shema. At the moment when we contemplate God’s uniqueness and greatness we indicate that His splendor is beyond the capacity of our vision; to think we truly see His essence with the limited perspective of our eyes is to be blind to the reality of His infinite magnificence.”

An eclipse, like the Chanukah lights, is holy. In times of chaos, it provides us with a few moments to close our eyes and reorient ourselves towards the Godly and good of the world around us and inspire us to do our share to live up to that potential.

About the Author
Rabbi Elie Weinstock is Senior Rabbi of the Jewish Center of Atlantic Beach in Long Island and serves as President of the New York Board of Rabbis. A believer in a Judaism that is accessible to all, he prefers "Just Judaism" to any denominational label.
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