So you have been living next to this Jewish family for 27 years. They take their religious practice seriously and you have come to recognize the multifarious rituals. For Passover they burn their remaining bread in a little bonfire and eat dry matzo for eight days, celebrating freedom by recalling their experience in captivity. Pentecost they slip out to the synagogue and study all night, to commemorate the joy of receiving the Torah. And for Tabernacles they set up outdoors for eight days, eating in decorated little shanties to remember their forty-year trek through the desert 3300 years ago.
So here you are now and it's April 8, 2009, and you are scratching your head, trying to figure out why all the Jews in your neighborhood are congregating in little clusters, looking up at the sun and pronouncing a small blessing. What in the world is going on?
It turns out this is another interesting Jewish observance, one you have never noted before for good reason: it is celebrated every 28 years. It is known as the Blessing of the Sun (Birkat Hachama in Hebrew).
The premise behind this is the idea that the sun has a 28-year cycle. After that amount of time elapses it returns to the identical position in relation to the earth. The particular point being celebrated is the one designated by tradition as representing the original placement of the sun, what is described in Genesis as the "creation" of the sun on the Fourth Day. (The classic Bible commentator, Rashi (1035-1105), asserts that the sun was created earlier but positioned and given its current role on that day. This seems to fit with the retrospective viewpoint provided by science.)
The text of the blessing recited is simple enough. "Blessed are You, God our Lord, maker of the work of Creation." It allows for a glimpse back in time to the moment when the conditions were established for the possibility of human life.
Here in the United States this practice comes with a humorous history. Four cycles ago, back in 1897, most Jewish immigrants who took the Law seriously were located in New York. When the time came to recite this blessing, people began to gather in groups in the time-honored manner. The problem was they were not attuned to the local laws prohibiting public gatherings without a permit. The result was arrests and inconvenience, as misunderstanding bred annoyance and hilarity.
An item in the New York Times of April 8, 1897 describes a scene straight out of the Keystone Kops. Officer Foley, the well-meaning Irish cop, is dismayed to find a large crowd in Central Park. He advances menacingly upon the man who looks like the leader, a Rabbi Klein. Klein sees the cop waving his billy club and has little confidence in the ability of his heavily accented English to extricate him from this imbroglio. What to do? Simple: he takes off on the run through the park with Foley nipping at his heels. Eventually everything was sorted out before the local magistrate, with assistance from a rabbi whose American language skills were more developed.
All in all, the thought that we are returning to a primordial equilibrium is inspiring. It suggests that our routine need not smother our creativity. If the golden orb up yonder gets to start afresh, why not you and me? Sure we have a few rings around the trunk, a few trips around the block, but so does our circular buddy up there. Maybe it is time for us to do some global warming of the spirit.
For me at age fifty, this is my second time experiencing the solar renewal. Just making it through to the next time will be an enormous challenge. We have certainly come a long way since Officer Foley chasing Rabbi Klein around Central Park in 1897. I pray that 2037 will signal wonderful advances for the world in general and for you and me in particular.
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