Monday, April 06, 2009

Is Birkat HaChamma A Farce?

There has been much recent discussion, in the J-Blogosphere and elsewhere, of the rare and fascinating Birkat Hachamma or "Blessing of the Sun" that will be performed Wednesday morning. The very fact that this blessing is recited only once in a generation - just a single time every twenty-eight years - is enough to awaken broad interest in its significance. But there is a more fundamental issue preoccupying and even vexing contemporary Jews as they approach this ritual.

To put it bluntly, the astronomical calculations upon which the recitation of Birkat Hachamma is based, which were formulated by the Talmudic sage Shmuel, are now known to be seriously inaccurate. Some rabbis and laypersons have even gone so far as to suggest, as a result of this flaw, that the observance of Birkat Hachamma be discontinued altogether.

A survey of the halakhic literature, however, reveals that the discovery of the limitations of Shmuel's proposed 28-year cosmic cycle predates our era by millenia. Yet this did not prevent our Rabbis from instructing their students to recite the blessing. Indeed, Rabbi Bleich, in his seminal work on Birkat Hachamma that was recently reissued, notes that the Amora Rav Adda, who lived in the same period as Shmuel, introduced a more precise calendrical model that became the foundation for the current Jewish calendar instituted by Hillel II. This means that subsequent generations of scholars were surely aware of the difficulties with Shmuel's model, but did not refrain from reciting Birkat Hachamma as a result.

Rabbi Bleich suggests (and cites numerous sources to the effect) that Shmuel himself, in all likelihood, recognized the approximate nature of his formula but promoted it because of its sheer simplicity and its accessibility to the average person. Moreover, the Rambam, whose astronomy would have been far superior to that of the Talmudic Rabbis and who was certainly aware of the inaccuracies in Shmuel's calculation, nonetheless endorses and codifies the traditional practice of Birkat Hachamma in his Mishneh Torah.

This again indicates that knowledge of the disparity between the twenty-eight year cycle and empirical reality was not considered a legitimate reason to abandon Birkat Hachamma. So the question becomes - why not? If we are reciting a blessing in response to an astronomical phenomenon that is imaginary, aren't we taking God's name in vain?

I believe that there is an important concept at work in the formulation of Birkat Hachamma that is worthy of further exploration. Knowledge of the true principles of Maaseh Beresheet, the lawful and harmonious material universe, is, ultimately, beyond our intellectual capacity. The cycles of the macrocosm - the stars, comets, constellations and even the sun - are so vast and complex as to be nearly unfathomable to us.

Yet halakha is undeterred and creates institutions that reflect these elusive and intricate phenomena in plain human terms. We observe Shabbat every seventh 24-hour day, even though few of us believe that the seven "days" described in Genesis were literal days. We sanctify the new moon, utilize it as the basis for our calendar, etc., despite the fact that our calculations in this respect fall short of scientific precision.

The point here is that the objective of halakha is not to present the empirical realities of the universe as they are; it is designed, instead, to translate those realities into a form that is comprehensible to the average human being in search of knowledge. Thus, our version of Shabbat, while it doesn't do justice to the culmination of primordial six 'days' of creation by any means, nonetheless directs our minds to the contemplation of the Creator through reflection on His magnificent handiwork. And it goes without saying that promoting a "realistic" Shabbat, marked once every several billion years, would have little impact on human existence altogether. It would not inspire, educate or sanctify our lives at all, despite being more "accurate".

The same, I maintain, is true of Birkat Hachamma. The idea behind the blessing is to underscore the notion that there are discernible and predictable cycles of motion at the macro level of the universe. This is a very valuable truth to highlight in general, and would be especially poignant in an idolatrous culture that tended to deify the sun rather than perceive it as manifesting a pattern determined by abstract scientific laws.

The problem is that the actual, empirical cycle of the sun's motion is incalculably vast. Indeed, were we to adopt the relatively more accurate calendrical model of Rav Adda (which still has substantial flaws), we would discover that the vernal equinox has, since creation, never again fallen out on a Tuesday night (i.e., a Wednesday) at 6PM. It is the conjunction of the equinox with the time of the creation of the sun in Genesis that gives rise to Birkat Hachamma and, according to Rav Adda's calendar, this event has not repeated itself even once in the last 5769 years!

The calendar of Shmuel, on the other hand, yields the 28 year cosmic cycle that forms the basis for the blessing. It seems likely that Shmuel's calculations were accepted for this purpose despite their widely recognized inaccuracies simply because they offered us the opportunity of Birkat Hachamma like no other methods of calculation did. Our ultimate goal in this berakha is not to establish or to endorse a particular vision of empirical reality. Instead, we seek to emphasize a grander, more essential concept; namely, that the physical world continually manifests orderly patterns of Divine design, whatever the specifics of those patterns may be. This is fully consistent with our observance of Shabbat and our approach to the sanctification of the New Moon - in all instances, we are less concerned with the details of the material world's operation and more focused on conveying the notion that an intelligible order, only partially accessible to the human mind, permeates Creation.

So as we recite the blessing and acknowledge this important fundamental principle, we also bear in mind the limitations of our finite existence and our inherent inability to genuinely grasp or articulate the majestic cycles of the universe in human terms. We bless on an artificially tweaked version of the cosmic revolutions because that is the best version to which imperfect beings like ourselves can possibly relate!


Yehuda said...

Nice post. The way I explained it to a number of people is similar. I think the term that makes Birkat haChama and Shabbat understandable to a modern mind is: Zeicheir l'ma'aseh B'reishit. The events remind us of the story of B'reishit in the Torah. A seven day cycle is a zeicher. A 28 year cycle is a convenient zeicher - it's pretty simple math: every year has roughly 52 weeks and 1.25 days in it (it's easy to ignore the .001___ discrepancy until about 100 years passes by; that's why the Julian calendar worked pretty well until 1582).

According to that rough estimate each year the sun reaches the same spot 1.25 days later.

Ok, now do the simple math:

1.25 * ? = (a number divisible by 7 with no remainder)

1.25 * (28) = 35.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said...

Truly significant post.

I think this is the key point of "hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chodashim" being the first Mitzva. Ralbag seems to confirm this is in perush as well.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Thanks RS! Good points to ponder before the holiday. You know, Pesah always brings back memories of the old posts on that pre-blog-era site you used to maintain. There was great food for thought in those essays, I printed and saved many of them but it would be wonderful to see a revival.

R' Yehuda,

Have you read R' Bleich's book? It is excellent, a bit too well researched, but with fabulous scholarly footnotes. One day I can lend you my copy, complete with my underlining and comments in the margin so you don't have to wade through the side points and you can appreciate the novel ideas there.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said...


I think you are referring to the lashon limudim website. Those were some dense articles indeed, I am really glad at least someone enjoyed them!

Lets see if we can get those going again. Meanwhile I am keeping up the clamor for learning with you, how does Pesach sound for resuming?

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Yes, Hol Hamoed should afford some time for learning...I guess we can confer by email?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said...

Incidentally Yehuda, my first reaction was that you were using the wrong sense of זכר.

You are using זכר in the sense of semblance as in the Hillel sandwich or the lulav during the rest of Chag.

זכרis not always a semblance though. Sometimes it is a remembrance that is not a semblance.

Also, where do we see the birkas chama even being referred to as a זכר at all?

Bruce said...

Nice post. Perhaps one lesson is that the universe's cycles are very complicated, and our attempts to impose perfect symmetrical ordering on them are useful, but ultimately are only crude approximations.

comment said...

another point worth mentioning is that the meforshim on the moreh understand that Rambam did not take the days of creation literally - and still rambam had no issue with birkat hachamma or ftm shabbat.

interesting to me is that the chazal that rambam quotes in moreh to me is compatible with modern science (that things were created in potential) though the meforshim understand him to be saying that creation was instantaneous - i wonder if it is not easier to say based on that chazal that things were created in potential - big bang and subsequent evolution?

Anonymous said...

Why does Rav Ovadai Yosef pasken that women shouldn't say the bracha of birchat hachamma if it is just a birchas hashevach and not a birchas hamitzvah??

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...


You essentially summed up my entire post in one pithy statement.


I was musing about the same issues today. I think the Rambam does seem to favor the instantaneous creation model, for metaphysical reasons - why should God require "time" to make His will manifest? But the key point is that he was not constricted by a literal reading of the seven days, whether you extend or contract them, and this did not impact his understanding of halakhic institutions like Shabbat.


I haven't seen Hakham Ovadiah's ruling inside, but there is definitely a widely cited position in halakhic literature that maintains that women are not included in rabbinical mitzvot when those mitzvot are berakhot alone.

Ya'akob ibn Avi Mori said...

Rav Josh,

A beautiful post. I think this is the best thing I have read on the mitzva .
Moadim Lesimja Jagim uzmanim lsason

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said...

Email sounds good. Shall we continue with tevunot?

Justin White said...

Dear Rav Maroof and the Magen-חג שמח! I enjoyed this article. I was in Bat Yam for the reading at a Yeshiva of a Rav Atias (Lebanese). We stood on the roof of a tall building and it was very nice. I was told that the blessing has only come out on erev Pesach 4 times and once was actually on the actual Pesach. Has anyone heard this? Also, is R' Bleich the Rav from Yeshiva U who came to the Magen once for Yom Kippur?

B.BarNavi said...

I believe Rabbi Bleich is the very same one responsible for "Contemporary Halakhic Problems", a treatise on the issues that Orthodox Jews must address in the modern world.

Justin White said...

The Rav who came to the Magen was Benjamin Blech.

The site which Stephen Colbert quoted on his show where he "featured" the blessing is:

I'd like to point out that there is an ancient book called the Torah, which modern people will have to address!

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