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!