Rabbi Lazer GurkowRabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.
A Unique Event
On Wednesday morning, April 8, 2009, Jews around the world will recite a blessing over the sun that was last recited in twenty-eight years ago. This blessing is recited when the sun returns to its point of origin, where it was when it was first created. Though the sun passes this point every year, it only passes this point on a Wednesday
Why don't we bless G-d for the sun every day?
morning, the morning of its creation (the sun was created on the fourth of the six days of creation), once in twenty-eight years.
The astronomical calculations that lead to this conclusion are beyond the scope of this essay and have been well presented in the essays and books published in honor of the occasion. In this essay, we ask why we chant the blessing only when the sun arrives at its point of origin. Why don't we bless G-d for the sun every day?
To answer this question, we go back to a novel event that occurred more than thirty-three-hundred years ago. Joshua led the Jewish army in battle against the native tribes of the Land of Israel. Once, during a particularly vicious battle in the vicinity of Gibeon, the sun was about to set and Joshua, worried about the chaotic conditions of nighttime battle, prayed that sunset be delayed until the battle could be won. His prayers were answered and remarkably the sun did not set that day until the tide of battle turned and our ancestors emerged triumphant.(1)
It is interesting to note the precise words of Joshua's prayer. He did not ask G-d to suspend the sun's pattern of descent, he asked that the sun be silenced; a curious choice of words for an otherwise remarkable prayer. What did he mean? Does the sun in fact sing a song?
Melodies of the Zodiac
Maimonides taught that the sun and the celestial bodies are beings of supreme intelligence and passionate souls.(2) The frenetic pace of their physical movement is a reflection of their soul's intense passion and excitement.
The Torah declares, "The hosts of heaven bow to you."(3) The mystics explained this curious Biblical passage by pointing to the continuous voyage of the celestial bodies across the sky. Stars and planets orbit at incredible speeds, argued the mystics, because they are possessed by an innate knowledge of G-d and are moved by a powerful urge to draw closer to him. Their headlong rush across the vast tapestries of the skies reflects their deep yearning for a closer, more intimate, connection to G-d.(4)
This, the mystics explained, is why the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. The Holy of Holies, the room that housed the Divine Presence, in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, was on the west side of the Temple Mount. The sun's constant movement westward represents its desire to draw closer to the Divine Presence in the west.(6) In fact, its descent toward the west is its way of bowing to the Divine presence.(5) And as its body bows to G-d so does its soul. Its soul's devotion is expressed in the stirring melodies that it sings, as Job said, "The morning stars sing together and the angels shout for joy."(7)
One can almost imagine Joshua's thought process when he asked that the sun be silenced. Joshua needed more daylight to lead the Jews to victory. He knew that if he would ask the sun to arrest its descent the sun might object, citing its need to bow to G-d over the skies of Israel. Joshua appealed to G-d asking that the sun's spiritual journey be suspended in favor of the more important objective - the victory of the Jewish people.
The sun was created to serve G-d's purpose, but that Jews conquer the Land of Israel was G-d's will. Joshua argued that the latter was more important than the former; Jewish victory should outweigh the sun's melody of devotion. He asked that the sun be silenced and his wish was granted.(8)
The sun was created to serve G-d's purpose, but that Jews conquer the Land of Israel was G-d's will.
A New Song
We might suggest that this is also why we recite the blessing over the sun once in twenty-eight years. The sun's journey across our skies represents a constant melody sung by the sun in praise of G-d. There is little reason for us to chime in every day, tuning in and out of the sun's twenty-eight year melody.
However, the day that the sun reaches its point of origin and departs on a new cycle around the world is different. This day inaugurates a whole new epoch. As the sun's physical journey begins anew so does its spiritual journey. On this day the sun begins an entirely new melody, which is why it is fitting that we gather to bless its voyage and salute its devotion with a melody of our own.(9)
This is why we gather in large groups amid great fanfare. It is not only in celebration of a novel blessing, it is a celebration of the sun's devotion; a royal send-off of G-d's devoted servant.
Indeed, on this day the heavens speak the glory of G-d.(10)
1) Joshua 10: 12-13.
2) Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 3: 9
3) Nechemia 9: 6
4) Derech Mitzvosecha, Mitzvos Milah 5a and Siddur Tefilos Mikol Hashana, Shaar Hamilah 142a
5) Tanya, ch. 42
6) This essay is based on a geocentric version of the universe, which has been the traditional position of Jewish scholars. A scholarly debate has sprung up on this issue since modern science adopted Copernicus's heliocentric view of the Universe. However, the ideas developed in this essay are not impacted by the scientific reality of the Universe because its treatment of the sun is relative to our point of view. The reason the sun appears to set in the west is because its soul is indeed anchored in the west. See Igros Kodesh of the Lubavitcher Rebbe for a fascinating perspective on how this debate is impacted by the Theory of Relativity.
7) Job 38: 7
8) See Toras Menachem 5745, p. 2367, where it is further explained that the spiritual blessing of the nations is derived from the sun, whose ability to draw Divine blessing to the world is rooted in its absolute devotion and reflected in its pattern of westerly descent. Joshua needed to arrest the sun's descent in order to ensure Jewish victory over the nations.
9) Though the sun and earth are aligned in their original positions once every year, we do not recite the blessing every year. This is because the sun's circuit around the earth (or the earth's around the sun) is not only measured in spatial distance, but also in time (possibly because the sun's position determines all forms of time, including that of day, season and calendar year). We do not consider the circuit complete until it reaches its point of origin at its time of origin, which is the beginning of the fourth day of the week. Because a tropical year is 365.1.25 days (slightly longer than fifty-two weeks), this alignment only occurs once in twenty-eight years.
10) Psalms 19: 2