Why we bless the sun

By Rabbi David Hulbert, March 26, 2009
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Why is this year’s erev Pesach different from all others? Because this year, Wednesday April 8, will be the day on which Jews have the rare opportunity to recite the prayers of the service of blessing the sun, or, rather, the prayers by which we bless the Creator of the sun.

You may be familiar with the blessing of the moon, said monthly a few days after the new moon has become visible, generally after havdalah on Saturday night. But while you will find the liturgy for this service in many prayerbooks (page 602 of the new Singers), the service for blessing the sun is harder to find and has not been included in any contemporary British prayerbook.

The reason is plain: it is because the service only needs to be said once every 28 years. We can only expect to perform this ritual perhaps three times in our lives.

The central element of the service is the blessing itself: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who made all the works of creation.” It is to be said after the daily morning service, preferably as soon as the sun rises. Most rabbinic commentators take the view that you have to be able to see the sun to recite it, so we will be hoping for a cloudless morning, or have to wait another 28 years. Unfortunately, the sun rises at 6.19 am on erev Pesach: since we will be sitting at our Seder tables till past midnight, it will make April 8 an extremely long day.

Several rabbis have compiled liturgy to make up a service, including the Chatam Sofer (1762-1839). A brief internet search will show that contemporary Jewish groups of all denominations have put together their own services for the special morning.

Like most of our blessings, the source is to be found in the first tractate of the Talmud, Berachot (59b): “Our rabbis taught that a person who sees the sun at an equinox or a solstice, the moon in her power, the planets in their orbits or the constellations of the zodiac in their order, should say ‘Blessed be He who has made the works of creation.’” But when exactly? “Abaye responded: every 28 years, when the Great Solar Cycle begins again at the spring equinox, when Saturn is also visible, at the beginning of the Fourth Day (Wednesday).”

The idea of a ceremony to bless the sun seems uncomfortably pagan. While the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians and ancient Britons worshipped the sun as a god, only the Jews looked on the sun as evidence of a wise and benevolent, but invisible, Creator. Through science, we understand that the sun is the powerhouse of the world, the ultimate source of all the energy living things need to survive. Sunlight is a blessing that provides food to the whole world, and daylight, not forgetting a golden tan. It comes reliably, every day, absolutely free.

Until now, the sun, moon and planets have reminded us of how nature and creation seem to work with harmony and regularity. Only the arrogant greed of humanity has disturbed the perfect balance, putting our fragile world into jeopardy. Global warming, created by humanity, not God, threatens to turn the sun’s heat from a blessing into a curse.

David Hulbert is rabbi of Bet Tikvah Synagogue, Barkingside

    Last updated: 6:08pm, April 1 2009