It threatened to be the dampest of squibs. The gloomy weather forecast had suggested that few British Jews would be able to join in one of Judaism’s rarest rituals — birchat hachamah, the blessing over the sun, which is recited just once every 28 years.
As they contemplated the damp dawn on the eve of Pesach last Wednesday, sun-spotters must have felt like cricketers on the first day of the season, who expect to spend it watching the rain from the pavilion yet hope for a break in the clouds.
But putting the meteorologists to shame, the sun had other ideas. Like some aged actor you feared might not show but who proves he still has what it takes, it turned in a blazing performance.
“It’s the same place where they put up the sun,” explained 11-year-old North West London Jewish Day School pupil Ionia Sofer-Yadgaroff, referring to the rabbinical belief that every 28 years the sun returns to exactly the same spot in the heavens that it occupied when God made it on the Fourth Day of Creation.
She had come with father Louis and labrador Poppy to the grounds of Kenwood House, Hampstead, for a ceremony organised by Rabbi Leivi Sudak of Edgware Lubavitch.
It is customary to assemble in a high place to enjoy a good view. In 1981, for example, several hundred gathered in New York at the top of the Twin Towers.
“Our teacher said the last time he did it, it was cloudy and he only got one chance to see it,” said 10-year-old Sasha Stalick, from Hasmonean Primary, who attended with his mother, three of his four siblings and a family friend.
As they walked to the meeting-place, his youngest brother Jayden, four, practised a Pesach song: “Pharaoh was in pyjamas in the middle of the night.”
Worshippers had gathered at various points along Hampstead Heath. A double-decker was parked alongside Whitestone Pond. Elsewhere, in a clutch of open space between the trees, a black-hatted crowd of over 100 sang psalms.
But the Kenwood House location was the loveliest of all, overlooking the pond on Hampstead Heath. Rabbi Sudak had selected it after talking to the Chief Rabbi and former London Beth Din head Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu, with a little help with the arrangements from impresario Harvey Goldsmith.
Fifty-six years ago, when the weather outlook had been grim, the American air force had offered to train a squadron of rabbis to parachute, so they might recite the blessing dropping above the rain clouds. But all Rabbi Sudak needed was his tallit. The clouds had parted like the Red Sea, leaving the sun alone in a stretch of blue sky and the dew glittering on the grass — and on Henry Moore’s sculpture of two reclining figures. Inviting a group of nearly 40 to admire God’s “gorgeous display of love”, he announced the beginning of the 207th solar cycle.
The actual ceremony is simple. You turn east, take a peek at the sun, look away, then recite the once-in-28-years blessing on God who “oseh maaseh bereshit”, re-enacts the work of Creation.
A few psalms follow, depicting God’s creation of “a tent for the sun… like a groom coming forth from his bridal canopy” or carrying the divine promise of protection. “The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.”
As the voice of Hampstead Garden Suburb chazan Avromi Freilich rose above the birds, a more raucous celebration came from Linda Rosenblatt’s golden retriever Franklin. The Hebrew letters with the numerical value of 28 spell out the word, ko’ach (strength), Rabbi Sudak explained.
“When Jews come together, we create ko’ach. We must live with 28 — to work together and bond together. It’s been a beautiful event. We’ve joined with hundreds of thousands of Jews around the world,” he added, a link made more real by his tripod-mounted webcam.
“In Israel, it had been overcast and stormy and people were looking out of their windows wondering whether they would be able to bless God,” he said. “At 6.45 am the sun came out and all Israel was basking in the sun. The same has happened here.”
“It was a really good experience,” said Sasha, who had learned the berachah off by heart. “I’m going to tell my whole school about it.”
“It was incredible”, said his mother Nadine Stalick. “The next time it happens, my children will be my age.”
Other ceremonies held throughout the UK included a gathering of over 500 at the Hasmonean Girls’ School in Mill Hill. Two-hundred people from four London Progressive congregations were at an event in Harrow. Those involved included Rabbi Aaron Goldstein, who said: “As Progressive Jews, we do not believe this marks the time when the sun was in the same position as when it was created. However it is an opportunity to consider the works of Creation and their fragility.”