Why the rabbis thought a lunar eclipse a bad omen

Tonight's natural phenomenon had a deeper meaning for the sages


At around 9pm tonight, Friday July 27,  the moon will pass through the centre of the earth’s shadow, triggering the longest lunar eclipse this century. While for most of us the prospect of witnessing an eclipse is an exciting and fascinating scientific phenomenon, the sages of the Gemara had a deeper perspective. 

According to the Gemara, an eclipse is a bad omen for the Jewish people, with some sages extending the warning to include all of humanity. The Gemara adds one caveat, though: when the people perform God’s will, they need not be afraid of any of these omens (Succah 29a). 

Nevertheless, a solar or lunar eclipse is a predictable, cosmological phenomenon, so why should the alignment of the sun, moon and earth have any negative spiritual effect at all? Accordingly, some have attacked our sages, assuming that they have copied the superstitions about lunar and solar eclipses that were prevalent in ancient times. American scientist Dr Judah Landa writes that, “[these] statements are very much in keeping with the ancient world’s fear and ignorance of eclipses” (Science and Torah, p 189).

But were the ancients ignorant of cosmology? Despite the prevalent superstitions, it appears that the astronomers of antiquity — both Jewish and non-Jewish — also knew how to predict an eclipse. The Chaldeans and Babylonians left behind clay tablets such as the Mul’apin tablets, which describe exactly how their priests, such as Nabu-rimanni, the priest of the moon god, were able to accurately predict each eclipse by observing the orbits of the moon and planets. 

The study of astronomy was also considered important to our own sages. The mishnaic sage Rebbi Eliezer ben Chisma held that astronomy and mathematics were essential adjuncts to Torah study (Ethics of the Fathers 3:23). The Gemara, in fact, notes that there is a duty to calculate the orbits of the planets (Shabbat 75a). The Second Temple Galilean sage, Rebbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, studied astronomy and geometry among many other secular subjects (Baba Basra 134a). The sages who had established communities and centres of learning in Babylon, following the exile from the Land of Israel, also professed a keen knowledge of the celestial spheres and their movements.  

Shmuel boasts that “the paths of the heavens are as well known to me as the streets of Nehardea [the Babylonian town in which he lived], except for comets for I do not know what they are” (Brachot 58b). He is known as Shmuel Yarchina’ah, meaning Samuel the Moon Expert (Baba Metzia 85b). The last Lubavitcher Rebbe also notes that the “wise men of Egypt and Babylonia created tables of upcoming eclipses and it is known from our own holy texts that our sages consulted with these wise men” (Igros Kodesh 15 p260-261).

With all this in mind, how could the same sages, who knew so much about astronomy and predicted astronomical events, ascribe apparently superstitious significance to them? The Lubavitcher Rebbe likens an eclipse to a rainbow, which is also a natural phenomenon but still serves as a Divine message.

This idea resonates with the original Gemara in Succah which stated that when we perform God’s will, we need not be afraid of any of these omens. Yet this still doesn’t resolve the fact that unlike the rainbow, the eclipse is predictable. Why should a predictable event serve as a sign to do God’s will?

But within the question lies the answer. It is precisely because an eclipse is natural and predictable that it serves as a warning. Human beings are an admixture of physical and spiritual. According to Genesis, we were created from both physical matter (the dust of the earth) together with the life-breath of God, our spiritual, Godly essence (Genesis 2:7). 

We therefore have a temporal, physical body and an eternal, spiritual soul. God’s mitzvot allow us to connect with the Divine and invest in the eternal aspect of ourselves. It is usually the desire to seek physical pleasure and indulge our natural bodily cravings that drives us to sin.  

It is natural for humans to seek pleasure and instant gratification from the physical world and conversely it is unnatural to resist it. But God’s Divine will is that we should refine and channel our physical desires into more holy pursuits. Simply put, the performance of God’s will helps us to better ourselves and transcend the physical world of instant gratification. If we succeed, God protects and provides for us measure for measure by breaking the laws of nature and performing the most wondrous miracles.

This is why an eclipse is seen as a bad omen, for the very fact that it is predictable shows that it is part of the natural order of the cosmos. But our choices do not need to be bound by nature; we can align them with God’s will, rise above the physical, natural, cause-and-effect order of things and miraculously transform ourselves to become quite simply super-natural.

Dr Freedman is rabbi of New West End United Synagogue

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