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Solar Eclipses In Judaism

On August 21, 2017, parts of North America will experience a total
solar eclipse for the first time in decades. Many enthusiasts are
traveling to locations where they can experience the rare natural
phenomenon. What does the Torah have to say about solar eclipses?

I. Blessing on Eclipse

The Mishnah (Berachos 54a) lists phenomena on which someone who sees
them recites a blessing. Among these are incredible sights such as
mountains, seas and lightning. There is no mention of a solar eclipse.
Should someone who sees a solar eclipse recite a blessing such as
“Oseh ma’aseh bereishis, Who performs acts of Creation”?

Dr. Jeremy Brown has an article on this subject in the journal Hakirah
(vol. 23). Dr. Brown quotes the Rav Menachem Schneerson, the
Lubavitcher Rebbe, as saying that you should not recite a blessing on
a solar eclipse (Iggeros Kodesh 15:1079). He offers two reasons.
First, the Talmud does not mention a blessing on a solar eclipse and
we must follow that precedent. Second, which is really an explanation
of the Talmudic omission, is that a solar eclipse is a bad omen, as we
will discuss shortly. We should pray for the bad omen to be annulled
rather than bless the occurrence.

Dr. Brown also quotes Rav Chaim David Ha-Levi (Responsa Aseh Lecha
Rav, 150) as ruling similarly based on the first reason. While he
cannot approve a new blessing, he suggests saying the verses of
“Va-yevarech David” (1 Divrei HaYamim 29:10) and adding to the end
“Who performs acts of Creation.” Dr. Brown quotes Rav David Lau,
current Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, who suggests reciting
Tehillim 19 and 104 on seeing a solar eclipse.

II. Allegorical Meanings of Eclipse

The Gemara (Sukkah 29a) says two things about solar eclipses. The
first is that solar eclipses are a bad omen for whole world. Another
opinion is that they are a bad omen for gentiles while lunar eclipses
are a bad omen for Jews (since the Jewish calendar is lunar while the
Gentile calendar is solar). Additionally, the Gemara says that four
things cause solar eclipses: 1) a deceased head judge who is eulogized
insufficiently, 2) a betrothed woman who is attacked and not saved, 3)
homosexual relations and 4) twin brothers killed at the same time.

The Rema (Toras Ha-Olah 1:8) asks how the Sages can attribute reasons
to a solar eclipse, which is a natural occurrence. Whether or not
people sin, the solar eclipse will happen. He quotes the Akeidas
Yitzchak (Vayechi, ch. 32) and Yesod Olam (3:17) who each interpret
this passage allegorically. The Akeidas Yitzchak explains that solar
eclipse really refers to the death of the righteous, the lights of our
community who are extinguished. Yesod Olam goes in the other
direction. He understands the four reasons for a solar eclipse as
allegories for the movement of the moon. For example, the two brothers
who die refer to the sun and the moon who both lose their light, so to
speak, during a solar eclipse. Rema offers a different allegorical
interpretation, connecting the four reasons to the movements of the
astrological signs relating to a solar eclipse.

Centuries later, Rav Chaim Elazar Shapiro (Divrei Torah 6:93) offered
an additional allegorical interpretation. He compares the moon’s
receipt of light from the sun to the Jewish people’s receipt of divine
attention or overflow. When that is blocked in any way, it signifies a
distance from God.

Significantly, Rema explains that a solar eclipse can be a bad omen
even though it is a natural phenomenon. The basic premise of astrology
is that there are times of the year that are good for certain things
and bad for other things, which can be determined by examining the
stars. While great rabbis debated the legitimacy of astrology (e.g.
Rambam was against, Ibn Ezra was in favor), Rema explains that a solar
eclipse is no different. It is a natural phenomenon like the movement
of the stars, which those who accept astrology recognize as meaningful
to people. Centuries later, the Aruch La-Ner (Sukkah 29a) and Ben
Yehoyada (Sukkah 29a) explained the bad omen similarly, as a time when
bad things happen naturally.

III. Other Explanations

Maharal (Be’er Ha-Golah, ch. 6, p. 106) explains that the Gemara is
offering reasons why God established nature in such a way that there
would be solar eclipses. If people did not sin, we would merit eternal
light. However, because God knew people would sin, He created the
world in such a way that solar eclipses would happen. The Gemara is
not offering the reason for a solar eclipse (which is nature) but the
reason behind the reason (why nature is that way). The Shelah (Hagahos
to Bereishis, quoted in Sedeih Tzofim, Sukkah 29a) explains similarly.

Some authorities believe that the Gemara is not talking about solar
eclipses. Rav Yonasan Eybeschutz (Ye’aros Devash 2:10) suggests that
the Gemara is referring to sunspots. Solar eclipses can be predicted.
However, he argues, sunspots cannot and are caused by sin.  Rav
Yehosef Schwartz (Divrei Yosef 1:9) suggests that the Gemara is
discussing unexpected atmospheric phenomena. He says that on 28 Iyar
1838 in Jerusalem at 4pm, the sun turned dark red for about an hour.
Everyone was amazed by the sight. Over the next three months,
Jerusalem experienced a terrible plague with many deaths. Rav Schwartz
says that this was an example of the Talmudic phenomenon.

Dr. Brown quotes the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Iggeros Kodesh 15:1079) as
explaining that the Gemara refers to weather patterns.  He also quotes
Rav David Pardo (Chasdei David, Sukkah 2:6) who claims that while
eclipses are natural in general, they can occur supernaturally, as
well. Those eclipses are caused by sin.