Blessing for a Solar Eclipse
By the Mandel Centre for Jewish Education
If you’ve been following any news source (right, left,” fake,” or otherwise) you surely know there is a total solar eclipse on Monday, August 21, 2017. An appropriate Jewish question to ask is which bracha, or blessing should one recite? (There is an entire set of brachot, or blessings for witnessing a natural phenomenon (e.g., thunder, lightning, a beautiful tree, a rainbow, an ocean, etc.). It turns out it’s not that simple.
According to the Babylonian Talmud, a solar eclipse is a bad omen for the world and a lunar eclipse is a bad omen for the Jewish people (Sukkot 29a).
"Our Rabbis taught, When the sun is in eclipse, it is a bad omen for the whole world… when the moon is in eclipse, it is a bad omen for Israel, since Israel reckons by the moon and idolaters by the sun."
Mostly, this would seem to be based on a variety of verses from the Tanach, or Jewish Bible, describing the darkening of the sun as part of God’s punishment. For example:
"The stars and constellations of heaven/Shall not give off their light/The sun shall be dark when it rises/And the moon shall diffuse its glow."
"When you are snuffed out/I will cover the sky/And darken its stars/I will cover the sun with clouds/And the moon shall not give its light. "
"Before them the earth trembles/Heaven shakes/Sun and moon are darkened/And stars withdraw their brightness."
Later, the same Talmud passage interprets a solar eclipse as a warning; depending on the eclipse’s features, it warns of different things.
"If it is in eclipse in the east, it is a bad omen for those ho dwell in the east; if in the west, it is a bad omen for those who dwell in the west; if in the midst of heaven it is bad omen for the whole world. If its face is red as blood, [it is a sign that] the sword is coming to the world; if it is like sack‐cloth, the arrows of famine are coming to the world; if it resembles both, the sword and the arrows of famine are coming to the world. If the eclipse is at sunset calamity will tarry in its coming; if at dawn, it hastens on its way: but some say the order is to be reversed."
This is why Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher Rebbe (1902-1994) explained the eclipse as warning offers, “…Opportunities for increasing prayer and introspection – as opposed to prompting joyous blessings, [and so] we do not recite a blessing when witnessing one.”
Still, this seems to run counter to the general approach of the Jewish system of bracha, which is designed to alert people to attend to the world with gratitude, even when we witness something sad (e.g., Baruch Dayan Emet, Blessed is the True Judge, recited upon hearing of a death or passing a destroyed synagogue). It’s hard to argue why a comet gets a bracha and an eclipse doesn’t; they are both natural wonders and part of God’s creation. This attitude also contradicts Jewish thought’s mandate to recite brachot as often as possible (a target of 100 brachot daily is given) during our waking hours (Babylonian Talmud Menachot 43b).
If you consider yourself bound by halacha, or Jewish law, it’s a bit of a sticky issue, for reciting an “unauthorized” bracha is considered a waste and is to be avoided. If you are not bound by halacha, though, this is an opportunity for liturgical creativity. Since there is no “official” bracha for witnessing an eclipse, you have some options:
1.Apply an existing bracha which seem appropriate to you (each bracha begins with the same formula):
2. Create a new bracha. Again, you have some options:
a. Use the historical formula (see above) and simply create a new ending. It’s OK if the “stem” is in Hebrew and the “tagline” is in English; whomever you want to hear this bracha will
b. Use your own words to create your own “stem.” Historically, the blessing formula requires words that do four things:
1. Name God (Adonai, Elohim, Source of Strength, Rock of Israel, Compassionate One, OMG!…there are lots of options!)
2. Reference the concept of blessing (baruch, blessed, the gift, the benefit of, etc.)
3. God’s Sovereignty (ruler, creator, maker, etc.)
4. Time (forever, till the end of time, eternal, unending, etc.) understand it.
(Note: this is how Jews have created blessings through history. If you do not believe in God, figure out what an appropriate substitute would be. Just because it doesn’t fit the historical/Jewish legal bracha formula doesn’t mean it’s not a bracha! With brachot, intention matters.)
Beyond brachot, it is also appropriate to recite verses from Psalms, such as:
Finally, remember the eclipse, like most phenomena (natural or otherwise), has a beginning, middle, and end. Each presents differently (dimming light, darkenss, growing light). It is appropriate to recognize each aspect of the eclipse separately, even as we reflect on the gestalt of the experience.