By The Bostoner Rebbe
Our sun may be some 150 million kilometers away, with its heat and light sustaining life here on earth; over a million kilometers wide and big enough to induce thermonuclear fusion in its center. The sun, despite all its glory, is but a servant of G-d, whose greatness is unfathomable and Who created all that exists.
At the same time, in Jewish tradition and Halachah the suns birthday is something special. Birkas ha-chamah is the special blessing and celebration that occurs only once every 28 years, when the sun assumes the same position in the sky it had when it was placed in the heaven on the fourth day (Wednesday) of creation.
The actual blessing said over this uncommon event is actually quite familiar: Blessed are You . . . Who fashioned the works of Creation.
We recite it during a storm whenever we first see a lightning flash.
The Mishnah (Brachos 9:1) mandates its recital upon seeing, at long intervals, impressive mountains, or hills, seas, rivers and deserts, all of which remind us of the greatness of the Creator.
The Talmud reads: Our Rabbis taught: One who sees the sun at its tekufah (seasonal turning point) . . . should say: Blessed are You . . . Who fashioned the works of Creation.
And when is that? Abaye said: Every 28 years, when the cycle begins anew and the equinox of Nisan falls in the hour of Saturn on Tuesday night going into Wednesday.
How is this calculated?
The simplified version is that since the solar year consists of roughly 52 weeks and 1 and 1/4 days, after 4 years the tekufah falls at the same hour of day, but five days later.
After its creation on a Wednesday, it falls four years later on Monday (1); then, four years later, on Shabbos (2); then on Thursday (3); then on Tuesday (4); then on Sunday (5); then on Friday (6); then, again, on Wednesday (7).
After after seven four-year cycles (4 x 7 = 28 years), the tekufah will occur on the same day of the week.
R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua dispute as to whether man was created on the first day of the month of Tishrei or Nisan, with creation itself having started six days earlier.
Notice that many authorities The Talmud, Rashi, Tosefos (Rosh Hashanah 12b) and the Code of Jewish Law (O.C. 229) agree that the world was created in Nisan, though the divine will to create our world arose in Tishrei, which is the basis for the many references to creation in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy.
If the matter were in doubt, we would be unable to say the blessing of the sun using G-ds name.
The blessing is best said during the first three hours after sunrise.
The morning prayer service (shacharis) should be said first.
Recitation of the blessing with a large crowd is preferable, as it is a public, dramatic acknowledgment of G-ds kingship.
Customs and stories related to birkas ha-chamah abound.
For example, the Bostoner chasidic dynasty has always gone to great lengths to observe this mitzvah and to make sure that others get into the spirit.
In 1925, Rebbe Pinchas Dovid Horowitz the first Bostoner Rebbe, embarked on a difficult voyage from the US to Israel just to perform two special mitzvos: to honor his mother and to recite birkas ha-chamah. (The weather in Boston is too unpredictable for a guaranteed appearance of the sun.)
In 1953, I, after a lengthy consultation with the chief meterologist of the New England Weather Bureau, actually found myself in a Boston covered with clouds.
I quickly called a travel agent to make a last minute reservation for a Wednesday flight to Idlewild Airport, New York, with a window seat and an immediate return.
(The hope was that the plane would take him above the clouds where he could see the sun!)
Soon after takeoff, the plane began to shake violently, bobbing up and down in the stormy turbulence. I had never flown before and remember thinking: This mitzvah requires only sanctifying the sun, not sanctifying G-d (martyrdom)!
Worse, the sky remained cloudy almost all the flight.
Finally, just before landing, the clouds parted, the sun shined, and then I, grateful and happy, got to recite the blessing.
In 1981, 28 years later, widespread public announcements drew Jews of all shades of observance to gather in the early morning outside the New England Chassidic Center in Brookline, Mass., where the crowd roared the blessing in unison.
To reach out to the many high-school and college students in the audience, I distributed T-shirts and buttons with a great picture of the sun, the number 28, and the message, I WAS THERE!
This year birkas ha-chamah will be said on a special and busy day, Passover eve, April 8.
So take off some time from burning your chametz and look upward, prayerbook and Psalms in hand.
If you miss this special opportunity with your own three-year-olds, you will have to wait to come with their three-year-olds 28 years hence!