Friday, March 20, 2009

Shoot me for saying this, but the whole birchas hachamah thing bores me. I mean, it stands to reason that a berachah that shows up once every 28 years would attract some attention. But that doesn’t justify two lines of gemara and half a se’if in Shulchan Aruch getting book-length treatments. With that degree of bloviation a lot of nonsense is bound to be said.

Here is the short version. The gemara (Berachot 59b) cites a beraisa that when one sees the sun, the moon, the planets and the constellations at some (unspecified) special point in their respective cycles, one should recite the brachah “oseh [maaseh] bereishis”. Abaye explains that with regard to the sun, the reference is to the point once every 28 years when the vernal equinox is on Tuesday evening (i.e., the beginning of what we call “yom revi’i").

If not for Abaye, one could have taken the reference to be to the annual vernal equinox. But let’s work with Abaye. The simplest explanation of his remark is that, since as a matter of convention a solar year is defined as 365¼ days, any given point during the year will fall out on the same day and hour every 28 years. (28 times 365¼ is divisible by 7 and no number smaller than 28 will do the trick.) This is true in particular for the vernal equinox – a distinguished astronomical point – and so we recite the berachah at the vernal equinox every 28 years. (Rashi frums it up a bit by tying the particular spot in the 28-year cycle to the original point of creation, a flourish not mentioned by the gemara or, subsequently, the Rambam. Why modern (?) commentators insist on seizing upon this flourish as the starting point for the discussion is a mystery to me. Whatever.)

By this account, the 365¼-day year is merely a convention, a sort of canonical approximation. There’s nothing to see out there every 28 years. And this shouldn’t bother anyone. After all, by all accounts, the 28-year number is crucially dependent on the seven-day week, which itself is merely a convention. And Hazal point out that our holidays are defined by decisions of the beis din, not by astronomical events (“eileh moadei hashem asher tikreu osam” – al tikri osam ela atem). In halacha, astronomical events are anchors that prevent unlimited calendrical drift, but they aren’t constitutive.

This approach has a certain post-modern cachet and neatly avoids commitment to (very very) bad astronomy. But still. You’ve got to wonder how people who know better – and many great rabbanim did and do know better – can mark a virtual vernal equinox 18½ days after the actual equinox (which is today, Friday, at 11:44 GMT).

I think the answer lies in the dual definition of equinox used by Hazal (and many others). The official (modern) definition of equinox is the (twice-a-year) moment when the line connecting the sun to Earth is perpendicular to the earth’s axis (the line from the South pole to the North pole). At that moment, the sun is moving east to west right along the equator.

But there’s another, closely related, definition that was more commonly used in the olden days and which is used by the Rambam: it is when the sun enters (the part of the celestial sphere identified with) the constellation Aries (taleh). The two definitions were once indistinguishable. But here’s the weird thing. The tropical year (the duration of one orbit of the earth around the sun) is a bit over 11 minutes short of 365¼ days, so that the vernal equinox by the standard definition is 18 days earlier than the virtual equinox Jews use. But the sidereal year (the time it takes for the sun to get back to the same spot relative to the constellations) is actually just over nine minutes longer than 365¼ days. And the definition of the part of the celestial sphere identified with Aries is a bit fuzzy. So while the virtual equinox has been visibly different than the actual equinox according to the standard definition going back to Amoraic times, the sun did continue to rise in Aries at the virtual equinox right up until about the year 1500. (The sun shifts relative to the constellations by about one degree every 70 years and each constellation is identified with 30 degrees worth of celestial sphere, so any point in the tropical year coincides with a given constellation for about 2000 years.) So by the sidereal definition of equinox, we were doing more or less okay for a while. By now, though, the actual (tropical) vernal equinox is well into Pisces and even our virtual equinox has slipped into Pisces. The sun actually enters Aries these days on April 15, a week after our virtual equinox. (Somebody tracks this because Indian astrologers use the sidereal cycle to do whatever it is Indian astrologers do. At least there are a few true believers left in this world.)

So in the end it’s all about the completion of a virtual cycle. That’s it. Move along, move along. Nothing to see here.

The other events mentioned in the same beraisa, the completion of some sort of cycles involving the moon, the planets and the constellations, have all gone the way of the dodo bird. Nobody seems to have lost any sleep over any of them. If you get my drift...


Blogger MoChassid said...

It's like Perek Shira, Amen groups, Challah groups, etc. Some spiritual person re-discovers it, writes a book and it's all the rage. One day someone will figure out that there's a book in the rest of that Braisa.

10:19 PM  
Blogger Ben Bayit said...

I believe that there are those who are of the opinion that Pesach falling out in Chodesh Ha'aviv IS constitutive, and that the problem with the metonic cycle is a calendar problem that needs to be fixed.

Has anyone ever figured out when the bracha is supposed to be said for all of the other events mentioned in the Beraita?

10:40 AM  
Blogger Beisrunner said...

Yeah. but what will you tell your kids/grandkids when they ask what you were doing at the moment which hadn't happened since way before they were born? "I thought it was stupid and boring so I skipped it"?

7:51 PM  
Blogger The Observer said...

As an astronomer, I keep getting asked to comment on this, maybe to even give a shiur or two. I decline with the comment that the astronomical content of this inyan is perishingly close to nil. But I have been able to use it to clarify matters calendrical, so it isn't a complete loss.

Come Erev Pesach, I'll join in with everyone else, with the same enthusiasm as following any other minhag. But my perspective in this is as a Jew using the occasion to praise Hashem, not as an astronomer marking some dubious event.

9:14 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

People need a sense of community. The focus is secondary. I fargin them.

The metonic cycle is good enough. By the time the deviation is too big, we'll be back to judgment calls on leap years.

I appreciate your point. Like The Observer, I'll tell my kids that I said the berachah without fanfare. Infrequency doesn't make it important, it only gives it high shtick factor.

1:40 AM  
Anonymous zalman said...

As we drove up the FDR Drive on the vernal equinox and I saw the old Yankee Stadium and the new one occupying the same firmament, I felt at a loss without an appropriate brachah.

6:16 AM  
Anonymous chabakuk elisha said...

I see that you give short shrift to "shtik factor" (which isn't really fair -- why can’t we render unto shtik what is shtik’s?), but I know where you’re coming from and I can relate. I, too, have to stifle the laugh creeping up my throat when I see the number (and size) of sforim being produced on the subject (hey – yagdil Torah veyadir!) piled up on the table every time I walk into the sforim store.
I do find it interesting that nobody seems uncomfortable with the anniversary of the sun's-return-to-its-spot-at-the-time-of-creation being commemorated in Nissan (without even a single man d'amar claiming an Elul/Tishrei season Birchas Hachama) - which sorta gives me the feeling that there are others reasons for this event.
(But it could simply be that since Nissan comes first, we make the brocha then - and once the brocha is made, we don't make it again, as safek brochos lehakel?)

9:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


11:06 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Slay me with upper case, my hot-blooded anonymous friend, and don't spare the women and children.

11:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you would look into all the seforim that deal with this special mitzvah you would know why people are so exited

11:23 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Since I like the resources to look into all of them, why don't you summarize the highlights.

Thanks in advance.

11:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find it hard to believe that you don't have a mishneh brurah where he quotes in the sharei tzion the inyan of making the bracha with alarge crowd davka .As far as why it is such an exciting mitzvah i suggest you take a look in the sefer ateres yeshua in the likutim drush l'bichas hachama.You can also take alook in the hakdama to the sefer imrei yosef written by the chakal yitchack in the ninth mamar what he brings down from the bnei yissoschar.THE INFREQUENCY OF THE MITZVAH IS AREASON FOR FAN FARE AS WRITTEN IN SHU"T BAIS MORDICHAI.

4:51 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Thanks, Anon. The MB says "tov levarech berov am" exactly as he says by kiddush levana "umitzva levarech berov am" (in the biur halacha). I'll say the beracha for birchas hachama with the same rov am as I do kiddush levana (namely, the people in my local shul). This is, I'm fairly certain, exactly what our zeides did. I'd be very interested if you have a source suggesting that all the chassidim of southern Poland gathered on the roof of the highest building in Lodz for birchas hachama. Or wrote whole sefarim about it or engaged in any other excess typical of consumer societies with too much time and money on their hands.

5:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the sefer otzar hazmanim it is brought down that the eida hachreides gatherd the whole yerushalayim to a central birchas hachama.As far as the seforim i'll refer you to the famous reb shlomo kluger brought down in erery new sefer

6:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On a more halachadike viewpoint outlook the reason for all the seforim is due to the retzon hatzibbur to understand what birchas hachamah is well. After all the great kamarna in his sefer on shulchan aruch learns pshat in the gemara "haroeh' to mean understanding he is even meikal in the actual seeing to a certain extend .So maybe the olam wants to yotze all the shitos.

7:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


10:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the vain of birchas hachamah ,
over here there are some who think that it would be pasig to wear bigdei shabbos

8:06 PM  
Anonymous Zohar said...

Everybody's talking about Birkat HaHama

I see very strong evidence that "Abbaye" in Berachot 59b (once every 28 years) is a late insertion (Geonim/Rishonim):

The Rif does not bring it
Talmidei Rabbeinu Yona brings the opinion without connecting it to the Gemarrah as does the Rosh
Rabeinu Channanel brings the Yerushalmi's interpretation before Abayye
The Aruch brings both as equal perushim and doesn't quote the Gemarrah, but rather, brings it as a perush
based on this, Rabbi Akiva Eiger in the gilion asserts that the Aruch did not have this gemorrah

All of the Rishomin have a different wording of Abayye's concept

Rav Sa'adia has a different explanation altogether! (This is not a proof, but fits the picture)

Rambam is apparently based on a source which explains all of the blessings in the baraita, much more than "Abayye"

Abayye's explanation (once every 28 years) is completely foreign to the spirit of the Tosafta and the Yerushalmi -- see Lieberman, who incisively seems to associate Abayye more with the dissenting Rav Yuda who opposes blessing the sun (frequently)

My wild speculation-- a later scribe may have added:

אומר אני
אומר אבי

and this got miscopied as:

אומר אביי

9:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


9:37 PM  
Anonymous Zohar said...

A Reconstructed Hypothetical History of Birkath HaHama

1. Thesis - Tosefta - Anytime that one sees the sun one recites the blessing.

תוספתא מסכת ברכות )ליברמן( פרק ו

הרואה את החמה ואת הלבנה ואת הכוכבים ואת המזלות או' ברוך עושה בראשית

2. Antithesis - Tosefta Rav Yuda - One should never, ever recite this blessing, because it smacks of Avodah Zara. Blessings are only instituted on natural objects that are not constantly perceived. Since the sun is perceived day-in day-out, no blessing can be recited on it. It seems quite likely that this position is taken by the redactor of the Mishna, who deleted this blessing.

תוספתא מסכת ברכות )ליברמן( פרק ו

ר' יודה או' המברך על החמה הרי זו דרך אחרת וכן היה ר' יודה או' הרואה את הים תדיר ונשתנה בו דבר צריך לברך

3. Synthesis - Braitha Yerushalmi/Bavli - One only recites the blessing at certain intervals. In all of the many versions of this Braitha, qualifying words have been added and the dissenting opinion of Rav Yuda has been eliminated.

A. Yerushalmi - Only recited after 3 overcast days. This opinion is favored by Rabeinu Hananel, and listed by the Aruch, who is cited in Beith Yosef.

תלמוד ירושלמי מסכת ברכות פרק ט דף יג טור ד /ה"ב

הרואה את החמה בתקופתה ואת הלבנה בתקופתה ואת הרקיע בטיהרו אומר ברוך עושה בראשית אמ' רבי חונה הדא דתימר בימות הגשמים בלבד לאחר שלשה ימים הה"ד ועתה לא ראו אור וגו'

Tkofata is probably interpreted as "strength"!

B. Bavli (Rav Sa'adia) - Only recited in the summer (biTkufata = Tekufat Tammuz = the season which corresponds to the sun -- or when the sun is strong)

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף נט עמוד ב

תנו רבנן: הרואה חמה בתקופתה לבנה בגבורתה וכוכבים במסילותם ומזלות כסדרן, אומר ברוך עושה בראשית.

C. Bavli (Geonim/Rishonim) Once every 28 years. (BiTkufata = the sun's period). I would guess that this opinion originated in Andalisian Spain during its "Golden Years" of Science

רמב"ם הלכות ברכות פרק י הלכה יח

הרואה את ע החמה ביום תקופת ניסן של תחלת המחזור של שמונה ועשרים שנה שהתקופה בתחלת ליל רביעי כשרואה אותה ביום רביעי בבקר מברך ברוך עושה בראשית, וכן כשתחזור הלבנה לתחלת מזל טלה בתחלת החדש ולא תהיה נוטה לא לצפון ולא לדרום, וכן כשיחזור כל כוכב וכוכב מחמשת הכוכבים הנשארים לתחלת מזל טלה ולא יהיה נוטה לא לצפון ולא לדרום, וכן בכל עת שיראה מזל טלה עולה מקצה המזרח על כל אחד מאלו מברך עושה בראשית.

This interpretation made its way to France, where it entered into the Talmud itself!

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף נט עמוד ב

ואימת הוי? ־ אמר אביי: כל עשרים ושמונה שנין, והדר מחזור ונפלה תקופת ניסן בשבתאי באורתא דתלת נגהי ארבע.

רש"י מסכת ברכות דף נט עמוד ב

בתקופתה ־ מקום שהיא חוזרת שם לתחלת היקפה, היא שעת תליית המאורות, ומאז התחילה להקיף ולשמש.
אימת הוי ־ אחמה בתקופתה קאי.
כל עשרים ושמונה שנים ־ של תקופת ניסן, שבסוף עשרים ושמונה, כשחוזר מחזור גדול של חמה להיות תקופה נופלת בשעת תליית המאורות, בשבתאי היא שעה תחלת ליל רביעי.

The proofs that this statement of "Abayye" is a later edition to the Talmud are as follows:

After citing the Braitha, Rif does not bring it, either does Avi Ezri
Talmidei Rabbeinu Yona and Rosh bring the opinion without connecting it to the Gemarrah
Rabeinu Channanel brings the Yerushalmi's interpretation before this one
The Aruch brings both as equal perushim and doesn't quote the Talmud, but rather, brings it as a perush
based on this, Rabbi Akiva Eiger in the gilion asserts that the Aruch did not have this in his copy of the talmud
Rav Sa'adia has a different explanation altogether! How could he argue with Abayye?
Rambam is apparently based on a source which explains all of the blessings in the baraita, much more than "Abayye"
Only Rashi seemed to have it in his Talmud. How it got in there is uncertain. Perhaps a scribe wrote: אמר אבי or אומר אני and this was misinterpreted.

As a result of the influence of Rambam and Shulhan Aruch, the 28-year cycle was introduced to congregations throughout Israel.

Halacha L'Ma'ase: There is probably not a concern with Bracha L'Vatala, as the original opinion in the Tosafta was to always bless upon seeing the sun and Rav Yuda's objection was not based on the frequency, but on the association with Avodah Zarah. As long as one perceives the sun, blessing should not be a halachic problem.

11:54 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

I'm willing to buy most of it, but you need stronger proof that Abaye is a late interpolation. Are there any manuscripts that don't have it?

12:06 AM  
Anonymous Zohar said...

I haven't found any support from manuscripts, but I think that there are other cases of known Geonic additions which are found in all manuscripts

8:51 PM  
Anonymous Skeptic said...

Western astrologists have heard about the precession of the equinoxes too. So does anyone who ever saw "Hair". (Am I dating myself?) It's the age of Aquarius because of the precession of the equinox which makes it a different constellation at the same time of the solar year every 1000+years.

1:20 PM  
Blogger Ben Bayit said...

if you read up on Precession and the ancient Egyptians (especially with them knocking down and then rebuilding the edifices), the whole Bircat Hachama thing on Erev Pesach can be taken in a new and ironic light. Perahps R. Yuda was onto something when he denounced this as idol worship

4:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I appreciate your point. Like The Observer, I'll tell my kids that I said the berachah without fanfare. Infrequency doesn't make it important, it only gives it high shtick factor."

In halichos shlomo they relate that someone told a story to RSZA from a certain rov (you may recognize the story) and he got upset. Said Rav saw a bal tokia concentrating and having all kinds of kavanos for tekias shofar and asked him something on the order of whether he has such kavanos every time he says a bracha. RSZA got upset and said that RAEiger writes about matzos and says that the mitzva only comes once a year so that at least this mitzva which comes infrequently he wants to do correctly. He says it follows that one should treat mitzvos that come up infrequently specially. I think the enthusiasm abou birkas hachama is in this vein and that infrequency can make it important.

11:26 AM  
Anonymous Rashi said...

You can't say Rashi is just trying to frum it up; he is giving pshat in Abaye -- how else to explain the choice of Tuesday evening??

11:49 PM  
Anonymous mnavon said...

Indeed there is great difficulties with the bracha:
(1) Why acknowledge Creation in Nissan?
(2) Why use such a rough approximation of the solar year?

The Minhat Yitzhak explains that the bracha has nothing to do with astronomy. As such we need to investigate the THEOLOGICAL reason behind the Bracha. See my article at:

12:22 PM  
Blogger Ben Bayit said...

"I'll say the beracha for birchas hachama with the same rov am as I do kiddush levana (namely, the people in my local shul). This is, I'm fairly certain, exactly what our zeides did. I'd be very interested if you have a source suggesting that all the chassidim of southern Poland gathered on the roof of the highest building in Lodz for birchas hachama."

the NY Times of 1897 would seem to disagree and indicates that Jews- even of European extraction - gathered in crowds in public places for the blessing.

11:32 AM  

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