Solar Eclipses in Judaism

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by R. Gil Student

On August 21, 2017, parts of North America will experience a total solar eclipse for the first time in 26 years.1 New York and New Jersey will only see a partial eclipse but apparently there is more to this country than the Tri-State Area. Many enthusiasts are traveling to locations where they can experience the darkness that occurs when sunlight is not visible (don’t ruin their fun by telling them about nighttime). In all seriousness, this is a rare natural phenomenon. What does the Torah have to say about solar eclipses?

I. Blessing on Eclipse

The Mishnah (Berakhos 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 next issue of the journal Hakirah (vol. 23). Because of its timeliness, the article is already online at Hakirah.org (“The Great American Eclipse of 2017: Halachic and Philosophical Aspects”). 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 vol. 15 p. 260). 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 Chron. 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 suggest reciting Tehillim 19 and 104 on seeing a solar eclipse (She’al Es Ha-Rav, 7 Nissan 5766).

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. What are these reasons? 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 understood 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. While solar eclipses can be predicted, 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 (ibid.) 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.

 


  1. According to NASA: A 1991 total solar eclipse could be seen in Hawaii and a 1979 total solar eclipse could be seen in the northwest. 

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student recently served on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

5 comments

  1. When a person on Earth observes a total solar eclipse the size of the moon’s shadow that blots out the sun appears to be exactly the same size (diameter) as the sun. We all know, however, that the sun is much larger that the moon and much more distant from the Earth than the moon. Nevertheless the positioning of the sun and the moon in relation to a viewer on Earth is precisely measured to produce two “equal-sized” spheres at the time of the eclipse. (The same phenomenon occurs during a lunar eclipse.)
    What are the odds against this phenomenon being a random, fluke accident. Or does it indicate the plan and purpose of a Intelligent Creator?

    Kind David, in Psalm 19 writes: “The Heavens declare the Glory of G-d and the Firmament tells of His handiwork.”
    I believe that a solar or lunar eclipse was one of the things King David must have had in mind when he composed this Psalm.

  2. To my mind it seems quite straightforward why Chazal never suggested a bracha for a solar eclipse – quite simply because there is nothing to see. They only instituted birchot ha-reiyah when seeing a particular object or phenomenon. An eclipse is just an inability to see the sun so thus there is no bracha.

  3. The article cited by Rabbi Gil Student, entitled “The Great American Eclipse of 2017 by Dr. Jeremy Brown” cites and disputes a 1957 responsum from the Lubavitcher Rebbe which attempts to resolve the apparent contradiction between the Talmudic approach to solar eclipses and their scientific predictability based on the fact that while a solar eclipse is predictable, the local weather is not. It should be noted that the Lubavitcher Rebbe himself disputes this same approach for similar reasons as those proposed by Dr. Brown in his treatise regarding eclipses published in Likutei Sichos volume 15 page 7ff. In the same sicha, the Lubavitcher Rebbe also presents and takes issue with the proposed resolutions of R. Yonason Eibeschutz and R. Dovid Pardo for similar (and additional) reasons as those advanced by Dr. Brown in this article. Further, the Rebbe proposes a totally different resolution which is not cited by Dr. Brown.

    Also, the citations in footnotes 6 and 11 in Dr. Brown’s published article to Igros Kodesh 15:1079 should be corrected to read Igros Kodesh 15:5579.

    Regarding the second reason proposed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe for why no berachah is said on seeing a solar or lunar eclipse (because an eclipse is a sign of forthcoming disaster), which is also challenged by Dr. Brown – it should be noted that the Rebbe’s explanation is shared also by the Steipler Gaon (see Orchos Rabeinu volume 1 page 95).

  4. May I suggest a practical reason as to why Chazal did not enact a berachah on seeing an eclipse.

    In order to make a berachah on seeing an eclipse you must look at the sun. Looking directly at the sun without eye-protection for even a short time is dangerous to vision by causing damage to the retina i.e. the sensitive rod and cone cells at the back of the eyeball.

    Because of this very real and serious danger, Chazal were perhaps reluctant to institute such a berachah.

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