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What’s Jewish About a Solar Eclipse?

What’s Jewish About a Solar Eclipse?

By Rachel Landman

Each morning at Sci-Tech Academy, we recite this special blessing to prepare ourselves for a day of exploration, challenges, and new discoveries: Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-Olam, who has given us a world to explore, questions to ask, and a community with which to share them. We are thankful that God has created a world with such amazing natural wonders that raise new questions for us to discuss every day, and provide light in times of darkness.

One such wonder, a total solar eclipse, will sweep across North American on Monday, August 21. This magnificent spectacle, during which the moon passes between the sun and the earth, completely blocking the sun, will be the first total solar eclipse visible in the continental United States since 1979. Because the sun is 400 times wider than the moon, it must be 400 times farther away from earth than the moon for the two spheres to appear to be the same size, forming a total eclipse. A total solar eclipse is the only time the sun’s outer atmosphere, known as the corona, is visible. Most of the country will see a partial eclipse, in which the moon covers one part of the sun. People in the direct path of the eclipse will see totality, during which the sky goes dark for a few minutes, stars come out, and the only visible part of the sun is the wisps of the corona.

Some cultures, including some Jewish traditions, see the darkness caused by the eclipse as a bad omen. The moon, sun, and stars are important to many cultures and eclipse sightings have been recorded for nearly 5,000 years. The Jewish calendar is lunar, which means the months and holidays are based on the cycles of the moon. Because the moon dictates the Jewish calendar, must the eclipse have a particular meaning for our community? Although some traditions see the eclipse’s darkness as a bad sign, are there other ways to view it? At Sci-Tech we look at the eclipse as an opportunity to learn about our solar system and to ask new questions.

For example, why do natural occurrences happen? What is the science that drives them? How can this information be connected to our Jewish teachings, values and traditions? Understanding the scientific wonder that causes a phenomenon by perfectly aligning the earth, moon, and sun, we can see the eclipse as a gift. The minutes of unexpected darkness when the moon covers the sun can remind us of the importance and value of the sun in our daily lives.

One of our favorite songs at Sci-Tech is “Why Does the Sun Shine,” which includes these lyrics:

We need its light, we need its heat, we need its energy.
Without the sun, without a doubt, there’d be no you and me.

Nonetheless, many of us spend the summer seeking protection from the sun, complaining about its heat and bright rays. An eclipse not only reminds us to appreciate the sun, but all of our environment – that we too often take for granted, even as we rely on it each day. Indeed, it reminds us to be thankful for the light we see, the water we drink, and the soil that grows our food. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us of this idea: “the world is now a gigantic tool box for the satisfaction of [human] needs…. Nature is a tool box in a world that does not point beyond itself. It is when nature is sensed as mystery and grandeur that it calls upon us to look beyond it.”

The natural world is filled with daily miracles. When there is so much trouble in the world around us, sometimes our vision can be clouded by darkness. Although it is challenging, it is important to step back and see the light. This week, our natural world is telling us that beyond the darkness there is light. Behind the dark circle of the moon there is a warm, bright, shining light. Let us use the eclipse as an opportunity to ask questions about our earth, marvel at natural wonders, and appreciate the daily miracle of sunlight.

This post also appears on ReformJudaism.org