Friday, August 18, 2017

Eclipses in הלכה and מחשבה

In light of (no pun intended) the upcoming solar eclipse here in the USA, I thought I'd post a piece I wrote about eclipses a couple of years ago.

B’nei Yisrael are traditionally symbolized by the moon. The generations from Avraham are likened to the cycle of the moon. David and Shelomoh were the 14th and 15th generations from Avraham Avinu. It was during their reign that B’nei Yisrael was at its pinnacle. They conquered their enemies, stretched out their borders and built the Beis HaMikdash. This is just like the moon which is biggest on days 14 and 15. After Shelomoh, national stability began to deteriorate and B’nei Yisrael lost their splendour, just as the moon wanes after the 15th day.

There are many insights to be taken from this symbolism. The gemara (Rosh HaShanah 25a) quotes the pasuk (Tehillim 104:19) “shemesh yada mevo’o,” the sun knows its path. The gemara comments that the sun knows its path but the moon does not. The relative path of the sun as it changes from season to season is quite predictable and easy to figure out. The path of the moon, however, is erratic in nature and seems not to follow a specific pattern. We may understand this as analogous to the way in which the world is run. The nations of the world, traditionally symbolized by the sun, are governed, to a certain degree, by the laws of nature. There is a less focused Divine Providence that guides their everyday events. This is akin to the predictable path of the sun. One need not delve too deeply to realize that B’nei Yisrael are governed in quite a different manner. The great miracles that adorn our history, as well as the day-to-day twists and turns that befall our nation to this day are clear indications that there is nothing haphazard about the course of events that befall us. There are no patterns or laws of nature to rely on, just as the moon follows a seemingly unpredictable path.

The gemara (Sukkah 29a) tells us that when there is an eclipse of the sun, it is a bad sign for the gentiles. When there is an eclipse of the moon, it is a bad omen for B’nei Yisrael because we follow the lunar calendar and they follow the solar calendar. There is an intriguing insight that lies beneath the surface here as well. An eclipse of the moon happens when the moon moves into a position behind the earth such that the light of the sun cannot reach it. One might say that it is “the moon’s fault” that it was eclipsed. This is the way we must view calamities that befall us. We must search within for the causes and realize that it is our own deeds and actions that have brought them about.

An eclipse of the sun happens when the moon moves in front of the earth in such a way that it blocks the sun’s light from reaching certain spots on the earth. Here, too, we see that it is path of the moon that has caused the eclipse. The sun and earth are insignificant players in a solar eclipse. The lesson learned from this gemara is that everything that happens in this world is, in some way, connected to B’nei Yisrael. Despite our relatively insignificant size, like that of the moon to the sun, the world was created for us and continues to be governed according to our actions. This is not something to take advantage of but rather, a great responsibility that we must bear on our shoulders at all times.

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Every month, on the Shabbos before Rosh Chodesh, as part of "Birkas HaChodesh," the time of the molad is announced. This time refers to the birth of the new moon on which Rosh Chodesh is based. Astronomically, this is when the moon passes between the earth and the sun, thereby completing its monthly cycle. Although the time of the molad no longer determines the exact day of Rosh Chodesh since our calendars are set, we use this figure to determine when we may recite kiddush levanah. Based on the gemara (Sanhedrin 41b), we may only recite kiddush levanah when the moon is new, that is, when it is waxing. Knowing the midpoint between the two molados allows us to determine this exact time (Rema OC 426:3). Also, we do not begin to say kiddush levanah until three whole days after the molad, when the moon is big enough to see.

The period of time from molad to molad (synodic period) that we use for these calculations is 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes and 3 and a third seconds. However, this is not an exact, constant figure. Rather, it is the average length of a synodic period as indicated by Rambam (Hilchos Kiddush HaChodesh 6:3). The time we use for the molad may differ from the time of the actual molad, lunar conjunction, by a couple of hours one way or the other. In general, we don't really know when it does differ and we just rely on the average synodic period for all halachic calculations. However, nature can sometimes tell us that our calculations are off - with an eclipse.

An eclipse of the moon happens when the moon is in a position behind the earth such that the sun's rays cannot reach it. Clearly, this can only happen at the exact middle of the month, lunar opposition, when the moon is exactly behind the earth with respect to the sun. An eclipse of the sun is when the moon moves directly in front of the sun, obstructing the view of the sun from earth. This will only happen at the exact beginning of the month when the moon is exactly between the earth and the sun, i.e. the molad.

The issue of eclipses is discussed in Beis Yosef and Darchei Moshe OC 426:3. The consensus there is that if an eclipse of the moon is witnessed, then kiddush levanah may no longer be recited, even if this is before the prescribed time for sof zeman kiddush levanah, the halfway point between molados. [9/26/2015: This halachah was especially significant in this area of the world this month. The official time for sof zeman kiddush levanah was 12:47 am EDT on Thursday night (Friday morning, officially). However, there was a much anticipated full lunar eclipse that night. According to NASA, the time of mid-eclipse, essentially the official middle of the month was 11:40 pm EDT. Therefore, kiddush levanah should have been recited before that time, despite whatever is written in the calendars.]

A solar eclipse, however, is not as simple. Beis Yosef writes that a solar eclipse may not be used to determine the proper time after which one may not say kiddush levanah. However, there does not seem to be any discussion about beginning to say kiddush levanah. If the time of the molad were preceded by a solar eclipse, as the molad of Teves 5761 was by eight hours, would that allow us to recite kiddush levanah earlier? Conversely, if the molad were to precede the eclipse, would that move back the time at which we may recite kiddush levanah? For our upcoming solar eclipse, the peak time is actually around a full half day before the recorded time of the molad.

Perhaps, there is a reasoning behind Beis Yosef's ruling with regard to sof zeman kiddush levanahwhich would not apply to techilas zeman kiddush levanah. When a lunar eclipse indicates that we may no longer recite kiddush levanah it is because we may not rely on an average when there is a clear indication that the average is incorrect. When it is an average against a clear natural indication, we dispense with the average. However, the calculation for sof zeman kiddush levanah is achieved by adding half of the average synodic period to the previous molad. To allow a solar eclipse to determine sof zeman would be to combine the clear evidence with an average. We must rely on one or the other but we may not combine the two.

To allow the solar eclipse to determine when we may begin to recite kiddush levanah is relying only on the clear evidence of the eclipse and not on any other averages. Therefore, it would seem that we may adjust the time based on a solar eclipse. Furthermore, the apparent source for the custom to wait three days is Talmidei Rabbeinu Yonah (End of Berachos 4.) But the specific wording used is that one should recite kiddush levanah when people derive benefit from the moon's light - after two or three days. In fact, Yad Ramah on Sanhedrin writes that it may be recited after one day. Therefore, to be lenient in this regard when there is sufficient astronomical evidence on our side does not seem so farfetched.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Like the Stars of the Heavens


As part of Moshe Rabbeinu's introduction to his review of the last forty years, he makes mention of the fact that (1:10) "HaShem has allowed you to multiply and you are now numerous like the stars in the sky." Rashi is bothered by the obvious exaggeration. B'nei Yisroel were a nation of merely 600,000 men which is infinitesimal compared to the infinite stars. Rashi offers an alternate understanding of the pasuk. However, I believe it is possible that Moshe was indeed comparing B'nei Yisroel to the stars in the sky at that very time.

This understanding is based on a commentary of R' Chayim Kanievsky in Parshas Lech Lecha (Bereishis 15:5). HaShem brings Avraham Avinu outside and tells him to observe the uncountable stars and tells him that his progeny will be likewise uncountable. Rashi there quotes a Midrash that states that HaShem removed Avraham from the atmosphere and placed him above the stars to observe them. R' Chayim questions, why was this necessary? Why was it not sufficient to simply look at the stars from where he was? He answers that we are taught in the adjacent commentary to Rambam's Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah (3:8) that there are a finite number of stars visible from Earth, 1022 to be exact. Beyond the scope of our vision there exists an abundance of stars which are too many to be counted. Avraham had to be removed from Earth in order to appreciate that.

Therefore, when Moshe Rabbeinu spoke to B'nei Yisroel, they were very much comparable to the stars in the sky. In a very short time, B'nei Yisroel had indeed multiplied from a mere 70 to an impressive 600,000. Like the stars that are visible from Earth, they were great in number, yet still countable.

The word "larov" here is assumed to mean "for multitudes" which would imply that the multitudes have already been achieved. This is what is bothering Rashi. While this is, in fact, the meaning of the word in most of its many occurrence in Tanach, it may also be used as a verb, to multiply (as in Bereishis 6:1). Perhaps Moshe was not stating that B'nei Yisroel were multitudes like the stars, but rather, they will multiply like the stars. Just as the visible stars may be a countable finite group, yet "potentially" infinite, B'nei Yisroel were a countable many, with the potential to become infinite. After all, has anyone ever calculated how many total Jews have lived in the history of the world?

Moshe Rabbeinu was speaking to B'nei Yisroel as they were on the verge of crossing over into Eretz Yisroel and realizing the ultimate goal of their deliverance from Egypt. This was a reminder of the star-like potential they were promised to realize following this auspicious moment in their history. It is therefore fitting that Moshe followed this statement with a blessing that HaShem will indeed multiply B'nei Yisroel thousand-fold, to develop them from a modestly small nation like the countable, visible stars, to a prolific nation like the infinite stars of the universe.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Let's Face It

If your average gentile passed by a group of Jews saying קדוש לבנה they would probably be quite confused - not because a group of individuals appear to be blessing the moon but because they see ten Jews facing eleven directions. Many people seem to face all sorts of different directions in order not to face the moon. While this seems like a perfectly innocent practice, there are some serious issues involved.

The reason why people do this is so as to not appear to be gazing at the moon (either so as not appear to be praying to or worshiping the moon or simply to avoid the prohibition to gaze at the moon.) This is certainly a concern that is brought up in halachah. Mishnah Berurah (426:13-14) quotes from poskim that one should not gaze at the moon, even during the berachah. Rather, one should give a quick glance beforehand. He also states that we dance by standing on our toes because the bending of our knees might appear as bowing. However, nowhere, does it mention that one should turn away from the moon. I do not know of any other sources who do suggest to turn away but what I do know is this: It is nothing short of blasphemy to direct the following words at HaShem:
ברוך יוצרך, ברוך עושך, ברוך קונך, ברוך בוראך
These words must be directed at the moon. I would think that the same would hold true for כשם שאני רוקד כנגדך ... which again is certainly talking about the moon. I am not sure if people just don't know what they're saying or just aren't thinking but I myself have seen people face away from the moon towards the shul from the beginning of קדוש לבנה until the end. I think this an unfortunate example of over-zealousness gone awry. I might even go as far as to put this in the same league as people turning their backs on ברכת כהנים - a practice which is fortunately diminishing but is still found here and there. I feel rabbanim should bring this to their congregants' attention.

UPDATE: A reader has brought to my attention two sources which actually do discuss this practice.
:לבושי מרדכי
:יסוד ושורש העבודה

I nevertheless still maintain that the source for this is obscure, at best. And certainly of note is the point made by יסוד ושורש העבודה to which I was מכוין, regarding those two phrases. If there is a concern related to gazing at the moon, I still do not feel that is reason to turn away. But at the very least, if that is to be the practice, everyone ought to get together and decide to face the same direction. In או"ח צ"ד, it is made very clear how careful one must be with the direction they face for שמונה עשרה, so as not to make the ציבור appear disjointed. While this is outside of the בית הכנסת, I think the same care should be taken. (Especially now considering the יסוד ושורש העבודה suggesting that one needs to stand in the same manner as in שמונה עשרה.)

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Gemara's Aliens or Others' Ignorance?

Breaking news this week was that NASA successfully landed its rover, Curiosity, on Mars. This was a tremendous accomplishment and truly is a testament to the advancements that science has made over the past decades! One of the goals of Curiosity is to see if there are leftover materials on Mars that would indicate whether life ever existed on our neighboring planet. Because of the renewed interest in this topic I decided to repost the following.

 I have no idea whether or not life exists on other planets and, as the joke goes, sometimes I wonder if intelligent life even exists here on Earth (it's a joke!). People ask me this all the time and for reasons unbeknownst to me they think that whether life does or does not exist elsewhere has some sort of deep theological issues associated with it. I am not sure why, either possibility does not seem to create any dilema or even a different understanding of the Torah in my opinion. Nevertheless, this discovery has made the news and reminded me of this post.

I have heard the following pasuk, and its associated Gemara, cited so many times, as a proof from Chazal that aliens exist, that I felt it an appropriate post (Shoftim 5:23),

"ארור מרוז אמר מלאך ה ארו ארור ישביה"

“Cursed is Meroz said the angel of HASHEM, cursed are its inhabitants, etc.”

The Jewish nation had just decimated the superpower of the world’s leading army. Sisera, Yavin’s most skilled general, and his army were annihilated. Devorah and Barak then proceeded to laud Hashem’s praises. In the midst of their song, they give thanks and credit to those that helped in the war effort and they admonish those that chose not to come and help. Meroz was one of those that chose not to help.

Meroz is not a common name or place in Tanach and, therefore, the Meforshim come to help the reader understand what Meroz is. The vast majority state that it was a city that was in close proximity to the battlefield. The Gemara, itself (Moed Katan 16a), offers two explanations as to what Meroz was.

The first explanation is that Meroz was a leading individual of a nearby area. As such, he had military influence and could have brought his army to help. The second opinion is that Meroz is a star.

The Gemara then cites from an earlier verse that stated that even the stars of the heavens did battle with Sisera.

Based on this, many have assumed that if Meroz is a star, and Devorah cursed its inhabitants, then, obviously, Chazal were under the impression that intelligent life exists in other parts of the universe. I have even heard many state that the striking similarity in sound between Meroz and Mars makes it likely that there used to be (or is) life on that planet. However, this would seem to be an error since midrashic sources refer to Mars as Ma'adim and it is unreasonable to assume that it would just be referred to as a non-descript star.

Unfortunately, this all seems to be based on a little bit of ignorance when it comes to how Chazal, and Rishonim, refer to astrological influences. Every area of the world is considered to be under the influence of part of the sky. The influence is called the ruling party and the people of the land are called its inhabitants (See Ibn Ezra's Reishis Chachma and Sefer HaTa'amim). It seems much more likely, that the Gemara was referring to this extremely familiar concept than to space aliens which are not a common talmudic theme.

The proof to this is the first statement of the Gemara. That opinion felt that Meroz was an important individual. Obviously, the inhabitants of this individual would be those living under his rule. Unless, of course, one wants to go so far as to suggest that this is proof of a parasitic species of warriors that inhabit their leaders.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

I Can't Believe Its Not Fresh

In the beginning of the Parsha we see that Avraham Avinu went to tremendous lengths in order to prepare feasts for the passersby that were lucky enough to be his guests. During the feast that he served the three angels that visited him after his bris, he had Sarah Imeinu make bread from three se'ah of fine flour, he had three oxen slaughtered to serve three separate tongues with mustard, and he had butter and milk brought to them. We see clearly how dedicated Avraham was in his hachnasas orchim. (See Bereishis 18 and Rashi's commentary.)

It is interesting to see that Avraham did not seem to have anything prepared for these wayfarers. We are taught that Avraham epitomized kindness. One would have thought that he would have had food prepared for the occasional guest that might accept an invitation. Nevertheless, in this week's storyline we see that Avraham clearly asked the visitors to rest for a bit while he went to prepare their food. Why would Avraham risk losing these guests by not having food ready for their possible arrival? The answer is simple, Avraham wanted evrything to be fresh. What sojourner could pass up a fresh meal filled with the choicest foods? Avraham knew that he would not lose guests if he asked them to relax while he prepared them a meal that was fit for a king. Therefore, he purposefully did not have food ready for their arrival. Additionally, while they rested Avraham would have ample time to strike up a conversation with them and teach them about Hashem.

It is so interesting to note that Avraham clearly wanted everything to be fresh so that he could serve his guests the finest delicacies. The meat was freshly slaughtered and the bread was freshly baked. Why then was the milk and butter only brought to the meal and not milked and churned that day? (See Bereishis 18:8) Perhaps, the answer lies in the date of this monumental feast, Pesach. (Rashi, Bereishis 18:10) It is prohibited to milk animals in order to drink their milk on Yom Tov, and it is also prohibited to churn butter on Yom Tov. (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 505:1; and Rema 510:5) As such, Avraham would not want to be violate this holy day. Therefore, he had butter and milk prepared in anticipation that guest might arrive, but the rest of the meal was prepared on the spot.

A Scratch on the Wall

According to the Midrashim quoted by Rashi, Yitzchak was born precisely a year after the angels visited Avraham and Sarah, on the first day of Pesach. (According to the gemara Rosh HaShanah 11a the angels visited on Sukkos.) Rashi (21:2) writes that HaShem gave Avraham a sign. On the day the angels visited, HaShem made an etching in a wall and told Avraham, "When the sun reaches this point again next year, you will have a son." This sign requires some clarification. How exactly did this work?

An object that is standing upright in the path of the sun will form a shadow on the ground. The exact direction of the shadow depends on the position of the sun in the sky. As the sun moves through the eastern sky in the first half of the day, the shadow will be pointing westward and vice versa for the second half of the day. However, the exact direction of the shadow, i.e., its northerly or southerly bearing, will constantly change. As well, the size of the shadow is dependent on the north/south position of the sun as well. These are the principals behind the sundial. All of the factors change throughout the day and the daily patterns change throughout the year as a result of the change in direction of the earth's tilt. However, one thing is certain. At midday, the sun is not in the eastern sky or the western sky. Rather, it is either due north or due south, depending on where you are in the world. What is relevant to us is that since Eretz Yisroel, at approximately 31o North, is above the Tropic of Cancer (23.5o North), the sun will always be in the southern sky at midday. The size of the shadow depends on the angle of the sun in the sky which depends directly on the time of year.

Any sign involving a shadow would surely have been simplest to arrange at midday. It is therefore most noteworthy that the gemara (.ברכות כ"ז) infers from the words (18:2) "kechom hayom," in the heat of the day, that the angels visited in the sixth hour. After the food was prepared and served and the angels conversed with Avraham, it seems altogether plausible that it was exactly midday. It seems that the sign that was given was that at that moment, the southern wall (or other standing object) was casting a shadow on the northern wall. The scratch that was made on the wall indicated the end of the shadow. When the shadow reached the exact same point at midday sometime in the next year, it would indicate that a complete year had passed.

With all this considered the Midrash is quite troubling. All these details are specific to the solar year. However, Yitzchak was born precisely one year later by the lunar calendar, not the solar calendar. What significance could any sun-related sign have to the passing of a lunar year?

I particularly enjoyed the answer that Pi offered in the comments:
On pasuk 18:10, Seforno says: שוב אשוב אליך - למועד המילה כפעם בפעם.‏ This suggests that the time the angels would return a (solar) year later was not the exact day of Yitzchak's birth, but rather some time later. The book קונטרס די שמיא by Alexander Shutz on pages 18-19 claims that the ריב"א asks your question, and that ר' צבי יודא פריידמאן suggests the following answer: The angel Rephael would come back three days after Yitzchak's bris mila to heal him, which would be (about) 11 days after his birth, so that could have been the occasion when the sun reached the line that was marked on the wall.

Witnesses to Sedom's Destruction


Rashi on 19:24 notes that the destruction of Sedom happened at day break, when the sun and moon were in the sky at the same time. This was because they used to worship the sun and moon. HaShem therefore brought the destruction when both were out as a proof to all the sun and moon worshipers that the sun and moon are powerless. Had the destruction taken place when they were not in the sky, one could have argued that they were not "there" to save them. This is a rather simple statement by Rashi but the astronomical basis for it is quite interesting.

It is not always that the sun and moon are out together at day break. It is also not always that it is the only time that they are out together. The moon rises and sets approximately 49 minutes later each day. This is a result of the moon orbiting the earth. Just as the moon's position is reset at the end of every month, so are its rising and setting times. (The math is as follows: Every full moon cycle (month), moonrise and moonset make a full circle of 24 hours such that the times are as they were precisely one month previous. The figure of 49 minutes is achieved by dividing 24 hours by the duration of the lunar cycle, 29.5 days, 44 minutes, 3 and a third seconds. More precisely, the figure is 48 minutes, 45.5 seconds.)

At the beginning of the month, the moon follows a very similar schedule to the sun. The moon rises at the beginning of the day and sets at sundown. As the month progresses, the moon rises and sets later and later. At the middle of the month, the moon has virtually the opposite schedule to the sun. It rises when the sun sets and sets when the sun rises. As we enter the second half of the month, the moon begins to rise later in the night and thus, becomes visible at the beginning of the day.

The Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 50) teaches that Sedom was destroyed on the 16th of Nissan. As explained above, at that time of the month, the moon would have risen shortly after sunset and set very shortly after sunrise. Therefore, the only time in the entire day that both the sun and moon were out at the same time was very early in the morning and that is why the destruction took place specifically at the very beginning of the day. [Nevertheless, it is puzzling that Rashi uses the term "Alos HaShachar" which refers to a time before sunrise.]