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.


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.