by Hailey Tucker, The Western Front
April 07, 2009
On sunny days, Western’s campus comes alive with students trying to spend time outside reading textbooks, catching up with friends or playing Frisbee. The idea of taking some time to stop and truly appreciate the sun itself is far from most students’ minds.
The Chabad House Jewish Student Center will be leading a blessing of the sun on April 8 at 7:30 a.m., which offers a chance for students and community members to do just this.
The first Jewish ceremony of Birkat Hachamah in over a quarter century will be performed in Western’s Red Square. The ceremony is a tradition in Judaism in which a blessing of the sun is performed to thank God for creating it.
Rabbi Levi Backman of the Chabad House said the ceremony is performed only once every 28 years because Judaism teaches that the sun was created on a Tuesday night 5,769 years ago. This means that a Wednesday morning was the first time the sun rose.
Judaism suggests that it takes 28 years for the sun to rotate around the earth and return to the same place in the sky, on the same day of the week and at the same time in the morning as when it was created. When all of these variables come together, the ceremony of Birkat Hachamah takes place.
Backman said the assumption is that no Birkat Hachamah ceremony was held 28 years ago, the last time this alignment occurred, which would make this the first ceremony in 56 years. Birkat Hachamah has been celebrated 205 times in Jewish history, making Wednesday the 206th.
It will be the only Birkat Hachamah ceremony within a radius of almost 80 miles of Bellingham, Backman said.
Western senior Rani Shakh, president of the Chabad Jewish Student Organization, said the blessing will be giving thanks for the sun’s role in both life and Judaism.
“The sun is important to every creation: to plants, to animals, to humans,” Shakh said. “It allows life.”
The basis of Birkat Hachamah is that God created the sun 5,769 years ago, and it rotates around the earth in a 28-year solar cycle. Modern-day astronomy beliefs, however, differ in regard to the sun’s age and motion.
Western junior Daniel Gifford, an astronomy minor who has been conducting research with Western Physics Professor Kenneth Rines on galaxy clusters, said astronomers generally believe the sun to be about 4.5 billion years old which would suggest the sun to be more than 4 billion years older than Judaism believes it to be.
Modern astronomy also supports the belief that the earth rotates around the sun, and Gifford said he was unaware of any 28-year solar cycle.
“It takes one year for the sun to return to the same point in the sky,” Gifford said. He did not know if it would take 28 years for it to be a Wednesday morning and the planet to have the proper tilt for the sun to return to a specific spot in the sky, he said.
Judaism supports the belief that the sun rotates around the earth each day but strays from a perfectly straight course, resulting in the seasons.
In response to the differing viewpoints, Backman acknowledged scientific beliefs but said scientific theories are theories not facts.
Despite the discrepancies between Judaism and astronomy regarding the sun’s age and origin, Gifford did not have any differing beliefs regarding the sun’s importance.
“The sun is the basis of all the forms of energy. It’s the reason we’re here,” Gifford said. “It gives us heat and plants energy.”
For Shakh and other members of the Jewish faith, the sun also holds a religious importance. Shakh said the sun guides Jewish practices throughout the day and helps determine when to begin certain prayers or start religious activities. For example, sundown is used every week as a signal to begin Chabad, the Jewish Sabbath.
The important role the sun plays in both basic life and in Judaism is one of the reasons Birkat Hachamah is expected to have a strong turnout.
“Basically, it’s an opportunity to see something very rare and feel a connection to creation,” Shakh said.
The event is one of the rarest in Judaism, which is one of the reasons Backman said he hopes people will attend.
“Many things in life are daily and weekly; this may be the last time for someone [to attend]. So, I think many people will come because they may not get another chance,” Backman said.
Aside from the 28-year gaps between Birkat Hachamah ceremonies, the event is also rare because it is only the second ceremony the Chabad House has held outside on campus. In December 2007, the center held a public menorah lighting, but most other ceremonies and services are held indoors in a more private setting. Backman explained that the ceremony is held in public because anyone is welcome to join or observe.
The ceremony itself will be brief and does not require any extra adornment. Red Square was chosen as a location because it is easily accessible to the general population and because it is beautiful without any added decor, Backman said.
Shakh said he is proud the service is being held in public.
“It’s basically like a statement. That’s why it is a big gathering,” Shakh said.
Once the group assembles Wednesday, they will look up at the sun before the blessing is said. After that, the group will follow tradition by not looking up again until the blessing is finished. This is to keep others from thinking Judaism is a sun-worshipping religion.
“We are talking to God, not the sun,” Backman said.
The ceremony will be said with parts in English and parts in Hebrew. A bit of history will be explained prior to the blessing. Prayers and excerpts will be read and refreshments will be available. Backman said it will last no longer than a half hour.
To the dismay of the rabbi, Bellingham’s unreliable weather patterns may pose a threat to the ceremony. Backman said he is praying for a sunny day.
On the occasion that it is either raining or cloudy Wednesday morning, the ceremony will continue, but the actual blessing will not be recited since the sun is not visible. The Rabbi will ask the attendees to wait and say the blessings on their own if they see the sun peak out at any point in the day before 1 p.m.
If a cloud barrier obstructs the sun up until 1 p.m., the attendees will say the blessing, but omit the word “God” from their prayer. Birkat Hachamah will be celebrated worldwide, and will not be celebrated again until 2037.