Sunday, March 29, 2009

Liturgies for Blessing the Sun

The Liturgy of Birkat HaChamah

by Jonathan Baker

Today we can say tremendously long liturgies for what started as a one-line blessing. Yes, Jewish prayer is the result of millennia of accretion, but this liturgy grew faster than usual, growing from almost nothing to a dozen pages in less than 300 years.

The Laws:

The Braita in Berachot 59b tells us that when one sees the sun on the point of its place at the time of Creation, we are to bless Him who does the Work of Creation, just as we bless Him for seeing lightning or an earthquake. And for a thousand years, that was it. Every 28 years, as R’ Zev Sero put it, “when March 26th Old Style falls on a Tuesday”, that is, the anniversary of the fourth day of Creation beginning from the Vernal Equinox, the sun is in the right place, on the Fourth Day of the week, at the right time of day, following the Julian calendar, and so we bless it, and bless God for His Creation of the world in and of itself.

The idea of saying this blessing drips down through the halachic literature (summary from article Chamah, in Judah David Eisenstein's "Otzar Dinim uMinhagim", 1917).

Maharil ordained that the night before, it is announced that when one sees the sun rise the next morning, they should bless.

Similarly R Menachem Azaria of Fano in Seder Alfasi Zuta, that when one sees the sun rise, he should bless.

Mas’at Binyamin notes that it is the custom to say the blessing with the congregation when they come out of shul after the Morning Service.

The Devar Moshe and R' Jacob Emden at the end of the commentary on the Seder Olam writes that this is the best way, because “in the multitude of the nation is the glory of the King,” as is done for the Blessing of the New Moon.

A liturgy assembled in Baghdad in 1925 notes that the Hazan repeats the bracha for the blind and women. Why women? Perhaps they weren’t literate in Hebrew?

The Rema advises one to wait until the sun shows its face, until 3 hours (about 9:40 this year), and R’ Yaakov Emden says, bedieved, until 12 noon. Others say that one should say the bracha at the earliest time, whether or not the sun itself is visible, as long as it’s partly visible.

Even among the early Acharonim however, there is some discomfort with saying the beracha, since it was well known even in the 12th century that the year is not 365.25 days long, but 365.2422 days, as is the basis of our Gregorian calendar. So the sun should return to its original place every 19 years, on the leap-year cycle, not every 28 years on a Julian-based cycle. The Mas'at Binyamin [late 1500s], therefore, recommends saying the beracha without the Divine names, because of this doubt. But most later poskim don't accept this idea.

The Liturgy: Early Creations:

We begin to get hints that people are tarting up the liturgy in the Machzor Vitry, which reports in the name of a Rav Shemaya that Rabbeinu Tam (1200s) wrote a short poem to be said along with the blessing. The next text of a liturgy to accompany the blessing shows up in a manuscript at the JTS, which may or may not be associated with the sun-cycle of 1719. It’s fairly involved, includes a blessing patterned on the Blessing of the New Moon, and some psalms one might say. It’s written in a Sephardic hand, but is undated, so we don’t really know where or when it was written.

For the cycle of 1757, R’ Yaakov Emden suggests, at the end of his commentary on Seder Olam, that we recite the Talmudic passage that itself commands us to say the blessing, to prepare ourselves for the blessing and put it in context.

In 1785, R’ Jacob b. David Meldola, of Leghorn, Italy, a member of the distinguished Meldola family, writes a liturgy that begins to resemble what contemporary Jews have said in recent cycles. He begins with some verses that refer to the Sun: Ps. 84:12, an acrostic of verses beginning with the letters of the Tetragrammaton, (Pm 72:5, Ps75:2, Mal. 3:20, Ps 97:6) and the first six verses of Ps. 148. We’ll call this Meldola’s leket. Then the congregation says the central beracha, followed by Ps. 19 and 121, the Baraita commanding us to say the beracha, the passage “Rabbi Hanania ben Akashia says”, which leads into the Rabbi’s Kaddish. The text concludes with a special Yehi Ratzon prayer thanking God for our reaching this cycle, and hoping we reach the next cycle in health.

Another, briefer liturgy is also known from 1785, from Scandiano in Italy, consisting of the bracha, the baraita of “Rabbi Elazar said Rabbi Chanina said” (from the Shabbat davening), and a kaddish derabbanan. The note describing this, a ms. from the Ginzburg-Moscow archive, attests it was also said in 1757, 1729, and 1701.

By the next cycle, 1813, the Meldola text had become somewhat known. In Reggio, an anonymous printer gives Meldola’s liturgy, with an additional preface: the passage from Genesis on the creation of the Sun. However, Meldola’s ritual appears not to have been known outside of Italy.

In fact, this seems to be the fate of a lot of versions of the sun ritual. Given the 28-year break, and the fact that rituals may be written out on a single sheet of paper, or printed on a 4 or 8-page pamphlet or even a broadside, it’s not surprising that people forgot what was done between one cycle and another. Even in the age of printing, a one-sheet flyer is regarded as ephemera, things that evaporate quickly, disappear easily, because “why do I need to keep this, it’s worth nothing, I’ll get another one in 28 years.” They might print a few hundred copies for local use, but not circulate among the wider Jewish world.

That Rabbenu Tam composed a verse for the occasion, and later people started putting together printed rituals in the 18th century, suggests that there may have been dozens or hundreds of rabbis who created liturgies to enhance the occasion. What about the 18th century might have spurred a wave of liturgical creativity that had not existed before? Could it be the rise of kabbalah and the liturgies that it spawned, such as Kabbalat Shabbat? Not that most of these liturgies are particularly Kabbalistic, until the Chasidim started adding elements, but the enterprise of creative ritual may well have been driven by the existence of new Kabbalistic liturgical elements.

In 1813, the Chatam Sofer wrote a brief pamphlet on the astronomy behind the Blessing of the Sun. In a teshuvah, he outlined a liturgy to be recited, but that teshuva was not printed until after the next cycle. R’ Sofer (Schreiber) did not know of Meldola’s ritual, so he composed his own on first principles, based on the structure of the Kiddush Levanah, the monthly prayer on seeing the New Moon: Psalm 148, the blessing, Psalm 19, the beraita mandating the blessing, Aleinu and Mourner’s Kaddish. Vilna seems to have adopted this liturgy in later cycles as a standard. The choice of Ps. 19 is a natural, with its references to the Sun, as is Ps. 148. But, he took Mourner’s Kaddish, as that is what is said in the Kiddush Levanah, rather than a Rabbis’ Kaddish.

While Vilna stuck with the Chatam Sofer’s nusach, other parts of Europe mixed it with elements from Meldola’s, or with elements of their own devising. R’ Akiva Joseph Schlesinger, for instance, explicitly mixed the two; later cycles in the Chatam Sofer’s own Pressburg added and subtracted elements (R’ Daniel Prostitz added a psalm, took away another and left out Aleinu in 1841, and in 1869, the nusach already contained all the elements of both the Chatam Sofer and Meldola). R' Joseph Margareten in Erlau (Eger) Hungary in 1897, however, stuck with the strict Chatam Sofer liturgy. Yes, he and his wife Julia Horowitz were the ancestors of today's well-known kosher-products company.

Meanwhile, not everybody had heard of the Chatam Sofer’s nusach beyond Pressburg and Vilna, and Meldola’s text didn’t reach everyhere either. R’ Chaim Rapoport of Ostrow, author of the responsa Mayim Chaim, created his own original nusach for the 1841 cycle. Figuring that a prayer for the Sun had to be, a fortiori, at least as impressive as the prayer for the Moon, he said Psalm 148 from the daily davening, because of the obvious sun connection, then the beracha, the kabbalistic Ana Bekoach (which the Siddur of the Shelah adds to Kiddush Levanah), Psalm 67 from the Kiddush Levana, Aleinu and Mourner’s Kaddish.

Contemporary Mixed Liturgy

The contemporary all-in-one nusach really starts to come together in the 1897 cycle, in the sefer Petach haDevir, by R’ Haim Binyamin Fontrimolli, of Smyrna (Izmir). He mixes Meldola and Chatam Sofer with more kabbalistic prayers, composing a long Leshem Yichud (Kabbalistic declaration of intent) and a Modim prayer to be said at the end. He also adds the Creation narrative on the Sun, and a passage from Jeremiah on the Sun, so that Torah, Neviim and Ketuvim are all represented..

The verses may have been drawn from a haggadah printed in Zitomir just before the 1869 cycle, which included all the verses, a brief Leshem Yichud, and Ps. 84:12 and 148:1-6 as a prelude to the Beracha, but without anything said afterwards. This leads me to wonder if the author of this Haggadah, one R’ Moshe Schub, might have also been operating in a vacuum – creating a purely Scriptural liturgy, without the Beraita, without Yehi Ratzon or El Adon.

By the 1925 cycle, we have Chassidic broadsides with the whole mixed nusach, going down to 1981 when people started publish whole books on the subject, its history, etc. In school we used the booklet put together by R’ Nechemia Polen. I said it twice, first with my parents’ synagogue who went out to Central Park to daven kevatikin, at sunrise, and again at 8:00 at school, on the roof. Today you can get pre-printed laminated cards with the mixed liturgy for Sephardim and Chassidim, and with the Chatam Sofer liturgy for the Litvish Ashkenazim, in Jewish bookstores in Brooklyn.

Contemporary liturgies take the Psalm 19/121 pair, the Meldola leket, part or all of Ps 148, the Jeremiah and Genesis passages, the beraita, short or long Leshem Yichud, Yehi Ratzon or Modim, El Adon, Aleinu, and mix and match to create a liturgy that fits the gefeel of the editor.


One such book, which gave me a lot of the material for this post, is the recent Sefer Kiddush haChamah, by R’ Jonah Buxbaum, from the Skvirer Kollel. He presents first the full mixed-together liturgy, with all the elements from Meldola, Sofer, and Schub, then a long halachic section with basic laws and extensive footnotes reviewing the Ashkenazic, Sephardic and Chassidic teshuvah literature. Next comes a section of testimonies, culled from responsa, diaries, letters and books, of how the service was done in communities all over the world, from 1085 in the Beis Medrash of Rashi down to 1981. Then comes an extensive discussion of the history of the nusach, which served as the major source for this post. Other recent books on the Blessing of the Sun are reviewed at the Seforim Blog.

Before finding this book, though, the nusach question had been bugging me, particularly as we had been trying to work out what we’re going to do at our shul, the Yavneh Minyan of Flatbush, on that morning. I assembled a chart of 18 different versions of the nusach, both current and historical. The three modern Sephardic ones were reconstructed by Ken Bloom; most of the historical ones came from the JNUL site, the Chabad one came from the Chabad site, Polen came from their book which I kept from the last cycle, and others I found online.

I hope this can help others decide which texts to use in this cycle and (if the Intarwebs persist so long) future cycles..

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