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Who is afraid of a solar eclipse?


There will be a solar eclipse on August 21st visible across a band of the US for the first time since 1918. Solar eclipses occur when the moon blocks the rays of the sun reaching the earth. There are more lunar eclipses and planetary eclipses. But for us on earth, the solar is the big one. Until a few hundred years ago, this predictable phenomenon was regarded as a sign of impending doom, a message of displeasure from the gods, a cause for mourning and despair.

Once upon a time every culture had a sun god, particularly agricultural ones. Since humans believed gods lived in the sky, when there was a total solar eclipse, it looked like the death of a god, and that couldn’t be a good thing. In ancient China, people would bang drums and pots and shout to scare off the dragon that was eating the sun.

The earliest example we have of this connection between eclipses and fear, dread, and superstition goes back to clay cuneiform tablets from 2300 and 1800 BCE that have been found in Mesopotamia. If there was a solar eclipse, the king would die. To avoid such a fate, the king would abdicate and live in the palace as a farmer. A condemned criminal would take his place and die within a hundred days, by assassination if not otherwise, fulfilling the prophecy. Then the king would resume his rightful place on the throne and everything return to the way it was. In 1850 BCE the king (as farmer) died, and the criminal retained the crown. The fact that ancient people were willing to go through such a process reveals how much fear they had of eclipses.

In Greece during the fifth century BCE, the philosopher Anaxagoras was the first to correctly explain that eclipses were just the sun casting the shadow of the moon on Earth. But superstition won (as it often does today). The Athenians put him on trial, accusing him of sacrilege, and exiled him. That’s what religions and regimes do when they hear something they don’t like.

In 413 BCE, Nicias was preparing to capture Syracuse in Sicily. There was an eclipse, which Nicias saw as a bad omen. He delayed the fleet’s departure. Seizing the opportunity, the Syracuse navy destroyed the fleet of 200 ships and killed or enslaved the 29,000 Athenian soldiers. You’d have thought they’d have learnt their lesson! Throughout medieval Europe eclipses were dreaded and prayers said in churches to beg for forgiveness and to avert a catastrophe.

Over time the ability to predict eclipses spread around the world. People began to fear less. But the association of eclipses with bad omens or religious signs has continued for centuries, without any rhyme or reason. Even nowadays people are fearful of bad signs, bad karma, evil eyes, curses, superstitious folktales. The credulous are fooled (willingly) by snake oil salesmen, astrologists, and  palm readers, who will tell you how to avoid  bad things and always boast about when they get it right. But you never hear about when they get it wrong or just don’t get it!

What do our ancient sources tell us? The Talmud (Sucah 29a) uses the term “striking the sun” (Likuy HaHama) to describe an eclipse, and it also refers to eclipses of meorot, lights, stars. Of solar eclipses it says:

“When the sun is eclipsed, it is a bad sign for the whole world. It is like when a human king made a feast for his subjects and placed a lantern before them. When he grew angry with them, he told his servant, “Take away the lantern and leave them in darkness!”

The Talmud goes on to argue as to whether it is a bad sign for Jews or non-Jews or both. One opinion has it that there are four different cause of solar eclipses. When the Av Beth Din is buried without being adequately eulogized, when a betrothed girl is raped and nobody responds to her cries, sexual immorality, and when two brothers are killed at the same time. And a series of other reasons for other types of eclipses.

Clearly, we have left the realms of rationality and logic. How should we respond to this? There is a debate in the Talmud as to whether we should pay any attention to “signs.” Despite those opposed to finding any significance in them (which smacks of superstition) the idea is deeply entrenched. That is why, for example, we have all those signs at the Rosh Hashanah table, signs for a good successful, happy, and sweet year.

But in Jewish law, the Talmud focuses on praising God rather than worrying about bad things. It gives a list of blessings for lightening, thunder, a rainbow, the ocean, earthquakes, comets, and rivers. Strange looking people and beautiful people and things. Rabbis have often been asked about making a blessing over an eclipse. As you’d expect, they don’t all agree, because the Talmud does not specify eclipses.

Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (1899–1985), known as the Steipler Gaon, was one of the two greatest authorities of his day. He was an amazing, brilliant man whom I met several times. He said that no braha should be recited on a solar eclipse, because it is a Siman Ra, a bad omen, as mentioned in the Talmud in Sucah.

On the other hand, Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz (1690–1764) was one of the two greatest rabbis of his generation. He said (Yaarot Devash 2:12) that the Talmud’s term likuy ha-chamah (literally “the striking of the sun”) referred not to solar eclipses but to sunspots. There was no reason to think that either solar or lunar eclipses were bad signs. (Although he did worry about sunspots!)

This could of course be an argument over whether signs are significant or between two different men and two different interpretations. Rather like the way judges argue over interpretation of the law or the constitution. It could also indicate that in certain circles we have regressed, and anything that smacks of rationalism is taboo. But as someone who has no truck with superstition, and in all humility, I go with Rabbi Eybeshutz.

I think one should say at least an abbreviated braha to recognize the occasion. I would go for the one we say over comets and other exceptional physical phenomena: “Baruh Oseh Maaseh Bereishit.”

Which roughly translates: “Thank you, God, for such an amazing universe we live in.”

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