Sunday, September 03, 2017

There is No Bracha on an Eclipse

There is No Bracha on an Eclipse
By Rabbi Michael J. Broyde

Rabbi Michael Broyde is a law professor at Emory University School of Law and the Projects Director in its Center for the Study of Law and Religion.  His most recent Torah sefer is entitled "A Concise Code of Jewish Law For Converts".  This letter was written to someone after a shiur on why there is no bracha on seeing a solar eclipse.

1.      You are correct that I said that I thought there was no bracha on an eclipse.  I had not seen Rabbi Linzer’s teshuva at the time that told that to you this, as it was not circulating on the internet at the time that I prepared for my shiur and I did not see it until Sunday, the day after the shiur.  I try to cite as much as relevant in these classes and his thoughts are clearly relevant.  He is a stellar writer on interesting topics of halacha and I read his material consistently.  I had seen that Rabbi Eliezer Melamed in Peneni Halacha Laws of Brachot 15:6 and note 5 which does permit a bracha on an eclipse.
2.      Having said that, I would not change my mind at all in light of Rabbi Linzer’s teshuva and remain opposed to reciting a bracha over an eclipse for many reasons explained below.
3.      First, as many have noted, the giants of halacha are quite divided over the question of whether the listing in the Shulchan Aruch is paradigmatic or particular.  Some make no blessings other that for matters listed in the codes and other treat them as examples.  That dispute alone inspires me to be cautious, although I could be persuaded that the paradigmatic approach is correct and one could then make a bracha on a waterfall.  I have yet to see a clear proof that such a view is correct, but it does seem more intuitive.[1]  Yet, safek brachot lehakel is present.
4.      Second, and more importantly, if you look closely in the classical achronim, you see not a single achron who actually endorses saying a bracha on an eclipse.  Not a single one.  It is true that there is a dispute about whether the list in the Mishna is all inclusive or not (as many note, see Shar HaAyin 7:6), but even those who are of the view that the Mishnah’s list is merely examples, not a single achron actually endorses making a bracha on an eclipse as opposed to a volcano or some other natural wonder, which some clearly do permit a bracha on.  The group that favors expansive brachot on natural wonders endorse stalagmite caves, waterfalls, water geysers, volcanoes and many more: but not eclipses.  If you look, for example in Shar HaAyin 7:6 (the classical work on this topic) one sees this most clearly: even those who endorse making brachot on waterfalls, or other amazing facets of creation are uncertain נסתפק)) if one make a bracha on an eclipse, and we all know that when a posek is נסתפק, that posek does not make a bracha.[2]
a.       This contrast is made clear in the context of Rabbi Shmuel Halevi Wosner -- who is the most clear and direct articulator of the view that list of wondrous sightings in the Shulchan Aruch are just examples, and one makes the bracha of oseh maaseh bereshit even on other wonders.  In Shar HaAyin page 431 he states directly that one makes a blessing on many wondrous things unlisted in the codes and he explains that “Volcanos are not present in our lands and thus are unmentioned in the Shulchan Aruch” and that it is “obvious” that one makes a blessing on them.  However, on eclipses he states “solar eclipses are mentioned a few times in the Gemera, and thus on the question of whether one needs to make a bracha when one sees them, needs more thought.[3]”  He does NOT endorse making a bracha on an eclipse. In fact, I am unaware of anyone other than Rabbis Melamed and Linzer who actually endorse the view in favor of making a bracha on an eclipse, (rather than merely ponders the possibility of such a bracha).  Rabbi Wozner’s point is important: this is not a modern issue – eclipses were well known for a few millennium, and silence in the Jewish Law codes is telling.  To the best of my knowledge the dispute about the eclipses is between two views: (1) Absolutely Not and (2) Maybe.  There is no (3) Yes view in the classical rabbinic literature for eclipses.  (That is why the listing of reasons why an eclipse might be different from other wonders below is important.)

5.      Why is an eclipse different from a stalagmite cave or a volcano?  I could think of a few reasons from a halachic perspective, even to those who believe that the Mishna’s list is not inclusive.
a.       Many perceive them to be a siman raah – a bad sign, either because of superstitious reasons or because darkness in the middle of the day is practically bad – and there is no blessing on bad omens (as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein is quoted in Mesorat Moshe 2:51).
b.      Because one sees nothing in an eclipse (as it is an absence of light, rather than a presence) and we do not make brachot on absences.
c.       Because the bracha of oseh maaseh breseshit does not apply to things whose existence can be mathematically predicted, but are merely rare: eclipses are not anomalies, but a product of the universes’ cycle of life, and more under the berkat hachama rule.
d.      Because full eclipses are exceedingly rare and partial eclipses are almost impossible to “see” without modern eclipse glasses (a 75% eclipse hardly is noticed on a functional level) and are naturally invisible.
e.       For other reasons that are less obvious related to the fact that these have to be wonders from “creation” and these are not from creation.
f.       Because some thought that eclipses were punishments and thus no blessing was ordained.[4]
6.      Based on all this, one can say that eclipses could be different from all other created natural anomalies as a matter of Jewish law and are not covered by the general idea of a wonder such that a blessing should be made. To my surprise, even as the primary source of the view that one can make a bracha on wonders beyond the Mishna’s list is Rabbi Wozner and he explicitly notes that eclipses are different from volcanoes, waterfalls, geysers and many other rare natural phenomena, the secondary codifiers of the last generation have completely missed this distinction.  Instead both Shar HaAyin 7:6 and Penenia Halacha Laws of Bracha 15:5 link the dispute about volcanoes and waterfalls with eclipses and state that one who permits a bracha for volcanoes and waterfalls would do so for eclipses as well, when in fact that is incorrect.  Eclipses were known in Talmudic times and yet no bracha was noted: that bothers Rabbi Shmuel Wozner, who permit a bracha on an erupting volcano, not to permit a bracha to be recited on an eclipse, by noting that he is uncertain if a bracha is proper.[5]
7.      Additionally, let me add a thought of my own about modern times and bracha’s over wonders.  The Shulchan Aruch OC 228:3 limits even the mountains that one can make a bracha on to such mountains in which the hand of our Creator is clear and apparent. (ולא על כל הרים וגבעות מברך, אלא דווקא על הרים וגבעות המשונים וניכרת גבורת הבורא בהם.)  I think in our modern times, with modern science explaining all of these events, no mountains or valleys ever meet the criterial of make it clear (to normal people) that God is in charge of the universe.  Based on this, I would not make any extensions of this halacha beyond its minimums recorded in the Shuchan Aruch because I think that the test for determining whether we can add to this list is and make a bracha is וניכרת גבורת הבורא בהם.  Given the secular environment we live in, I think no natural astrological events meets that bill in modern times so I only – at most -- make such brachot on the things that the halachic tradition directly directs me to do, like lighting or thunder or great mountains and certain rivers. I would not make such a bracha on an erupting volcano or a solar eclipse, as seeing such does not cause normal people in my society to experience God.  (There are two formulations of my claim, each slightly different.  The first is experiential, in that I think that most people in my society do not sense any awe of God at an eclipse.  Second, even if any particular person does (and I do not doubt that some do), they cannot make the bracha since most people in America do not so sense God through these events and that is the halachic test found in the Shulchan Aruch.  The sense of wonder has to be obvious to normal people and that is lacking in the world we live in.
8.      Finally, all attempts to actually endorse making a bracha on an eclipse run directly against the combined force of both (1) the minhag, which is not to make a bracha and (2) the rule of ספק ברכות להקל. These two together make it difficult for any moreh horah to argue convincingly that there is clear proof that bracha should be made.
9.      I have consciously not engaged with Rabbi Linzer’s very worthwhile point (which I more or less agree with) that “we strive to bring our religious lives and our halakhic lives in sync” exactly because (as he himself notes) this calculus is limited to cases where there is a dispute between poskim about what to do.  Here, to the best of my knowledge, there is no dispute and since there is no classical halachic authority who actually says “yes make a bracha on an eclipse” there is no grounds to examining very important meta issues used to resolve disputes (since there is no dispute).
10.  Based on all of this, I would not make a bracha on an eclipse.
11.  Having said that, I am happy to endorse other forms of religions veneration for one who feels such wonder.
a.       One can certainly say this bracha without שם ומלכות.
b.      I am also somewhat comfortable with someone making this blessing in Aramaic (see Shulchan Aruch OC 167:10, 187:1 and 219:4) although I am aware of the view of Iggrot Moshe OC 4:20:27, but find the view of the Aruch Hashulchan OC 202:3 more analytically compelling.
c.       Both the suggestions of Rabbi Chaim David Ha-Levi (Responsa Aseh Lecha Rav, 150) that one recited va-yevarech david (Chronicles. 1:29:10) and adding “who performs acts of creation” at the end and of Rabbi David Lau, current Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, to recite Tehillim 19 and 104 are completely reasonable as well.
d.      Other innovative non-bracha based solutions are also reasonable.
12.  On the other hand, those who attended an eclipse – I myself traveled to Rabun Georgia, an epicenter for the total eclipse and sat in total darkness at for three minutes in the middle of the day and did not feel any closer to the Almighty as Creator of the World during the eclipse than I did after or before -- can feel free to engage in no innovative religious observance at all without feelings that they are deficient in any way.
13.  I welcome readers to direct me to a source written by an achron which directly discusses eclipses and permits a bracha.  (Please feel free to email me.) So far, I have only seen that the group that permits a bracha for an eclipse does so based on a putative ruling of Rabbi Wozner and others to permit such a bracha, which upon closer examination is not present.  I am willing to ponder the possibility that there is an achron who permits such a bracha even as others do not – that posek argues that all wonders deserve a bracha and the listing in paragraph 5 above about why eclipses are different from other wonders is incorrect – To the best of my knowledge, that is a theoretical position that is not actually adopted.

[1] I am inclined to the more expansive view because the formulation in the Beit Yosef in Tur OC 228.
[2] This is an important point.  Rabbi Wozner has the right as a morah horah to assert that he rules that the mishna’s list is not inclusive and that volcanoes get a bracha (which is exactly what he says, as does Rabbi Nissan Karletz in the same work on page 466).  When one asks him “how can he rule that a bracha needs to be recited, others disagree, and then the matter is in doubt”, Rabbi Wozner responds by stating that he sees no doubt and thus he feels a bracha should be recited.  When Rabbi Wozner states that he has doubt about this matter, he is being clear that this is exactly a case of doubt and no blessing should be recited.
[3] Let me add that eclipses are discussed in the rishonim and codifiers as well, with no mention of a bracha.  See Darchai Moshe on Tur OC 426 and the works cited by Rabbi Linzer in footnote 2 of his teshuva (see here).
[4] It is clear from the recounting of the Chafetz Chaim that he did not say a bracha on an eclipse.  See here.
[5] This is found both Shar HaAyin and Penine Halacha as well as Rabbi Linzer’ teshuva.  Shaar Haayin 7:6 is strict on the whole matter and does not permit a bracha practically on even volcanoes an water falls, so the mistake in that work – linking volcanoes and eclipses -- is merely one of conceptual classification, but Peninia Halacha rules that המברך לא הפסיד (“one who makes the blessing is doing nothing wrong” for “volcanic eruptions, geyser, waterfalls and both lunar and solar eclipses” when it is clear to this writer that the source he is sighting – he cites Rabbi Wozner! – does not adopt that view.  (On page 466 of Shar HaAyin, Rabbi Nissan Karlitz is asked “Is the blessing oseh maaseh bereshit similar in that things that are wonders and not found in the Shulchan Aruch like an erupting volcano or a spouting geyser or other similar phenomena, also requiring a bracha” and Rabbi Karlitz answer “Logic indicates that such is the case also,” but no explicit discussion of eclipses, which could be different.

1 comment:

Yosef Hochman said...

small ha'ara - don't know why you fail to take into consideration that (although they did have eclipses in the past) our sunglasses were not! (there is a story that the chafetz chaim used a shard of glass to look - but how modern is that?)

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