NY Times On Birchas Hachammah


birchas-hachama1The following article appears in The New York Times:
On the morning of April 8, 1953, a day he is certain more than a half-century later was a Wednesday, J. David Bleich walked outside his father’s synagogue in Lewistown, Pa. A high school senior, age 16, he was the youngest among a smattering of worshipers gathering in a rear yard beneath a clement sky.On the morning of April 8, 1981, without doubt another Wednesday, Mr. Bleich climbed to the roof of a converted brownstone that doubled as a small synagogue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. By then, at age 44, he was a rabbi and a professor at Yeshiva University, and he had dozens of contemporaries beside him atop the building, all taking note of the especially brilliant day.

Rabbi Bleich remembers these stray days so precisely because of what he was doing on each one: paying homage to God as creator of the universe. Those April 8’s, like the April 8 that arrives next week, marked the holiday of Birchat HaChammah, named for the blessing of the sun that is recited after daybreak by observant Jews.

According to the celestial calculations of a Talmudic sage named Shmuel, at the outset of spring every 28 years, the sun moves into the same place in the sky at the same time and on the same day of the week as it did when God made it. This charged moment provides the occasion for reciting a one-line blessing of God, “who makes the work of creation.”

The astronomical metrics of Shmuel are by now considered inexact, but close enough so that the religious tradition persists, so that Jews like Rabbi Bleich believe that the sun next Wednesday occupies the same location in the firmament as it did when it was formed on the fourth day of Creation, which would have been Wednesday, March 26, of the Hebrew year 1, otherwise known as 3760 B.C.

While Birchat HaChammah is intermittent, Rabbi Bleich’s interest in it is constant. He stands as one of the worldwide authorities on the blessing and holiday, the author of the definitive English-language book on the subject, “Bircas HaChammah.” (Transliteration of Hebrew is more inexact than Shmuel’s astronomy.)

“You’ve got to understand that the closest thing the Jews have to sacrament is study,” Rabbi Bleich, 72, said in an interview. “It’s an end in itself, and the more esoteric the better. The fact it occurs only every 28 years doesn’t make it any less relevant. It also means that as a scholar, you don’t have as much competition.”

Self-effacing humor aside, Rabbi Bleich has inadvertently caught a cultural wave. A man who proudly eschews the computer, relies on his secretary to print out e-mail for him, and still owns and uses a rotary phone, he has seen Birchat HaChammah catch on more widely among American Jews than ever in his memory.

Published by the ArtScroll/Mesorah imprint, a juggernaut of Orthodox texts and literature, “Bircas HaChammah” has sold into “the high five figures,” according to the publishing house, with 4,000 copies shipping this week. Rabbi Bleich’s theological discourse on the topic, known as a shiur, has been viewed more than 4,000 times and downloaded nearly 1,000 from the Yeshiva University Web site “Torah Online.”

The Reform and Conservative movements, along with the Orthodox, have put increased attention on the blessing this year. It has, for many liberal Jews, become interwoven with environmental activism. Birchat HaChammah also appeals to followers of and dabblers in Jewish mysticism.

And, as the historian Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University pointed out in a recent interview, taking part in Birchat HaChammah asks relatively little from a not-so-religious Jew.

“Frequent rituals, like saying kaddish every day, are difficult to maintain, and without strenuous effort they cease to be meaningful,” Mr. Sarna said.

“Infrequent rituals – those performed annually or once in a life cycle, like a bar mitzvah, or in this case once in 28 years – are by definition more exotic and it is easy to draw meaning out of them,” he said. “In all religions, the infrequent rituals are more widely observed and tend to be more beloved than the frequent ones.”

In his book, Rabbi Bleich draws on a range of Judaic liturgy, commentary and legal codes, as well as the mathematical fine points of the solar, lunar, Julian and Gregorian calendars, to parse the purpose of Birchat HaChammah.

The same brief prayer – consisting of the basic syntactical root for most blessings and three culminating, specific Hebrew words – is also used to express awe and wonder at physical grandeur (the Grand Canyon) and creative acts visible as they happen (lightning, meteor showers).

Blessing the sun, however, is to Rabbi Bleich about blessing a process rather than a star, which, after all, looks the same way every day.

“It is an intellectual reflection upon the fact that God constantly creates the universe, and that is a basic principle of faith,” he said of Birchat HaChammah. “It’s designed for reflection and introspection, which lead to an understanding that there would be no universe without divine existence.”

Back in 1983, when he first published his book in shorter form, Rabbi Bleich received only a few postcards from readers. This time, in his once-every-28-years role as the go-to guy, he has been fielding phone calls from The Wall Street Journal and The Associated Press, among other large news media outlets, and hundreds of e-mail messages.

Yes, he will answer one inquiry, the blessing can be said up to three hours after daybreak. It is not required to be awake, outside and praying right at sunrise, 6:28 a.m. No, he will tell another, Birchat HaChammah is not sun worship, we have not gone pagan after all those millennia as monotheists.

As for himself, he has just one concern about Wednesday morning. “If it’s overcast,” he said, “it will be terrible.”

{New York Times}

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