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This coming Monday, August 21, there will be a full solar eclipse visible to everyone in North America, the first of its kind in the last 26 years. For those of us in the New York area, it will appear as a partial eclipse, covering approximately 70% of the sun, and can be seen at its height between 2:30-3:00 PM. For those directly in its path – a line cutting from Lincoln Beach, OR to Charleston, SC – the eclipse will be total. Regardless of where one is, it is sure to be an exciting and, for many, awe-inspiring experience. The question then arises, should one make a brakhah upon seeing the eclipse?

The Rabbis, in the final chapter of Tractate Brakhot, established blessings that should be said upon experiencing certain meteorological or seismic events – thunder, lightning, an earthquake, a shooting star and powerful winds or when viewing certain natural phenomena – mountains, valleys, deserts, oceans and and large rivers. Originally different brakhot were assigned to each set: the blessing of she’koho u’gvurato malei olam (Whose strength and power fill the world) was recited for the first set and the blessing oseh ma’aseh bereishit (Who makes the works of creation) was recited for the second set. Based on the Talmudic discussion, our practice has developed to recite the blessing of oseh ma’aseh bereishit for all these phenomena with the exception of thunder over which we make the blessing of she’koho u’gvurato malei olam (SA OH 227-228).

What about phenomena that are not mentioned explicitly by the Rabbis; should one recite oseh ma’aseh bereishit upon seeing a waterfall, a geyser, an active volcano or an eclipse of the sun? This question is a matter of debate between the poskim. Many poskim assume that any phenomenon not mentioned explicitly does not warrant a blessing. These poskim include: R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, R. Chaim David Ha’Levi, R. David Lau, and R. Chaim Kanyevsky.[1] They argue that to make a blessing would be to add to the brakhot that the Rabbis established, something we may not do. R. Lau also adds that the brakhah of oseh ma’aseh bereishit would be inappropriate since nothing new has been created (שלא נתחדש כאן מעשה בראשית). This position is quite astounding as nothing new is created when one sees mountains or rivers and yet one still makes the blessing of oseh ma’aseh bereishit.

Some of those poskim who rule that one should not make the brakhah point to the gemara in Sukkah (29a) which states that a solar eclipse is a bad omen for the world and argue that one should not make a brakhah over a negative phenomenon. In response, we may note that there is no precedent for basing the halakhot of brakhot on this aggadic passage, one that many great rabbis throughout the ages have grappled with, given that we know that these are predictable events.[2] Moreover, the fact that we make a brakhah over an earthquake, something that is not only an omen of something bad but that actually may bring about death and destruction, is clear evidence that we can make a blessing over “bad” phenomena. In fact, Yerushalmi Brakhot (9:2) in discussing the brakhah over earthquakes, states that when earthquakes occur we declare a public fast and prayer. As Pnei Moshe (ad. loc.) explains: For they destroy buildings and kill people. Yerushalmi goes on to state that earthquakes are a bad omen, a sign that God is angry at the world.[3] Nonetheless, we make the brakhah of oseh ma’aseh bereishit over earthquakes.[4]

The argument not to make a brakhah on an eclipse rests primarily on the fact that it is not mentioned explicitly in the Talmud or Shulkhan Arukh. But does it really make sense that a valley should get a blessing but not a waterfall? As the Talmud says elsewhere (Gittin 33a): “Do you then expect the author of the mishnah to list everything announcing his wares like a spice merchant?” A number of poskim believe that the list in the Talmud was never meant to be exhaustive and that one should make a blessing in these cases. These poskim include: R. Nissim Karlitz, R. Shmuel Vozner, R. Ben Tzion Abba Shaul and R. Eliezer Melamed. [5]

On one level, this debate is a technical one – do we think that the list is exhaustive or not. It seems to me that there is something deeper at play here; should we maximize opportunities to make brakhot when possible within halakhah, or should we adopt a more conservative, cautious approach out of concern for brakhah li’vatalah (a blessing in vain) and brakhah she’einah tzrikhah (a blessing that is superfluous). This can be framed, as R. Yoel bin Nun has described it, as a question of whether to give primacy to ahavat Hashem or yirat Hashem.

Those that rule that one does not make a brakhah will respond that their ruling is a form of religious expression – scrupulous attention to the concern of not saying brakhot and God’s name when not warranted. They would further argue that one is not precluded from expressing words of praise. If one wants to give voice to their religious feelings on seeing an awe-inspiring site such as an eclipse, he may recite an appropriate chapter or verse of Tehillim, such as: The heavens declare the glory of God (19:2).

But what does it mean when our religious impulse to praise God and see God in the world is not able to find expression in halakhic forms, such as the recitation of brakhot? Does this not run the risk of making halakhah an experience only of following rules or, at best, an expression of yirat Hashem, and not a vehicle to express and experience ahavat Hashem?

It is well known that when Ben-Gurion completed the public reading of the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel in Tel Aviv, on May 14, 1948, R. Yehudah Leib Fishman (Maimon) stood up and recited the she’hehiyanu blessing. A story, possibly apocryphal, is told that following this blessing, R. Fishman was approached by a certain gentlemen.

The man said to him, “I don’t understand. How could you make this brakhah? Where does it say in Shulkhan Arukh that you make a brakhah for an occasion like this?”

Fishman responded, “You don’t understand. I just got a new tie. I was making a brakhah for that.”

“Oh,” said the man, “Now I understand. Thank you.”

To which R. Fishman replied: “What are you thinking?! You would make a brakhah for a tie, but you wouldn’t make a brakhah for the founding of a Jewish state?!”[6]

Who do we side with in this story – R. Fishman or the questioner? Do we want to live a bifurcated life, where – in Soloveitchikian terms – halakhic man is divorced from homo religiosus, or do we want to live a life where halakhah becomes the vehicle to encounter God?

Of course, each question of whether a brakhah should be made or not has to be judged by its own halakhic merits and there might be a difference between the brakhah of she’hechiyanu and the brakhah of oseh ma’aseh bereshit.[7] But as a general religious approach, it seems to me that the Rabbis advocated for expanding the world of brakhot and increasing the opportunities to experience and connect with God in this way.

Consider: the one blessing that we make that is based on a Biblical verse is birkat ha’mazon. Were we to have followed on the simple sense of the verse, most of us would not be making this blessing. The verse states: You shall eat and be satisfied and bless the Lord your God for the good land that God has given you. (Deut. 8:10). It is a blessing for the land of Israel as experienced through eating its produce; it is not a blessing for the food itself. To wit, the verse appears at the end of a section which extols the praises of the land that the children of Israel are about to enter repeating the word “land” seven times, and culminating with the verse of blessing God for the land. Had the Rabbis left it at that, no one living outside of Israel would have ever made this blessing. Instead, the Rabbis placed the blessing over the land – al ha’aretz vi’al ha’mazon – as the second blessing of birkat ha’mazon, and they made a blessing over food – ha’zan et ha’kol – as the first and primary blessing. Because the Rabbis formulated this as a birkat ha’mazon and not as birkat ha’aretz that we all make this blessing. We always have the obligation and the opportunity to thank God for providing us with our daily sustenance.

This is the rationale behind all the rabbinic blessings – the blessings over food before we eat it; blessings over smell; blessings over good news and over bad news; blessings over blossoming trees and over thunder and lightning. The Rabbis wanted to maximize the opportunities to experience God in the world and they did so through the vehicle of brakhot.

What about the concern of saying God’s name unnecessarily or making a brakha li’vatalah? The Rabbis addressed this directly in the final mishnah of Tractate Brakhot (9:5):

והתקינו שיהא אדם שואל את שלום חברו בשם שנאמר (רות ב) והנה בעז בא מבית לחם ויאמר לקוצרים ה’ עמכם ויאמרו לו יברכך ה’ ואומר (שופטים ו) ה’ עמך גבור החיל… ואומר (תהלים קיט) עת לעשות לה’ הפרו תורתך

They enacted that greeting should be given in [God’s] name, as it says: And behold Boaz came from Beit Lehem and said unto the reapers, “The Lord be with you” and they answered him, “The Lord bless thee.” And it also says: The Lord is with thee, thou mighty man of valor. And it also says: It is time to work for the Lord; they have made void thy law.

The purpose of using God’s name in greeting is to bring God into our daily lives. What about the concern that this could be a cheapening of God’s name? The answer, implicit in the mishnah, is that expanding the opportunities to experience God is a true honoring of God’s name. As Rashi puts it: ולא אמרינן מזלזל הוא בכבודו של מקום בשביל כבוד הבריות להוציא שם שמים עליו. (We do not say that this is a degradation of the honor of God, to use His name to give honor to a fellow human being).

As stated before, all of this speaks to a general orientation. In any given case, the halakhic issues have to be weighed carefully and any psak has to be rigorously argued. Sometimes, the sources will indicate that there is a serious doubt as to whether a brakhah should be made or not, and the principle of ספק ברכות להקל will dictate.[8] Other times, the more persuasive argument may be that a brakhah should be made. In these latter cases, how much should one “play it safe” and not make the brakhah or expand the opportunities to experience God through making the brakhah? It is my position that we should make a brakhah in such a case as we strive to bring our religious lives and our halakhic lives in sync. And when it comes to making a brakha on a solar eclipse, or on other natural phenomena that do not appear explicitly in the Talmudic list, the argument that one should make the brakha is, at least in my opinion, the far more persuasive one.

This coming Monday, go out and view the solar eclipse. Safety first, so make sure to view it only through proper glasses; you will risk injuring your eyes if you look at it straight on. And when you safely observe the eclipse, give religious and halakhic expression to our sense of wonder when contemplating God’s glorious creation and recite the brakha of oseh ma’aseh bereishit.[9] Truly, mah rabu ma’asekha Hashem!

 

Footnotes:

[1] R. Schneerson: Iggerot HaKodesh 15:1079; R. Chaim David Ha’Levi: Aseh Lekha Rav, 5:7; R. David Lau: http://shut.moreshet.co.il/shut2.asp?id=69602; R. Kanyevsky as quoted in Shaar Ha’Ayin, 7:15.

[2] These rabbinic authorities include: R. Yitzchak Aramah (d. 1494; Akeidat Yitzchak, Va’Yehi, ch. 32), Rema (Rav Moshe Isserles, d. 1572; Torat Ha’Olah 1:8), Maharal of Prague (d. 1609; Drashot, Yitro and Be’er Ha’Golah, 6), R. Menachem Azaria da Fano (d. 1620; Kitvei Ha’Rama, Essay on Firmaments), R. Yeshaya Ha’Levi Horovitz (d. 1630; Shelah, Noah, Torah Or,1), R. Yonatan Eibeschutz (d. 1764; Yearot Devash, sec. 2, Sermon 10 for 25 Elul), R. David Pardo (d. 1790; Hasdei David, Tosefta Sukkah 2:6), R. Yakov Ettlinger (d. 1871; Arukh La’Ner, Sukkah 29a), and and R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson (d. 1994; Iggerot Kodesh, 15:1079). Also see “The Great American Eclipse of 2017: Halachic and Philosophical Aspects,” Jeremy Brown, in Hakirah, vol. 23, pp. 171-180.

[3] It states:

אליהו ז”ל שאל לר’ נהוריי מפני מה באין זועות לעולם אמר ליה בעון תרומה ומעשרות. כתוב אחד אומר [דברים יא יב] תמיד עיני ה’ אלהיך בה וכתוב אחד [תהילים קד לב] המביט לארץ ותרעד יגע בהרים ויעשנו. הא כיצד יתקיימו שני כתובין הללו בשעה שישראל עושין רצונו של מקום ומוציאין מעשרותיהן כתיקונן תמיד עיני ה’ אלהיך בה מראשית השנה ועד אחרית השנה ואינה ניזוקת כלום. בשעה שאין ישראל עושין רצונו של מקום ואינן מוציאין מעשרותיהן כתיקונן המביט לארץ ותרעד

[4] See also Rashi, Hullin (86a), s.v. zikin, who states that lightning, thunder and earthquakes are all סימן קללה. Regarding other brakhot, we find that R. Yehudah, in the mishnah, rules that one does not make a blessing when one eats kosher locusts or fruit that fell off the tree before it was ripe since these foods result from or represent a cursed event (Mishnah Brakhot 6:3). The halakhah is not in accordance with this view (SA OH 204:1). Also relevant is the fact that when an event has both a bad and good component, we make two blessings – barukh dayan ha’emet and she’heyanu, see SA OH 223:2. The bad dimension of the experience does not overshadow the positive dimension, or otherwise prevent us from making a blessing that should be made.

[5] R. Ben Tzion Abba Shaul in Shut Or Li’tziyon, vol. 2, 46:63; R. Melamed in Pninei Halakhah, Laws of Brakhot, 15:6, and R. Vozner and R. Karlitz as quoted in Eliyahu Ariel’s Sha’ar Ha’ayin, 7:15:

מהגר”ח קנייבסקי שליט”א שמעתי דאין לנו אלא מה שתקנו חזל ואין לברך על שום דבר שלא הוזכר בשו”ע וכן שמעתי מעוד גדולי הוראה מובהקים שליט”א וראה במכתבו של הגר”י זילברשטיין שליט”א בסוף הספר

אך מבעל שבט הלוי שליט”א שמעתי דפשיטא שהרואה הר געש בהתפרצותו צריך לברך וביאר דהא דלא הוזכר הר געש בשו”ע משום שאינו מצוי במדינות אלו ומבואר דס”ל דכל המנויים אינן אלא דוגמא וכן שמעתי מהגרנ”ק שליט”א ויש לסייע לזה מברכת משנה הבריות שהסכמת הפוסקים שהמנויין בשו”ע הם רק דוגמא עי’ בעיונים סי’ כ”ח וזה מטעם שהמחייב הוא צורה משונה וממילא כל צורה משונה מחייבת ברכה והכא נמי לכאו’ הגדר הוא כל תופעת טבע שאינה מצויה והעולם בד”כ מתפעל מראייתה וכן העיד הגרפ”מ גולדשמיט שליט”א בספרו קובץ הלכות בסי’ רכ”ח דראה לרבינו בעל שבט הלוי שליט”א שבירך על מפל המים בכפר ענגלברג בשוייץ עושה מעשה בראשית בשם ומלכות ומפל זה אינו גדול במיוחד שיהא לו דין נהר -אמנם יש להעיר מהשמטת השו”ע מפלי מים אף שמצויים במדינות אלו

The author of Shaar Ha’ayin concludes in favor of the more conservative poskim that given that this matter is debated, one should not make the brakhah.

[6] A different version of this story has this exchange between Rav Goren and a man who protested to his making the she’hiyanu blessing on Yom Ha’atzmaut.

[7] See, for example, Bah, OH 29, Bah and Beit Yosef OH 223, and Beiur Halakha, OH 223, s.v. Ve’Yeish she’katvu, who discuss the less objective and formalistic, and more subjective, circumstances under which a person makes the she’hehiyanu blessing. The more subjective dimension could lead to both a broadening and a narrowing of the scope of the blessing, depending on the person and the circumstances. Whether this can be applied to other similar brakhot is a matter of dispute. See SA OH 223:1, Magen Avraham ad. loc., no. 3, and Piskei Teshuvot, ad. loc.

[8] The question of the proper degree of caution for cases when there is a question of whether a brakhah is to be made or not might be tied to the debate whether the principle of safek brakhot li’hakel is based on the general principle of safek di’rabanan li’kulah or out of a concern for taking God’s name in vain, see Rambam, Laws of Brakhot 4:2 and 8:12, Magen Avraham, OH 209:3, Mishneh Brurah 167:49 and 209:9, and Penei Yehoshua, Brakhot, 12a, s.v. ve’yoter and 35a, s.v. ela sevara. In his discussions, Penei Yohoshua raises the possibility that the principle of safek brakhah li’hakel only means that a person is not obligated to make a brakhah in a case of doubt, but he always has the permission to do so. It is also possible that the principle of safek brakhot li’hakel, which appears nowhere in the Gemara, was not held by R”I in Tosafot (Brakhot 12a, s.v. Lo), at least insofar as the brakhah to be made before eating food is concerned.

[9] Some details regarding making this brakhah:

  1. In my opinion, you should make the brakhah even if you only see a partial eclipse, if the experience is one that fills you with a sense of awe or wonder. Certainly, one never sees the entire ocean, and yet makes a brakhah on seeing a part of it. See SA OH 229:3, and Piskei Teshuvot, ad. loc. See also Sha’ar ha’Hayin 2:8.
  2. brakhah should not be made if a person just sees that the day has grown dark and does not see the actual eclipse. In such a case, the person is not seeing the astronomical event, just inferring it. The case of making a blessing over earthquakes and thunder, which are not seen but only experienced, is not a counter-example, since in those cases there isn’t anything to see. (This raises an interesting question – let’s say you hear a waterfall, or the rushing of the Nile river, but don’t see it, do you make a brakhah? The poskim debate whether a blind person who experiences these phenomena through his other senses can make the brakhah, see Piskei Teshuvot, 224:12). Also, I don’t think seeing the day get darker is such a wondrous event (unless you are in the path of the total eclipse and it gets totally dark) – things like that happen when it gets very dark before a storm.
  3. if you use a pinhole viewer, even though you are only seeing the reflection on a paper and not the eclipse directly, it is a form of seeing it, not just inferring it from the darkness, and in my opinion one would make a brakhah. However, see Shut Betzel Hokhma, 2:16 and Sha’ar Ha’Ayin 2:8, fn. 13, who argue that one does not make a brakhah when seeing these phenomena through a telescope or in a mirror. However, given that there are poskim who rule that one can make the brakhah if he experiences it, even without seeing it, and given that seeing a reflection, as opposed to seeing a telecast, is arguably a form of seeing, it would seem to me clear that if a person feels a sense of wonder or amazement, she can make the brakhaheven when seeing it reflected through a pinhole viewer.
  4. Regarding at what stage of the eclipse should the blessing be made, at the beginning or only when it reaches maximum occlusion, I would rule by parallel to she’hehiyanu, that a person could wait until the most powerful moment, just as a person can wait to make the brakhah on a new suit until the moment he wears it, when his sense of enjoyment of it is greatest. This is especially true if one were watching it continuously. If one will watch it, take a break, and then watch again, I would say to make the brakhah when the eclipse is significant enough so that one is experiencing a moment of awe or wonder.