A Celebration of the Sun, and the Earth

Occurring Once Every 28 Years, a Jewish Solar Ritual Reflects Its Times, Which This Year Include a Broader Concern for Nature

Jewish locals joined together on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to celebrate Birkat HaChamah, a service honoring the sun on the vernal equinox on the fourth day of the Jewish week, the same day the Old Testament says God created it. This year's Birkat HaChamah, which occurs only once every 28 years, happens to fall on the morning of the start of Passover.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 9, 2009; Page B01

What would 3rd-century Jewish sage and astronomer Shmuel have thought yesterday at sunrise, watching dozens of young Jews play guitar, dance and pray on the Lincoln Memorial's grand steps, transforming his ancient solar calculations into a chance to sing folk songs and do yoga?

The scene at daybreak was unusual, as is the ritual that prompted it.

Birkat HaChamah, a Jewish blessing service honoring the sun, happens only once every 28 years. It occurs when the sun makes its biannual stop over the equator, the vernal equinox, on the fourth day of the Jewish week -- the same day the Old Testament says God created the sun.

Or to be precise, it's when the vernal equinox occurs according to the calculations of Shmuel (like Madonna, no last name needed). He helped centuries of Jews connect their faith with the natural world but was actually about 11 minutes off in his calculation of the length of a year. That discrepancy has added up over the centuries so the vernal equinox this year actually occurred March 20.

That didn't matter to Jews at the Lincoln Memorial or around the world who awoke before sunrise to celebrate an event so infrequent it transforms in character each time.

In the late 1800s, Yiddish-speaking rabbis trying to lead the brief prayer in a Lower Manhattan park were arrested, a sign of the anti-immigrant tone at the time. In 1981, it epitomized the then-budding lay-led movement in Judaism, with Jews gathering themselves at the Golden Gate Bridge, the Jefferson Memorial and on top of the World Trade Center for dramatic sunrise views. This year, the environmental movement claimed Birkat HaChamah, with worship events linked with lectures on solar cars and global warming and with hiking and sun salutations (from yoga). One service was even held in a hot air balloon in Upstate New York.

The ritual fell this year on the morning of the start of Passover, the key spring festival in Judaism that marks the Jews' liberation from Egyptian slavery millennia ago. Passover's main themes are liberation and freedom, and Jews said yesterday that a ritual forcing them to ponder three decades back and three decades forward, taking stock of one's life in a broader way than any annual holiday could, drove those home. Questions asked on the Lincoln Memorial steps yesterday included:

We have all this freedom; what will we do with it?

How can we be liberated from the forms of energy that are oppressive to people and to the Earth?

What do you hope our world is like the next time Birkat HaChamah comes around?

Many Birkat HaChamah ("Blessing of the Sun" in Hebrew) events wove in something Jews do on the day of the first Passover seder, or ritual meal: going through the house in search of chametz -- crumbs of leavened bread -- because eating bread and grains is forbidden during the eight-day holiday. Typically the chametz is destroyed in a fire. For Birkat HaChamah, many Jews burned the chametz using a magnifying glass to show the power of the sun. The group at the Lincoln Memorial opted not to do that, for fear of violating the National Park Service fire code.

But the pack of 60 mostly jeans-clad young people was still a sight, stretching and singing "Here Comes the Sun" at the foot of the steps as the light of the sun began to appear beyond the Capitol, down the Mall. As sunrise approached at 6:42 a.m., the crowd raced up the steps to assemble for the prayer, mesmerizing the few joggers and guards there in the chilly dawn. Quickly they stopped, and the orange orb of the sun grew more visible over the treetops on the Mall. The Hebrew blessing Jews have been saying since the 3rd century when they see breathtaking natural phenomena filled a plaza quiet save the sound of birds:

"Blessed are you, Lord our God, sovereign of the universe, who does the work of creation." The group was careful to pray at a slight angle, not directly at the sun, to emphasize that they were celebrating the sun, not worshiping it.

Then the crowd was quickly back to a group of earthy 20-somethings, breaking into the tune Cat Stevens made famous: "Morning Has Broken."

For the science-minded, the event is a bit anthropological. After all, the holiday for centuries has been built around a calculation that is wrong -- even if it was close and considered cutting-edge astronomy in the 3rd century. Some rabbis say the ritual should be humbling for people who think modern culture has come up with all the answers. Others see the event as a way to come back to appreciating the profound complexity in the natural world.

"I think Judaism has a particular appreciation for nature that is sometimes lost in modernity," said Nechama Malkiel, 26, a second-grade teacher who lives in Georgetown. "It's hard for us to remember how closely connected we are to nature's cycles."

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