Does Judaism See Solar Eclipses as Bad Omens? –

Posted By on July 18, 2017

I have been reading articles about the upcoming solar eclipse. It is being billed as the first solar eclipse in over a century that will be visible in the the contiguous United States. Some claim that eclipses are a bad omen of things to come.

In light of this, what is the Jewish perspective on eclipses?

Also, is there any blessing recited upon witnessing an eclipse? I found blessings for all sorts of phenomena such as lightning, thunder, rainbows and earthquakes, but I see no such blessing for witnessing an eclipse.

The sages of the Talmud state, When the luminaries are stricken [i.e., eclipsed] it is an ill omen for the world. A parable to what is this matter comparable? It is akin to a king of flesh and blood who prepared a feast for his servants and placed a lantern before them to illuminate the hall. He became angry at them and said to his servant: Take the lantern from before them and seat them in darkness.

The Talmud then goes on to describe how the luminaries are stricken due to our sins.

You can now understand why you were unable to find any blessing for witnessing an eclipse. The Lubavitcher RebbeRabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memoryexplains that since eclipses are meant to be opportunities for increasing in prayer and introspectionas opposed to prompting joyous blessingswe do not recite a blessing when witnessing one.

What is puzzling, however, is that eclipses are natural phenomena that are highly predictable. We can easily calculate any eclipse for the next couple of hundred years. This leads to the obvious question, how can we say that an eclipse is a bad omen that is caused by our sins, if it is a completely natural phenomenon?

The predictability of eclipses was already well known in Talmudic times (the Talmud was completed in the 5th century in Babylonia). And aside from the prevalent scientific knowledge of the day, the sages of the Talmud were well aware of how to calculate eclipses due to their meticulous and complex astronomical calculations for sanctifying the new Jewish month. (Trivia: A solar eclipse can only occur around the time of a new month on the Jewish lunar calendar.)

Furthermore, the Midrash Pirkei dRabbi Eliezer, which predates the Talmud, both indicates that eclipses are a natural astronomical phenomenon and warns that they are a bad sign.

So what exactly does it mean that an eclipse is a bad omen?

Some, most notably Rabbi Yonatan Eibeshitz (16901764) in his work Yaarot Devash, explain that the Talmuds mention of stricken luminaries does not refer to eclipses, but rather sunspots and other such phenomena that darken the sun and do not have a pre-set schedule or determinable cause.

While this makes for an intriguing theory, there are a number of difficulties with this explanation (besides for the fact that it does not quite fit into the wording and context of the Talmud): a) the Talmud speaks about the moon being stricken as well, not just the sun; and b) sunspots themselves are predictable. Additionally, in the analogy the Talmud gives, the king says, Remove the lantern from them and let them sit in the dark, i.e., the luminaries being stricken results in our sitting in darkness.

Many explain that when the Talmud says, When the luminaries are stricken it is an ill omen, it means that when an eclipse occurs, it is a sign that this time is dominated by a mazal ra bad luck, or literally, an evil constellation.

The Talmud similarly states that certain times are a better opportunity to take specific actions (for example, Most of a persons wisdom is achieved only at night), and furthermore, that being born under a certain constellation creates a predilection for a specific mode of behavior, for good or for the opposite.

Now, what does this mean? The Talmud itself stresses that man always has free will. Freedom is granted to every person whether to be righteous or the opposite.

Thus, it is impossible that ones innate predisposition should draw him immutably to something; rather, the sign under which one is born merely creates within him a slight partiality toward certain things. If one works on himself, he can overcome his natural tendencies, and even transform them.

The same is true regarding eclipses and other signs in the heavens. When Gd created the world, He created signs in the heavens for people to be aware of times when there would be a greater predisposition for sin and punishment. But the eclipse itself does not necessarily mean that people will act on that predisposition and actually sin, thereby causing punishment.

In the creation story at the beginning of the book of Genesis, the Torah states, And Gd said, "Let there be luminaries in the expanse of the heavens . . . and they shall be for signs and for appointed seasons and for days and years. The classic commentaries explain that they shall be for signs is a reference to eclipses. Thus, we learn that these phenomena are meant to be a sign for us.

At the same time, the prophet Jeremiah proclaims, Hearken to the word that the Lrd spoke about you, O house of Israel . . . So says the Lrd: Of the way of the nations you shall not learn, and from the signs of the heaven be not dismayed . . .

In other words, these are indeed signs in the heavens, yet the prophet tells us that we should not fear them, for, as the sages of the Talmud explain, as long as one acts properly, there is nothing to fear.

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Does Judaism See Solar Eclipses as Bad Omens? -

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