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Rabbi's Blog

rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  (rabbi@adathisraelsf.org) has been the Rabbi of Adath Israel since May 2013. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem and has served previously as a congregational Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Irvine, California. A full biography of Rabbi Landau is available here.


As I’m sure you are aware, this past Monday a significant percent of North America experienced a total solar eclipse. A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between Earth and the sun, thereby obscuring the sun. A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon's apparent diameter is larger than the sun's, blocking all direct sunlight.

From a Jewish perspective one of the main questions that arises from such an experience is – is there a bracha to be said? The answer is - no. You might be wondering - why are there brachot for many types of natural occurrences (e.g. seeing lighting or a rainbow, hearing thunder, or experiencing an earthquake, etc.) but not for an eclipse?  

Though I’ve read several rabbinic answers, none of them have been very compelling. Perhaps there is a pragmatic explanation why a bracha on solar eclipses wasn’t instituted. We all know that one should not observe an eclipse without proper eye protection. When you look at the sun’s rays, your cornea projects light onto your retina the same way that a magnifying glass projects sunlight onto a piece of paper. On a normal sunny day, we have built in reflexes to look away, but during an eclipse, the sun is blocked enough that we don’t have that reflex. Did they know in ancient times about the dangers of looking at an eclipse? I wasn’t able to find any accounts of this, but given that the hospitals in the UK had numerous patients in each hospital complaining of eye problems after looking at the eclipse of 1999, one would have to assume that there was general knowledge about the cause and effect of looking at a solar eclipse. As such, perhaps a bracha on solar eclipses wasn’t instituted because they knew that looking at the eclipse is dangerous. 

Now to this week’s parasha, which primarily deals with tzara’at – a skin disease caused by anti-social behavior, such as lashon hara. Lashon hara is the needless sharing of something negative about another that is absolutely true. When there is no productive justification to share negative information, the Torah considers sharing it a serious sin. Obviously, if the information isn’t true, that is a far graver sin. The reason that for a very very long time now, no one is afflicted by tzara’at is because of our low spiritual level. 

Even though tzara’at is no longer applicable, the Torah commands: “Remember what your G-d did to Miriam on the journey after you left Egypt,” (Devarim 24:9). This directive refers to the episode in Bamidbar 12:1-16, where Miriam spoke with Aharon about Moshe separating from his wife, which she felt was wrong. The result was that she was stricken with tzara’at for a week. 

Most siddurim include at the end of the morning service a reminder to remember what HaShem did to Miriam (in addition to remembering the Exodus, the Revelation at Sinai, Amalek, the Sin of the Golden Calf and Shabbat). 

What is the message that we are supposed to remember? 

In his book, Kuzari, R. Yehuda HaLevi (1075 -1141, Spain) puts everything in this world into one of four categories: 

1) דומם "Domem" the inanimate creations (rocks, minerals etc.) 

2) צומח "Tzomeach," vegetation

3) חי "Chai," living beings, (animals)

4) מדבר "Medaber," speaking creations (humans) 

Each level supports the one higher than it. Domem provides the nutrients for plant life; vegetation gives sustenance to the animal world; and the animals provide humans with our needs. Humans, in turn, elevate all levels of the physical world by using them in the service of the spiritual world. Man serves Hashem and raises all of creation along with him.

The highest level, the human, is specifically referred to as מדבר - a speaker, because it is our speech that makes us human. 

Possibly the reason why HaShem enabled Bilam’s donkey to speak (Bamidbar 22:21-30) was to send Bilam the message that if you don’t use your speech for the positive, then you are no better than an animal who can talk. 

Our mandate as humans is to use our speech for positive applications and not destructive ones.