Quick Guide to Birkat Hachama (Blessing on the Sun)glossary contents
|Author:||Dr. Julian Schamroth|
|Date:||15 October, 2007|
What is the Blessing on the Sun?
Once every 28 years, the Sun returns to the position it occupied when it was created at the beginning of the fourth day of creation:
And Hashem made the two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night and the stars. And Hashem placed them in the sky of the heavens to give light on the earth, and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from darkness; and Hashem saw that it was good. And it was evening and it was morning, a fourth day. 
Our Sages used this opportunity to institute a special prayer acknowledging God's might and His creation of the world. This Blessing is known as The Blessing on the Sun, or Birkat Hachama.
(Click here to download the Birkat Hachama prayer in English and Hebrew.)
Are there any sources for reciting the Blessing?
The Talmud states:
The Rabbis taught: Anyone seeing the Sun at its turning point... should say "Blessed is He who made the Creation". And when is this? Abaya said: every 28th year. 
What is the 'turning point' mentioned in the above passage?
The first month of the Hebrew year - Nissan - begins at the time of the spring equinox. According to Hebrew tradition, the Sun was placed at the spring equinox at the beginning of the fourth day of creation i.e., Tuesday at 6:00pm. The change of season from winter into spring is the 'turning point'. Whenever the Sun again reaches this starting point at 6:00pm on a Tuesday, then Birkat Hachama is said.
If Birkat Hachama is based on Nissan - the first month of the Hebrew year - why do we celebrate Rosh Hashanah in Tishrei?
After blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah we recite 'Today is the birthday of the world...'. This would indicate that the world was created in Tishrei, and not in Nissan.
This 6-month difference is due to a Talmudic debate as to whether one counts from God's conceiving of the Creation (Tishrei), or His actual act of Creation (Nissan). 
When will the next Birkat Hachama take place?
Birkat Hachama will next be said on 8 April in the year 2009 (Hebrew date: 14 Nissan 5769).
Is there anything special about this date, 14 Nissan 5769?
There might be: the Kadosh Elyon (the 'Ostrovster Admor') wrote that there are only 3 times in 6,000 years of Jewish history when Birkat Hachama falls on 14 Nissan.  These are:
Prior to being redeemed from Egypt.
Prior to the miracle of Purim.
In the year 5769.
Since the first 2 occurrences preceded miracles and redemption, the Admor wrote that in the year 5769 the same will occur: This will be last time ever and shortly afterwards, the redemption must come, b'h.
Note: The Ostrovster Admor wrote that Birkat Hachama falls on 14 Nissan only 3 times in history, when, in fact, the year 5769 will be the 11th time that this occurs! (The last time was on 8 April 1925). Perhaps he was referring only to those times when Birkat Hachama precedes a major redemption. Certainly 5769 will be the last time when this can happen.
Another interesting aspect of this date is that the Moshiach ben David will arrive at the end of a 7-year cycle.  The year 5768 is a shmitta (sabattical) year, and is followed by 5769, the year in which we recite Birkat Hachama.
What will I see on this date?
From an astronomic point of view, nothing unusual will happen. The Sun will set as usual on 7 April, and will rise as usual on 8 April. The Sun, moon, planets and stars will not be aligned in any specific pattern. In fact, the arrangement of the heavenly bodies will not even resemble the way they were at the time of creation. Rather, Birkat Hachama is a meta-physical event allowing us the opportunity to thank God for his creations.
Why does Birkat Hachama take place only every 28 years?
The starting point is Tuesday at 6:00 pm. Now, since a year lasts 365 1/4 days - or 52 weeks plus a remainder of 1 1/4 days - it follows that after one year, the Sun will return to the spring equinox, but will fall 1 1/4 days later in the week: Wednesday at midnight.  After two years, the Sun will return to the spring equinox, but it will now be 2 x 1 1/4 days later in the week: Thursday at 6:00 am. Only after 28 years, will the Sun return to the spring equinox on Tuesday at 6:00 pm.
Is the year really 365 1/4 days long?
A tropical year is the time taken by the Sun to complete one circuit of the celestial sphere from its position at one spring equinox to the next. The current value is:
365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 45 seconds = 365.24219 days.
The Hebrew calendar is based on two different measurements for a year:
According to Mar Shmuel (Shmuel Yarchinai), the duration of a year is considerably shorter than a tropical year: 4 x (91d 7h 30m) = 365.25000 days.
According to Rav Adda bar Ahava, the duration of a year is slightly longer than a tropical year: 365d 5h 55m 25.4s = 365.24682 days.
The Mar Shmuel year is only used for determining when to say Birkat Hachamah and the Prayer for Dew and Rain (Tal U'matar).
Why use the inaccurate Mar Shmuel year of 365 1/4 days for Birkat Hachama?
According to Mar Shmuel, each season lasts 91 days 7 1/2 hours (therefore 4 seasons last 365 1/4 days):
Shmuel said... and between the beginning of one season and another there are only 91 days and 7 1/2 hours. 
Mar Shmuel was a prominent Talmudic scholar, physician and astronomer who was no doubt aware of the more accurate duration of a tropical year. Nevertheless, he used the less accurate figure of 365 1/4 days since:
The figure of 365 1/4 days is much easier to work with, especially for the general populace who were not proficient in mathematics, and needed to make computations for the performance of various religious precepts. 
The figure of 365 1/4 days was already being used at that time by the Romans.
What is the Rav Adda year used for?
According to Rav Adda bar Ahava, a year is defined as one-nineteenth of a 19-year solar cycle.  The source of the Rav Adda year is unknown, but may be based on a statement of Rabbi Yochanan in the Jerusalem Talmud. 
The Rav Adda year is about 5 minutes shorter than the Mar Shmuel year, and is the more accurate of the two systems. It is used for all civil and religious calendar calculations apart from the two prayers mentioned above.
The next Birkat Hachama will be said in the Hebrew year 5769, but 5769 is not divisible by 28!
Since the next Birkat Hachama will be the 206th cycle, it follows that the Hebrew year should be 206 x 28 = 5768, and not 5769! This discrepancy arises because there was no year '0'. The first 12 months from creation was labeled year '1', hence the first Birkat Hachama was said 28 years later in the year 29. All cycles are thus divisible by 28 with a remainder of 1.
When will Birkat Hachama next be said?
Birkat Hachama was last said on 8 Nissan 5741 (corresponding to 8 April 1981). This was the 205th 28-year cycle of the Sun. It will be said again on 8 April in the years 2009, 2037, 2065 and 2093. In the 22nd century, the date will advance to 9 April for the years 2121, 2149 and 2177.
Why will the next 4 Birkat Hachama events always occur on 8th April?
As mentioned above, Birkat Hachama is based on the Mar Shmuel year of 365 1/4 days. The Gregorian calendar that is used today in most parts of the world also has its origins in a year of 365 1/4 days. It thus follows that any date based on the Mar Shmuel will correspond very closely to a date on the Gregorian calendar.
In the 22nd century, why will Birkat Hachama always occur on 9 April rather than 8 April?
In the 22nd century, Birkat Hachama will occur on 9 April for the years 2121, 2149, and 2177. Recall that according to the Gregorian calendar, a centenary year not divisible by 400 is not a leap year. The year 2100 is not divisible by 400 and will thus not a leap year, the Gregorian Calendar will be a day later than the Mar Shmuel calendar, and Birkat Hachama in the 22nd century will thus occur 1 day later, on 9 April.
Why say Birkat Hachama on 8th April when the spring equinox really falls 18 days earlier on the 21st of March?
To understand this, let us briefly look at the origins of the Gregorian calendar:
The 'Julian' calendar was introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 b.c.e., and - like that of Mar Shmuel - was based on a year of 365 1/4 days. Its structure was as follows:
To correct previous inaccuracies, the year 46 b.c.e. was made to last 445 days... the so-called Year of Confusion (annus confusionis). That year ran from 13th October 47 b.c.e. to 31st December 46 b.c.e..
The spring equinox was set as occurring on the 25th of March at 6:00 pm. (Since the Hebrew day begins at 6:00pm, this date corresponded to the beginning of 26th March.)
All future years were to consist of 365 days in a normal year, and 366 days in a leap year.
A leap year would occur every 4th year.
Now, in each 1,000 Julian year period, there are:
250 leap years = 250 x 366 = 91,500 days
750 normal years = 750 x 365 = 273,750 days
There are thus a total of 365,250 days every 1,000 Julian years compared with 365,242.19 days every 1,000 tropical years. The Julian year (as does the year of Mar Shmuel) thus gains on the tropical year by:
365,250 - 365,242.19 = 7.81 days every 1,000 years.
By the year 1582, the Julian calendar was about 10 days ahead of the tropical year, and an adjustment was again necessary. Pope Gregory XIII introduced two adjustments to the calendar, and the 'Gregorian' calendar was established. These two adjustments were as follows:
Ten days were removed from the calendar in 1582. This was immediately accepted in Spain, Portugal and Italy and 5 October of that year was thus followed by 15 October. Germany, Sweden and Denmark accepted the changes in 1700. England accepted the Gregorian calendar in 1752, by which time the Julian calendar was 12 days ahead of the tropical year: 2 September of that year was thus followed by 14 September. In Russia, the Gregorian calendar was finally accepted on 14 February 1918, by which time 13 days had to be dropped.
A centenary year not divisible by 400 is not a leap year. The years 1700, 1800, and 1900 are therefore not leap years, whereas the years 1600 and 2000 are.
It follows that the Gregorian calendar is currently 13 days ahead of the Julian calendar: 10 days for the initial correction, plus 1 day each for the three 'skipped' leap years in 1700, 1800, and 1900. And the Gregorian calendar is 18 days ahead of the Mar Shmuel year: the extra 5 days due to Caesar having established the spring equinox as occurring on 26 March instead of 21 March.
A second way of looking at this 18-day difference is to consider that the Mar Shmuel year gains on the Rav Adda year by:
365.25000 - 365.24682 = 0.00318 days per year.
The Mar Shmuel year 5760 is thus ahead of the Rav Adda year by:
0.00318 x 5,760 = 18.32 days.
Laws and Customs
Announcing the Blessing
The night before the event, it is customary make an announcement in the synagogue about the Blessing that will take place the next morning. This is to encourage more people to attend:
'The glory of the King is in the multitudes of the people' 
When do we say the Blessing?
From the moment the upper arc of the Sun first appears until the full disc of the Sun is visible takes about 2 1/2 minutes. The Blessing should preferably be said during this time.
The Blessing should be said after morning prayers, standing, and preferably with a minyan (quorum of 10). Some authorities hold that the Blessing can be said until the end of the 3rd hour of the day. Yet others hold that it can be said until chatzot (midday). If said after midday, then the appellation 'melech ha'olam' should be omitted from the blessing.
The 'shechiyanu' blessing is not said prior to reciting Birkat Hachama.
What if the sky is overcast?
If clouds threaten to obscure the Sun, then the Blessing should be said straight away, even if it is said before morning prayers, and even if it means saying the Blessing without a minyan. Some authorities permit the saying of Birkat Hachama even if the sky is overcast. One should simply look at the place where the Sun would appear and say the Blessing, since one is saying the Blessing at the time of the event, and not necessarily upon seeing the actual event.
If reciting the Blessing when the Sun is partially, or completely obscured, then only the Blessing (and not the accompanying prayers) should be recited.
Who may or may not recite the Blessing?
Most communities permit the Blessing to be recited by women and by minors who have reached the age of understanding. Mourners who have not yet buried their relatives are exempt from saying the Blessing.
- Genesis: 1:14-19
- Talmud, Tractate Berachot 59b
- Interestingly, the Christian calendar was at one time also based on an imaginary epoch date. Originally, their calendar was fixed from the 1st day in January prior to the birth of their founder (ab annunciatione), whereas in the present era, the year is still counted from 1st day in January, but one year later (a nativitate).
- Me'ir Enei Chachamim
- Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 97a
- The Earth revolves around the Sun, but for convenience we will refer to the Sun's apparent motion around the Earth.
- Talmud, Tractate Eruvin 56a
- Similarly, we find that the Talmud gives a value of 3 for pi instead of 3.141592 (Talmud, Tractate Eruvin 13b). The astronomer Ptolemy acknowledged that he too used multiples of 60 in order to avoid dealing with fractions. (Ptolemy. Almagest 1:10)
- To ensure that the month of Nissan always occurs in the spring (see: Deuteronomy 16:1), additional months are added to the Hebrew calendar. The result is a 19-year cycle comprising 12 normal years of 12 lunar months, and 7 leap years of 13 lunar months. This cycle is known as the 'small cycle' (machzor katan)
- Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarah 1:2
- Proverbs, 14:28