Judaism and the Solar Eclipse
There will be a solar eclipse on August 21, which will be visible across parts of the United States for the first time since 1918. Solar eclipses occur when the moon blocks the rays of the sun from reaching the earth.
There are more lunar eclipses and planetary eclipses, but the solar eclipse is the big one. Until a few hundred years ago, this predictable phenomenon was regarded as a sign of impending doom — a message of displeasure from the gods, and a cause for mourning and despair.
In ancient China, for example, people would bang drums and pots and shout to scare off the dragon that was eating the sun.
The earliest example we have of this connection between eclipses and fear goes back to clay cuneiform tablets from 2300 and 1800 BCE, which were found in Mesopotamia. They told of how a king would temporarily abdicate the throne in order to save his life during a solar eclipse.
In Greece during the fifth century BCE, the philosopher Anaxagoras was the first to correctly explain that eclipses were just the sun casting the shadow of the moon on the earth. But superstition won (as it often does today). The Athenians put Anaxagoras on trial, accused him of sacrilege, and exiled him.
In 413 BCE, the Athenian general Nicias was preparing to capture Syracuse in Sicily. There was an eclipse, which Nicias saw as a bad omen. He therefore delayed his fleet’s departure. Seizing the opportunity, the Syracuse navy destroyed the fleet of 200 ships and killed or enslaved the 29,000 Athenian soldiers.
Over time, the ability to predict eclipses spread around the world. People began to fear less. But the association of eclipses with bad omens or religious signs has continued for centuries.
So what do our ancient sources tell us about eclipses?
The Talmud (Sucah 29a) uses the term “striking the sun” to describe an eclipse. Of solar eclipses, it says: “When the sun is eclipsed, it is a bad sign for the whole world. It is like when a human king made a feast for his subjects and placed a lantern before them. When he grew angry with them, he told his servant, ‘Take away the lantern and leave them in darkness!’”
The Talmud goes on to argue about whether this is a bad sign for Jews or non-Jews — or both. There is also a debate in the Talmud as to whether we should pay any attention to “signs.”
Despite those opposed to finding any significance in signs, the idea of symbols is deeply entrenched in Judaism. That is why, for example, we have all those signs at the Rosh Hashanah table for a successful, happy and sweet new year.
But in Jewish law, the Talmud focuses on praising God rather than worrying about bad things. It gives a list of blessings for lightning, thunder, a rainbow, the ocean, earthquakes, comets, etc.
Rabbis have often been asked about making a blessing over an eclipse. As you’d expect, they don’t all agree.
Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (1899–1985), known as the Steipler Gaon, was one of the two greatest authorities of his day. He said that no blessing should be recited on a solar eclipse, because it is a Siman Ra — a bad omen — as mentioned in the Talmud in Sucah.
On the other hand, Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz (1690–1764), who was one of the two greatest rabbis of his own generation, said (Yaarot Devash 2:12) that the Talmud’s term likuy ha-chamah (literally “the striking of the sun”) referred not to solar eclipses but to sunspots. There was no reason to think that either solar or lunar eclipses were bad signs. (Although he did worry about sunspots.)
As someone who doesn’t believe in superstition, I go with Rabbi Eybeshutz. But I also think that people should say at least an abbreviated blessing to recognize the occasion. I would go for the one we say over comets and other exceptional physical phenomena: “Baruch oseh maaseh bereishit.” This roughly translates to: “Thank you, God, for such an amazing universe we live in.”