At sunrise on April 8, the eve of Passover, a group of Jews from the Upper West Side will gather on the roof of the JCC in Manhattan. Organized by Hazon, the New York-based group that works for a “more sustainable Jewish community,” the early-morning risers will say some prayers, do some yoga and burn some chametz.
When the sun appears over the Atlantic that morning, a similar scene will take place on Miami Beach.
Under the auspices of Temple Solel and Congregation Beth Israel, two Reform congregations, members of the Florida synagogues will recite blessings and poetry.
Sunup in Chicago that morning will find the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation of Evanston on the shore of Lake Michigan. For two hours the congregation’s rabbi and cantor will lead congregants in prayer and meditation.
Birchat HaChamah, a once-in-a-generation ritual, will unite scattered Jews around the world the morning before the first seder, when the first sliver of the sun appears over the horizon in each of their gathering places.
Birchat HaChamah, Hebrew for “blessing on — or of — the sun,” marks the moment when, according to Jewish tradition formulated in Talmudic calculations, the sun returns to the exact point in the sky where it was on the day of creation 5769 years ago. This, the Talmud states, happens every 28 years, always on a Wednesday morning.
This year, with increasing awareness about issues like global warming and fossil-fuel pollution, a rare chance to bless the sun is becoming an environmental symbol for much of the Jewish community — especially the non-Orthodox parts of the Jewish community.
While Orthodox organizations have been preparing for months for this once- or twice-in-a-lifetime observance, the focus has been on the traditional practice of reciting the required blessing, which recognizes God’s dominion over creation. But the non-Orthodox world has taken the lead in turning Birchat HaChamah into an environmental moment.
“It’s mostly been the non-Orthodox community,” says Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder and co-director of Uri L’Tzedek, The Orthodox Social Justice Movement.
Uri L’Tzedek is conducting a three-week series of educational programs, as part of its mission to spur greater environmental activism in the wider Orthodox community. Much of the mainstream Orthodox community, he says, views Birchat HaChamah as “an end in itself … an ordinary ritual that doesn’t have any lasting significance.”
In non-Orthodox circles, Yanklowitz says, “there certainly is a growing environmentalism.”
The increased attention in the non-Orthodox community in a once-obscure ritual parallels a growing interest in such areas as women going to mikveh, and members of non-Orthodox congregations performing the shmira rites for the deceased that previously had been the purview of the Orthodox.
“We relate to the sun differently than we did 28 years ago or 2,000 years ago,” says Nigel Savage, Hazon executive director.
It is “a teaching opportunity that comes only once every 28 years,” the Shalom Center’s Rabbi Arthur Waskow writes on the organization’s Web site.
It is, says Rabbi Brant Rosen of the environmentally forward Evanston synagogue, “the best-kept secret” in the Jewish world. “People are very intrigued by it.”
For many of the Jews who are taking note of Birchat HaChamah this year, the occasion presents a natural opportunity to advocate for environmental legislation as well as ecologically sound practices at home and at work.
The actual Birchat HaChamah blessing — “Baruch atah Ado-nai, Elo-hainu Melech Ha-olam, ma’aseih bereishit” (Blessed are You, King of the Universe, who makes the works of creation) — more commonly recited when sighting such phenomena as lightning or comets, has expanded over the years into a full prayer service, complete with Psalms and other biblical readings.
For decades, Birchat HaChamah was little known outside of the Orthodox community and, in recent years, environmentally centered organizations like Philadelphia’s Shalom Center.
“It’s a global religious awakening” that crosses sectarian or denominational boundaries, says Rabbi Steven Greenberg, a faculty member of CLA – the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. “I can’t imagine a single rabbi saying this isn’t an opportunity to consider the planet as a precious gift.”
The variety of Birchat HaChamah events are serving as crossover outreach opportunities, attracting ecology-minded Jews to the Jewish community and attracting traditional Jews to the environmental movement, Rabbi Greenberg says.
“Every mitzvah is good. The more observance, the better,” says Rabbi J. David Bleich, author of “Bircas HaChammah: Blessing of the sun – Renewal of Creation,” the 1981 ArtScroll book that was reissued this year in an expanded format and serves as the Orthodox community’s standard text on the topic.
“Bircas haChammah has received extensive treatment in rabbinic literature,” Rabbi Bleich writes in the introduction to his book, which includes historical and halachic background on the event, extensive calendar listings, an entire Birchat HaChamah prayer service, a little scientific explanation and a guide to the event’s observance.
“Indeed, the rarity of its occurrence has served to enhance the scholarly attention it has received,” the introduction continues.
“By thinking about cycles that last longer than a year, it draws us to think about issues that last longer than a year – it locates us in a bigger timeline, what the world is going to be like 28 years from now,” says Rabbi Leonard Gordon of the Germantown Jewish Centre, near Philadelphia, and chair of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Commission on Social Justice.
This year, the ritual falls on one of the busiest mornings of the Jewish calendar, a time of last-minute yom tov preparations, ceremonial chametz burning and siyum study sessions for the First Born.
Part of a general return to Jewish tradition in non-Orthodox circles and a growing concern with ecological issues, the ritual has come to serve as a symbol of Judaism and environmentalism. It’s solar energy with a Jewish twist.
“Twenty-eight years ago I never heard about it,” says Rabbi Jeff Kurtz-Lendner, spiritual leader of Miami’s Temple Solel and an organizer of the joint sunrise service at the Hollywood Beach Bandshell. “We are trying to bring Judaism alive in a meaningful way in as many ways as possible. The fact that it occurs only once every 28 years can create a curiosity that may arouse interest simply because of its rarity. By doing it on the Atlantic Ocean we will be among the first Jews in America to see the sunrise.”
The Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal will be carrying reports on Birchat HaChamah in coming weeks.
At its Birchat HaChamah celebration atop the JCC in Manhattan, Hazon will announce the launching of the Jewish Coalition for a Sustainable Upper West Side, an initiative that will encourage environmentally friendly practices in the neighborhood.
As part of the event, the sun’s rays, weather permitting, will be focused through a large magnifying glass to burn chametz, “subject to permission of the fire officer,” Savage says. Clouds will not be welcome that morning.
“If the weather’s bad, the next ‘rain date’ will be April 8, 2037,” 28 years from now, Savage says. “We are praying for clear skies and sunshine.”