We learned in school about the solar eclipse. Can you give me Jewish perspective on solar eclipses? Is there a blessing to say, or another appropriate response?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
Basic to Jewish Kabbalistic thought is the idea that everything in the physical world is a metaphor for a spiritual concept. What is the specific message of a solar eclipse?
The Talmud (Sukkah 29a) declares: "An eclipse of the sun is a bad omen for the world." Why? It's like a king who made a huge banquet and set up a lantern to illuminate the party. Similarly, this world is a beautiful banquet which God has prepared for us. If the lantern is covered, as in a solar eclipse, it diminishes our enjoyment of the world.
So why would God send us such a message? The Talmud specifies that, among other reasons, the sun is eclipsed when a great rabbi dies and is not eulogized properly. If a society does not grieve properly for a great rabbi, it shows a lack of appreciation for the ethical values that he upholds. This is a bad omen – indicating a society in a state of moral and spiritual decline.
The Maharsha (17th century Poland) says that a great rabbi is compared to the sun in that he "radiates" Torah to the people. For example, the Talmud (Baba Batra 75a) compares "the face of Moses to the face of the sun." So a solar eclipse could be called an "eclipse of the spiritual sun."
An eclipse is an opportunity to examine our own relationship with Torah scholars. Do we scorn them? Or do we see them as luminaries of humanity? Did we make an effort to become close to them? Did we even know their names?
Of course, eclipses are easily predictable, and even in Talmudic times they were already able to accurately predict celestial cycles. So how can we say that they portend anything about modern society?
God knows the future, and at creation was able to determine when the great rabbis will not be properly eulogized. As such He set the cycle of eclipses to correspond. Of course the concept of how God is outside of time and space is difficult for us mortals to comprehend. But that's the way it is.
The Sages did not institute a blessing upon seeing a solar eclipse. Some suggest that this is due to its negative connotations.
Kabbalah aside for a moment: From a scientific standpoint, what causes a solar eclipse?
The moon orbits the earth, and whenever the moon is lined up between the earth and the sun, the illuminated side of the moon faces away from the earth and cannot be seen. This moment is called a "new moon" and is the beginning of every Jewish month ("Rosh Chodesh").
So why isn't there a solar eclipse every month? Because the orbits of the moon and earth are tilted at an angle, and the line-up is usually not precise enough for an eclipse.
The amazing thing is that since the sun is 400 times larger than the moon, the only way that the moon could fit as a perfect cover over the sun, is because the sun is also 400 times farther away than the moon. Hence a perfect fit!
On a practical note: If you encounter a solar eclipse, even though the sun appears covered, don’t look. The sun’s corona is still as powerful as ever. People have gone blind after looking at an eclipse for as few as four seconds. There is no pain when the retina is being burned, and the resulting visual symptoms do not occur until at least several hours after the injury has occurred – by which time it is far too late.
Maimonides writes (Deyot 4) that it is a Torah obligation to guard one's physical health. Therefore, regardless of how tempting it is to look at the sun during the eclipse, don't do it. Sunglasses are not effective; you must use specifically approved treated plastic or glass filters, or indirectly view the sun's projection through a pin-hole.
May the Almighty illuminate our hearts, and shine His light of Torah throughout the world.