From the New York Times:
Aristarchus's 3rd century BC calculations on the relative sizes of the Earth, Sun and Moon, from a 10th century CE Greek copy. Image via WikipediaAccording to the celestial calculations of a Talmudic sage named Shmuel, at the outset of spring every 28 years, the sun moves into the same place in the sky at the same time and on the same day of the week as it did when God made it. This charged moment provides the occasion for reciting a one-line blessing of God, “who makes the work of creation.”
Self-effacing humor aside, Rabbi Bleich has inadvertently caught a cultural wave. A man who proudly eschews the computer, relies on his secretary to print out e-mail for him, and still owns and uses a rotary phone, he has seen Birchat HaChammah catch on more widely among American Jews than ever in his memory.
Rabbi Bleich draws on a range of Judaic liturgy, commentary and legal codes, as well as the mathematical fine points of the solar, lunar, Julian and Gregorian calendars, to parse the purpose of Birchat HaChammah.The same brief prayer — consisting of the basic syntactical root for most blessings and three culminating, specific Hebrew words — is also used to express awe and wonder at physical grandeur (the Grand Canyon) and creative acts visible as they happen (lightning, meteor showers).
Image via WikipediaThe Reform and Conservative movements, along with the Orthodox, have put increased attention on the blessing this year. It has, for many liberal Jews, become interwoven with environmental activism. Birchat HaChammah also appeals to followers of and dabblers in Jewish mysticism.
As the historian Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University pointed out in a recent interview, taking part in Birchat HaChammah asks relatively little from a not-so-religious Jew.“Frequent rituals, like saying kaddish every day, are difficult to maintain, and without strenuous effort they cease to be meaningful,” Mr. Sarna said.
“Infrequent rituals — those performed annually or once in a life cycle, like a bar mitzvah, or in this case once in 28 years — are by definition more exotic and it is easy to draw meaning out of them,” he said. “In all religions, the infrequent rituals are more widely observed and tend to be more beloved than the frequent ones.”