Reflecting on the Total Solar Eclipse

Posted on April 18, 2024

By Hazzan Jacob Sandler.

10 days ago, I had the pleasure of taking an early bus to Indianapolis to experience the Total Solar Eclipse in its full grandeur. I’ve always enjoyed stargazing, taking in the awesomeness of the universe and allowing the vastness of space to remind me of my relative smallness. It’s so fun to have those deep meaningful conversations (DMCs) at camp, where the starry sky is so unpolluted by city lights. But beyond that, I’m not usually a big astronomy nerd. I don’t go out with a telescope to see nearby planets and have no aspirations of being in astronaut. But on a whim, I decided to go check out the eclipse anyway.

I’m a pretty spiritual guy, and I had been speculating about what Jewish thought might say about the Eclipse. I had used my own mystical imagination and crafted a beautiful image of the moon passing in front of the sun, but if I didn’t know that I might see the 2-dimensional version as a unification of sorts. The moon represents the divine feminine – the Shechinah, receiving and reflecting the light of God, guiding the Jewish people and our calendar. The sun represents the divine masculine – Tiferet or the name YHVH – an aspect of God which is brilliant and gives light to the world. By bringing these two bodies in the sky together, we’d see a divine union of Tiferet and Shechina – similar to the metaphor of Lecha Dodi on Friday night which serves to bring together the Divine masculine and feminine in a marital unity. I had imagined that the sun rays peaking out from behind the moon’s shadow would appear to the ancient mystic as a crown of glory on the head of the Divine presence. I was so excited.

Then, on the bus, I did some digging. What blessing should I say? What do the sages have to say on this matter? 

It turns out most of the ancient world agreed that a night sky in the middle of the day was a bad omen. The Rabbis of the Talmud in Sukkah 29a discuss them.

Some say if the sun is eclipsed it’s a bad omen for non-Jews who use a solar calendar. If the moon is eclipsed it’s a bad omen for Jews who use the lunar calendar. Some say depending on the color it could mean war is coming or famine or both. An eerie thought given that we are already experiencing a war, but more eerie given Iran’s latest attack. But do I really believe that a predictable eclipse could be a sign of something I presume to be controllable by humankind? A thursday thought is no place to be untangling the issue of free-will or determinism, but it’s just a thought. 

The rabbis taught that the eclipse of the sun occurs on account of four things, On account of an Av Bet Din who died and was not eulogized properly [and the eclipse is a eulogy from Heaven]; on account of a betrothed young girl who cried out in the city [that she was being raped] and there was none to save her; on account of sodomy, and on account of two brothers whose blood was shed at the same time. 

Again, it’s a predictable scientific phenomenon, and therefore, the eclipse of the sun occurs on account of one thing — timing. But the image of the young girl screaming with no one to save her, is echoed in the screams of the hostages and those fighting to save them. And the image of two brothers whose blood was shed as one is reflection of the deep intimate connection that Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Muslims and Christians, descendants of Issac and Jacob, or Ishmael or Esau… we’re all brothers. And if that’s not enough, we’re taught that Adam was the single ancestor to humanity so that no one can claim, “my ancestor was greater than your ancestor” which is to say, that the eclipse could be a reminder of God’s sullenness that we humans continue to spill the blood of our brothers.

Whether or not we modern scientifically educated Jews can ascribe such superstitious meaning to the Eclipse is debatable, but I do believe that as Jews, we can elevate even the most mundane activities to the realm of the holy through mindful awareness, gratitude and intention. So, we can see the eclipse as a celestial representation of what’s possible in God’s awesome natural world. Or, we can see the eclipse as an unsettling reminder that there’s work to do to make the world one of light – uninterrupted by momentary darkness. Because those 4 minutes in the sky were really cool, but these dark times in our world are indeed as frightening as an eclipse might have been in the ancient world. 

Blessed is the one whose strength and power fill the world, who made the works of creation.
Baruch SheCocho UGevurato Maaleh Olam v’Oseh Maaseh Beresheet.