As the sun rises above the Berkeley Hills on the morning of Wednesday, April 8, some local Jews will gather at the Berkeley Marina to greet it and carry out, atop Berkeley’s newest piece of land, an ancient religious ritual held at 28 year intervals.
The local “Blessing of the Sun” ceremony will take place at dawn on the 14th day of the month of Nissan in the Jewish calendar year, 5769, at the Cesar Chavez Park in the Berkeley Marina.
The ceremony is jointly organized by Kehilla Community Synagogue in Oakland and Chochmat HaLev, a South Berkeley based Jewish meditation center and synagogue, as well as a new group, “Wilderness Torah.” Rabbi David Cooper of Kehilla will officiate on April 8.
The event begins with “preparatory songs, prayers and chants” at 6 a.m. for those who wish to arrive that early. The Blessing of the Sun or Birkat HaChammah ritual itself begins at 6:44 and will last several minutes.
The official time of sunrise in the Bay Area is about 6:44 am that morning, but viewed from the Marina it will take several minutes for the sun to crest the Berkeley Hills over Strawberry Canyon. The blessing can’t be said until the full disk of the sun is visible. The last occasion for this particular blessing was 1981 and the next will be in 2037.
After the blessing, the organizers plan a “generations circle” where older participants can share wisdom with younger ones, followed by a period in which followers of various Jewish traditions can conduct their own version of morning services.
Attendees at the Berkeley ceremony need not be Jewish. “Anyone can come”, Rabbi Cooper says, an invitation that he then somewhat facetiously qualifies to “only people who live within the orbit of our sun are allowed to come.”
“Giving thanks for the light and energy of the sun and new beginnings is something we can all share,” adds Chochmat HaLev congregant Julie Wolk, also an organizer of the April 8 event.
Cooper has distributed information to East Bay rabbis, and hopes for attendance from throughout the Jewish community. “It’s a lovely program and we are delighted that Rabbi David Cooper and others have stepped up to organize a celebration of this rare occurrence on the Jewish calendar,” Rabbi Yoel Kahn, of Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El e-mailed me this week.
The ceremony takes place every 28 years because that’s the time, according to tradition, when the sun stands at the point in the sky where it was when first created. In the Jewish calendar, the 28-year cycle has repeated more than 200 times.
Readers with a Jewish or Christian upbringing may recall that Genesis says God created “light” on the first day of Creation, but the sun, moon, and stars were not made until the fourth day.
Cooper enthusiastically narrates the intricate analysis over the centuries that led to the April 8 date for this year’s ritual. He recently summarized the reasoning in a written message to his congregation.
“The old rabbis believed that the sun was created…on a Tuesday night-Wednesday morning…some of them also came to believe that the sun was created in its Spring Equinox position when the sun reached that position within the first six hours after sunset on a Tuesday night. By their reckoning this would happen only once every 28 years. Inaccuracies in their calculations have resulted in calendar drift after 18 centuries, and thus the “official” rabbinic equinox date has drifted from March 21 to April 8. Although everyone now agrees that the date has no astronomical significance, we use the day to affirm our gratitude for the gifts we receive from being in our sun’s orbit.”
“While we acknowledge that most do not look to the first chapter of Genesis to teach them the facts of cosmology or physics, for many of us, the truth of the story lies in getting us to consider our place in this wondrous universe and to accept our responsibility to act as good stewards within this world and upon this planet”, he concluded.
Many years ago “I’d heard something about (the ceremony), but totally forgotten,” Cooper says. Later, while studying the Talmud, he was reminded by a reference to the blessing, and put a notation into his Palm Pilot. About a year ago, while checking approaching dates in the Jewish calendar, he saw his entry and thought, “I’m glad I left myself a note about this!”
The solar calendar site in Chavez Park “is most absolutely the perfect place” for the ceremony, Cooper says. Not only does it have a good view of the sunrise, but the calendar “is very much laid out like the ones our ancestors would have used” to track the cycles of the seasons and interpret the heavens without benefit of telescopes.
The Berkeley event organizers have also focused on the environmental message of the occasion. They hope that participants will see the gathering not only as an age-old honoring of creation, but a call to end environmentally destructive human practices that are unbalancing the natural world.
“I hope people will leave with their own particular inspiration”, Cooper adds, but also “with a sense that our energy comes from the sun, and the question is how do we utilize the sun in ways that benefits the earth and all of its species.”
“When we see that sun, we’re going to know that we’re renewed”, says local rabbi Daniel Lev, who will be another leader of the ceremony. “That’s my hope and blessing for everyone who’s coming.”
The short prayer that will be offered on the 8th is simple; in one translation, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of time and space, Doer of the deeds of Creation". It’s not reserved for this ritual alone, but also appropriate when an especially uncommon or spectacular event of nature, like a meteor, is seen.
As Rabbi Lev told me, “remember in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, the comment, “There’s a blessing for everything”?”
Lev was one of 30 or so participants in 1981 when the ceremony was held at Inspiration Point in Tilden Park, in the hills back of Berkeley. Word of the gathering was spread “sort of grassroots”, he recalls, and an eclectic group of Jews came together before dawn at the edge of the parking lot there to watch the sunrise. “The event in 1981 was somber compared to what we do this April 8!” he says.
This year there will be gatherings around the country and world, from a parking lot in North Carolina to Jerusalem. Several may take place in California.
“It looks like there are celebrations happening all over the country”, says Julie Wolk. However, many Jews have not necessarily heard of it. “I think the reason no one knows about it is because it happens so infrequently,” Wolk surmises. This year, April 8 also happens to be the first day of Passover, and observant Jews are focusing on that important annual ritual.
And for some, a pre-dawn nature of the gathering is a challenge. As I asked Jewish friends and acquaintances if they knew of this ritual, one passed along this wry observation from another friend. “I think (this) may be an ancient and wise tradition…if I was ever able to get out of the house before dawn, I’d go.”
“If you miss this event, come back on April 8, 2037” Cooper writes. “How far will we have advanced by then in our efforts utilize the sun’s gifts so as repair the harm we have caused our planet?”
By 2037 of course, global warming, sea level rise, and the inevitable approaching Hayward Fault earthquake may have radically reshaped the Chavez Park site. But whatever the local site, the organizers hope the tradition itself will be renewed again in a world significantly improved from 2009.
Birkat HaChammah – Blessing of the Sun – will be celebrated Wednesday, April 8, 2009 at the solar calendar in Chavez Park at the Berkeley waterfront.
The organizers suggest bringing something to put on the wet grass so you can sit comfortably, and a “box breakfast” if you’d like to stay and eat after the ceremony.
“Pre-ritual preparation” begins at 6 a.m., and the blessing of the sun ritual starts at 6:44, and concludes at 7:15 after the sun is up. A “Generations Circle” will follow, then, at 7:45, morning services held separately in various Jewish traditions, and a bring-it-yourself breakfast after that. Participants can arrive or leave at any point.