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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Does Jewish Tradition Consider Eclipses to be a Bad Omen?

It would seem from the Midrashic and Talmudic texts below that Jewish tradition considers eclipses of various kinds to be a bad omen, both for the world at large and Jews in particular, caused by our sinful behaviors and warning us to repent. Given the fact that eclipses are caused by the invariant laws of celestial mechanics, it seems rather hard to understand how our actions can influence them. Perhaps our tradition is teaching us that these events are reminders of our sinful behavior and a reminder to repair our defects. On a deeper level, perhaps in the times of Mosiach when "...the land shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Isaiah 11) eclipses will cease or the universal light of G-dliness will blind us to them.

The eclipsed moon as seen from Teaneck, NJ on Dec. 21, 2010. (Photo credit: Yitzy Glicksman)

There is no bracha or blessing to be said upon seeing an eclipse, although it is a wonder on a par with seeing a rainbow or shooting star, for both of which there are blessings to be said. Perhaps this is because the Hebrew word for eclipse is Likui - defect. The Talmud states, as we read below, that a Likui of the sun is a bad sign for the world; a lunar Likui is a bad sign for Israel. Being associated with bad signs, the eclipse was not assigned a bracha. May one say a bracha if moved by the beauty and wonder of an eclipse? Consult with your Rav, I don't know.

I guess it's a good thing that yesterday's lunar eclipse was not visible from Israel. We dodged another bullet!

Succah 29a Our Rabbis taught, When the sun is in eclipse, it is a bad omen for the whole world. This may be illustrated by a parable. To what can this be compared? To a human being who made a banquet for his servants and put up for them a lamp. When he became wroth with them he said to his servant, ‘Take away the lamp from them, and let them sit in the dark’. It was taught: R. Meir said, Whenever the luminaries are in eclipse, it is a bad omen for Israel since they are inured to blows. This may be compared to a school teacher who comes to school with a strap in his hand. Who becomes apprehensive? He who is accustomed to be daily punished. Our Rabbis taught, When the sun is in eclipse it is a bad omen for idolaters; when the moon is in eclipse, it is a bad omen for Israel, since Israel reckons by the moon and idolaters by the sun. If it is in eclipse in the east, it is a bad omen for those who dwell in the east; if in the west, it is a bad omen for those who dwell in the west; if in the midst of heaven it is bad omen for the whole world. If its face is red as blood, [it is a sign that] the sword is coming to the world; if it is like sack-cloth, the arrows of famine are coming to the world; if it resembles both, the sword and the arrows of famine are coming to the world. If the eclipse is at sunset calamity will tarry in its coming; if at dawn, it hastens on its way: but some say the order is to be reversed. And there is no nation which is smitten that its gods are not smitten together with it, as it is said, And against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments. But when Israel fulfill the will of the Omnipresent, they need have no fear of all these [omens] as it is said, Thus saith the HaShem,' Learn not the way of the nations, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the nations are dismayed at them, the idolaters will be dismayed, but Israel will not be dismayed. Our Rabbis taught, On account of four things is the sun in eclipse: On account of an Ab Beth din who died and was not mourned fittingly; on account of a betrothed maiden who cried out aloud in the city 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. And on account of four things are the luminaries in eclipse: On account of those who perpetrate forgeries, on account of those who give false witness; on account of those who rear small cattle in the land of Israel; and on account of those who cut down good trees. 
Midrash Rabbah - Leviticus XXXI:9 R. Levi said: Every day the Holy One, blessed be He, sits in judgment on the globes of the sun and the moon which are reluctant to go forth to shine upon the world. What reason do they give? People burn incense to us, people worship us. R. Justa b. Shunem said: What does the Holy One, blessed be He, do to them? He sits in judgment on them and they go forth and shine upon the world against their will. Hence it is written, Every morning doth He bring His right to light--lo ne'dar {Zeph. III, 5). What is the meaning of ’lo ne'dar’? 'It does not cease.’ But the unrighteous knoweth no shame (ib.). People are not ashamed but worship them. They see them being punished but are not ashamed. 
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  1. There is sicha of the Lubavitcher Rebbe on this in his Likutei Sichos Vol. 15 on Bereshis explaining the meaning of this Gemara. It does not mean that our actions influenced it but rather that force of Divine Revelation in the world is diminished and therefore it is harder to be and act as one should... go look it up..

  2. A solar eclipse deserves a blessing. For why, see here:



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