Blessings on Comets

Now is an ideally opportune time to discuss one of my favorite astronomy and Torah topics: Shmuel and comets!

This timeliness is due to the apparition of Comet Catalina (a.k.a. C/2013 US10), which will be at its closest point to Earth in about three weeks (Jan. 17). For more info on observing Catalina, check out these articles on space.com or Sky & Telecope.

The Mishnah in Tractate Brachot discusses blessings that are said upon seeing various natural phenomena (as well as sites of historical miracles and the like):

Mas. Berachot, Ch. 9 MISHNAH. If one sees a place where miracles have been wrought for Israel, he should say, blessed be he who wrought miracles for our ancestors in this place. On seeing a place from which idolatry has been extirpated, he should say, blessed be he who extirpated idolatry from our land. On [witnessing] zikin [comets or shooting stars?], earthquakes, thunderclaps, storms and lightnings one should say, blessed be he whose strength and might fill the world. On seeing mountains, hills, seas, rivers and deserts he should say, blessed be he who wrought creation

מסכת ברכות פרק ט

דף נד,א משנה  הרואה מקום שנעשו בו נסים לישראל אומר ברוך שעשה נסים לאבותינו במקום הזה מקום שנעקרה ממנו <עכו”ם> {עבודה זרה} אומר ברוך שעקר <עכו”ם> {עבודה זרה} מארצנו על הזיקין ועל הזועות ועל הרעמים ועל הרוחות ועל הברקים אומר ברוך שכחו וגבורתו מלא עולם על ההרים ועל הגבעות ועל הימים ועל הנהרות ועל המדברות אומר ברוך עושה בראשית

Explaining the mishnah, the Talmud asks the very obvious question, What exactly are the things referred to as “zikin” in the mishnah?

Talmud – Mas. Berachot 58b

OVER ZIKIN [comets or shooting stars?]. What are ZIKIN? Samuel said: A comet. Samuel also said: I am as familiar with the paths of heaven as with the streets of Nehardea, with the exception of the comet, for I do not know what it is.

דף נח,ב גמרא

על הזיקין:  מאי זיקין אמר שמואל כוכבא דשביט ואמר שמואל נהירין לי שבילי דשמיא כשבילי דנהרדעא לבר מכוכבא דשביט דלא ידענא מאי ניהו

R. Huna the son of R. Joshua said: Vilon was torn asunder and rolled up, showing the brightness of Rakia.

רב הונא ברי’ דרב יהושע אמר וילון הוא דמקרע דמגלגל ומחזי נהורא דרקיעא

(Vilon and rakia refer to different levels or spheres of the skies in ancient geocentric ideas of the universe.)

Shmuel, a prominent 3rd century Babylonian rabbi (in the city of Nehardea), who was also an astronomer, says that הזיקין are “כוכבא דשביט” – literally a “staff star” – i.e. a comet (although it is also possible to interpret/translate this as a shooting star, i.e. a meteor).

Comet Halley
Comet Halley

Rashi comments: A star that descends [or shoots] like an arrow in the sky from place to place and it is long like a staff that is shot and it looks like it is opening up the heavens. This description could possibly be either a comet or a meteor. However the subsequent explanation of Rav Huna seems to describe  something bigger and brighter, and so more like a comet than meteors. Rashi’s comment on that likens it to a “spear shape” – which sounds more like a comet as well, since comets have a “head” (the coma) and “tails”.

A bright Perseid meteor seen by astrophotographer Stefano De Rosa this morning (August 12) on the island of Isola D'Elba in Italy.
A bright Perseid meteor photographed by astrophotographer Stefano De Rosa

As for Rashi’s description of zikin as moving “in the sky from place to place”, while meteors quickly flash across part of the sky “like an arrow”, comets move across the sky much more slowly. Despite the way they look as if they are “zooming” they essentially appear in one place each night and move “in the sky from place to place” over the course of their apparition – usually weeks or months. In any given night, they move across the sky along with the background stars.

Shmuel’s subsequent admission that he does not know what a comet is and Rav Huna’s explanation also touch on ancient philosophy/science, perhaps. Aristotle, and all who followed his opinion until modernity, claimed that comets (and meteors) must be phenomena in Earth’s atmosphere, not the sky, because the sky and heavenly bodies were unchanging. Shmuel, assuming he knew this ancient explanation (he was an ancient astronomer!) is perhaps expressing some skepticism about the Aristotelian idea. Rav Huna seems to be outright disagreeing with that notion. He says the sky is torn open – what change could be greater? – and he clearly places zikin in the heavens, not below them.

The question of “what are they” is ironically not so important in practical halachah: authorities say the the blessing should be said for both comets and meteors!

The Rambam, Maimonides, one of the greatest medieval rabbis – and an astronomer (as well as mathematician, medical doctor and philosopher!) – codified the law to include both comets and meteors:

Mishneh Torah, Laws of Blessings, 10:16 [14]

… and on the light in the air that looks as if they are falling stars and running from place to place, OR like stars that have tails — on any one of these — one blesses “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, whose might fills the world”; And if one wishes, one may bless “Blessed… Who makes the works of Creation.”

משנה תורה – ספר אהבה – הלכות ברכות  פֵּרֶק י, טז [יד]

וְעַל הָאוֹר שֶׁבָּאַוֵּיר שֶׁיֵּרָאוּ כְּאִלּוּ הֶם כּוֹכָבִים נוֹפְלִים וְרָצִים מִמָּקוֹם לְמָקוֹם, אוֹ כְּמוֹ כּוֹכָבִים שֶׁיֵּשׁ לָהֶן זָנָב–עַל כָּל אֶחָד מֵאֵלּוּ–מְבָרֵךְ בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁכּוֹחוֹ מָלֵא עוֹלָם; וְאִם רָצָה–מְבָרֵךְ בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, עוֹשֶׂה בְּרֵאשִׁית

It is interesting to note that Maimonides, an avid Aristotlean, describes meteors and/or comets as “light in the air” in accordance with Aristotle’s ideas, despite Rav Huna and Rashi saying that they are “in the sky“. (Obviously, that phrase is subject to interpretation. But it is interesting…) However, this has no bearing on the legal outcome.

Subsequently, the great 16th century R.Yosef Karo, the author the Shulchan Aruch (accepted ever since as the definitive “Code of Jewish Law”) writes:

 

Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 227:1

Blessing on Zikim

On zikim, which are a kind of star that shoots like an arrow on the length of the sky from place to place and its light is drawn out like a staff…

on every one of these one blesses “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who makes the works of Creation.” And if one one wishes ““Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, whose might fills the world”.

 

שולחן ערוך · אורח חיים · סימן רכז ·

ברכת הזיקים – סעיף א

על הזיקים והוא כמין כוכב היורה כחץ באורך השמים ממקום למקום ונמשך אורו כשבט ועל …

על כל אחד מאלו אומר ברוך אתה ה’ אלהינו מלך העולם עושה מעשה בראשית ואם ירצה יאמר ברוך אתה ה’ אלהינו מלך העולם שכחו וגבורתו מלא עולם:

While the Shulchan Aruch does not explicitly include both comets and meteors, subsequent authorities based on him do include them. The confusingly similarly named Aruch HaShulchan, a late 19th/early 20th century commentary on the Shulchan Aruch by R. Yechiel M. Epstein does include both comets and meteors:

 

Aruch HaShulchan, Orach Chaim, 227:1

Blessing on Zikim, Thunder, Lightning and Winds

We learned at the beginning of chapter “One who sees” [cited above] “On [witnessing] zikin,  earthquakes, lightnings,  thunderclaps and storms one should say, bless with the Name and Kingship, ‘Blessed… He whose strength and might fill the world.’”  And Zikim are like a star that shoots like an arrow on the length of the sky from place to place and its light is drawn out like a staff. Or alternatively, a star that appears to have a long tail.

ערוך השולחן · אורח חיים · סימן רכז  סעיף א

ברכת הזיקים, ורעמים, וברקים, ורוחות

תנן בריש פרק הרואה (נ”ד.): “על הזיקין ועל הזועות ועל הברקים ועל הרעמים ועל הרוחות, מברך בשם ומלכות: “ברוך… שכחו וגבורתו מלא עולם”. וזיקין הוא כמין כוכב היורה כחץ באורך השמים ממקום למקום, ונמשך אורו כשבט, אי נמי כוכב שנראה שיש לו זנב ארוך

Another modern era commentator (line by line) on the Shulchan Aruch, the Mishnah Berurah, by R. Yisrael Meir Kagan, includes both as well, by adding a gloss on the Shulchan Aruch’s description:

 

Mishnah Brurah on Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 227:1

“that shoots like an arrow”- And there are those say that it is a star that appears to have a long tail and a staff of light. And both cited later authorities for the law.

משנה ברורה על שולחן ערוך אורח חיים רכז סעיף א

(א) היורה כחץ – וי”א שהוא כוכב שיש לו זנב ושבט של אורה ושניהם העתיקו אחרונים לדינא .

However, Comet Catalina, as described in the links above, will only be visible with binoculars or a telescope. This raises an interesting halachic question in this situation: Can one say the brachah if a comet (or other relevant phenomenon) is viewed through an optical observing device?

This question is addressed by Rabbi J. David Bleich in Contemporary Halachic Problems v.1 (p.213-5) discusses this question. However, his analysis is not clearly conclusive.

A few years ago, when I was a grad student, before going on my first “real” observing trip to Lowell Observatory, I asked this shaila (legal question) in a Q & A session of our former rabbi (v’hamayvin yavin). His answer was “yes”, if the glass lens is magnifying the object viewed to make it visible.

However, that wasn’t so much help to me at that time. In almost all modern astronomical observatories, the astronomers/telescope operators sit in a separate (warmer) control room from the actual telescope and control it and view the observations via computers. Furthermore, even if one wanted to closely approach the telescope itself, the electronic cameras used to record observations are covering the lens on the observing end of the telescope and one cannot look directly through the lens.

Palomar 1.5 Meter telescope from http://www.noao.edu/news/2015/pr1507.php
Palomar 1.5 Meter telescope. Note that there’s no “eyepiece”, just a big box of instrumentation

To my follow-up question, “what if you see it on a screen, not through the telescope lens”, the answer was then “no”. This makes very logical sense: if the light reaching one’s eye is from the actual celestial object, even if it is more than would be visible with the naked eye, then one is still seeing the object itself – and should make the brachah. If one is viewing it on a screen, then it is not, even if it were being viewed “live”. (What about telescopes whose optics include a mirror, would be a further question, about which I am curious but haven’t got any answers yet…)

You should, of course, consult your own halachic authority to get an answer to such questions. But either way, saying the brachah or not, get out some binoculars; you can still have the experience of wonder at Hashem’s creation by looking up at the pre-dawn sky in the next few weeks to see Comet Catalina.

 

Coming next… An explanation for Shmuel…

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