I began writing this then-timely post before last year’s solar eclipse (on August 21, 2017), but unfortunately due to my father’s passing away shortly before the eclipse, I did not get a chance to finish it in time.

But better late than never (or in another six years – when the next North American total solar eclipse will occur…)

So I’d like to dedicate this post’s Torah learning to the memory of my father – l’ilui nishmat Chaim ben Emmanuel v’Chava – Charles Gersch, who’s first yahrzeit – the 28th of Av – is this week. And now rewind in your minds by about a year to eclipse-mania time…


In keeping with the inyana d’yoma – the topic of the day – it’s clearly a good time to discuss eclipses in ancient Jewish texts! Unfortunately, there is not a whole lot of material, and sadly, what there is seems, on the face of it, to have a somewhat depressing trend.

The most well known rabbinic source regarding eclipses is found in the Babylonian Talmud, b. Sukka 29b:

ת”ר בזמן שהחמה לוקה סימן רע לכל העולם כולו משל למה הדבר דומה למלך בשר ודם שעשה סעודה לעבדיו והניח פנס לפניהם כעס עליהם ואמר לעבדו טול פנס מפניהם והושיבם בחושך תניא רבי מאיר אומר כל זמן שמאורות לוקין סימן רע לשונאיהם של ישראל מפני שמלומדין במכותיהן משל לסופר שבא לבית הספר ורצועה בידו מי דואג מי שרגיל ללקות בכל יום ויום הוא דואג

תנו רבנן בזמן שהחמה לוקה סימן רע {לגוים} לבנה לוקה סימן רע לשונאיהם של ישראל מפני שישראל מונין ללבנה {וגוים} לחמה לוקה במזרח סימן רע ליושבי מזרח במערב סימן רע ליושבי מערב באמצע הרקיע סימן רע לכל העולם כולו פניו דומין לדם חרב בא לעולם לשק חיצי רעב באין לעולם לזו ולזו חרב וחיצי רעב באין לעולם לקה בכניסתו פורענות שוהה לבא ביציאתו ממהרת לבא וי”א חילוף הדברים

ואין לך כל אומה ואומה שלוקה שאין אלהיה לוקה עמה שנאמר (שמות יב) ובכל אלהי מצרים אעשה שפטים

ובזמן שישראל עושין רצונו של מקום אין מתיראין מכל אלו שנאמר (ירמיהו י) כה אמר ה’ אל דרך הגוים אל תלמדו ומאותות השמים אל תחתו כי יחתו הגוים מהמה {גוים} יחתו ואין ישראל יחתו

…ת”ר בשביל ארבעה דברים חמה לוקה על אב בית דין שמת ואינו נספד כהלכה

b. Sukka 29b

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 king 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 fulfil the will of the Omnipresent, they need have no fear of all these [omens] as it is said, Thus saith the Lord,’ 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…

Photos of the progression of a Lunar Eclipse (by Doug Scobel.) Note the colors like “blood red” and/or “sack-cloth”…?

As scientists we may cringe at the idea of celestial mechanical events being treated as omens. We now understand the celestial mechanics involved in producing eclipses quite well. A solar eclipse occurs when the Sun, Moon and Earth are all aligned, with the Moon blocking the view of the Sun from Earth.

Diagram of alignment of Sun, Moon and Earth producing Solar Eclipses (left) and shadow of the Moon on the surface of the Earth as viewed from space during a Solar Eclipse (right).

Likewise, Lunar eclipses occur when the three bodies are aligned with the Earth in the middle, and the Earth’s shadow covers the Moon.

Diagrams and observations of (three types of) Lunar Eclipses

Many others have analyzed this sugya with a modern, often critical, often scientific, eye. Drashot also abound. I am not going to endeavor to explain this sugya at length in this post. I will merely note that there is a progression with respect to the signs from “bad for the whole world” to specifically “bad for Israel” or other nations, to different types or locations of eclipses being more specific signs than just “for everyone.” Finally, it associates solar eclipses with specific sin(s) of Jews.

While it would be tempting to dwell on the theme of an “Av Beit Din” [lit. “Father of the Court”; meaning chief/head of the Court] not being eulogized properly in a post for my own father’s yahrzeit, I will resist the temptation. Note however that this portion seems to backtrack on the Lunar Eclipse being a bad sign for Jews, since it is associating a Solar Eclipse with these (specifically Jewish) sins.

A very similar parallel to part of this sugya is found in Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 12:2.

But I have found another, apparently much less well known, rabbinic text about eclipses, in Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, ch. 7:

בשעה ששלהבת לבנה מגעת לחמה ביום במעלות ששים עובר בתוכו ומכבה את אורו ובשעה ששלהבת החמה מגעת ללבנה בלילה במעלות ארבעים עובר בתוכו ומכבה את אורו. רבי נהוראי אומר, גזרת מלך במלח מפורסמת היא, בשעה שישראל חוטאין ואינן מעברין את השנה כראוי בשעה ששלהבת חמה מגעת ללבנה בלילה מעלות ארבעים הקב”ה מכהה את הלבנה וגונז אחד מן הסנהדרין, וכשישראל עושין רצונו של הקב”ה עושה ברחמיו הרבים ומכהה את החמה ושולח את רוגזו על עכומ”ז, שנאמר (ירמיהו י, ב): “כֹּה אָמַר ה’ אֶל דֶּרֶךְ הַגּוֹיִם אַל תִּלְמָדוּ וּמֵאֹתוֹת הַשָּׁמַיִם אַל תֵּחָתּוּ כִּי יֵחַתּוּ הַגּוֹיִם מֵהֵמָּה”, עכומ”ז יחתו ולא ישראל

At the time when the flame of the Moon touches the Sun in the day, at sixty degrees, it passes inside it and darkens its light. And at the time when the flame of the Sun touches the Moon at night, at forty degrees, it passes inside it and darkens its light. Rabbi Nehorai says: The decree of the King is made well-known to sailor[s]; at the time when Israel sins and do not intercalate the year properly at the time when the flame of the Sun touches the Moon at night, at forty degrees, the Holy One Blessed be He darkens the Moon and hides away one of the Sanhedrin. And when Israel does the will of the Holy One Blessed be He, He acts in His great mercy and darkens the Sun and sends His wrath on the idolaters [lit. worshipers of stars and constellations]. As it says (Jer. 10:2) “Thus says the Lord: To the ways of the nations do not learn, and from the signs of the skies do not be afraid; for the nations shall fear them.” The idolaters [lit. worshipers of stars and constellations] shall fear and not Israel.

A total Solar Eclipse

Now it seems fairly straightforward to explain that this text is describing eclipses, even though they are not explicitly mentioned. Although doing so requires the counter-intuitive understanding of the phrases the “flame of the Moon” and the “flame of the Sun” to actually refer to the shadow of the Moon and/or Sun. But that slightly adjusted translation makes an otherwise very difficult to explain phrase very clear. I would further suggest that in the context of eclipses, it may not be quite as odd as it seems at first. During a solar eclipse, the Moon’s shadow that blocks the Sun is surrounded by the Sun’s corona, which looks quite a bit like flames (see the photo above.) In a Lunar eclipse, there is no analogous “corona”, but the Moon itself appears reddish (again, see above) – which could be described as “flame-like” in color. These might help explain why the rabbis referred to these phenomena with phrases involving a “flame.”

I also have translated “במלח“ as “to sailors” as opposed to “in salt”; it seems the more relevant and sensible explanation – sailors use astronomical observations for navigation and guidance but publicizing decrees by salt seems hard to explain. (Although I would not be surprised if in the Roman Empire there was some kind of a custom along those lines. TBD…)

Next, the 40 and 60 degrees references; also not so simple. While these sound like astronomical observations or descriptions of the location on the sky of an eclipse, eclipses do not always occur at the same altitudes in the sky. The altitude of an observed eclipse depends on the observer’s location on Earth, so even the same event might be perceived at different degrees of altitude! Perhaps the rabbis were implying somehow that not all eclipses fit the requirements to be considered signs of something.

Now, on to the interpretations of signs/omens themselves. These are significantly different from the ones in the Babylonian Talmud sugya above.

Here, according to the statement of Rabbi Nehorai (whose name comes from the word “נְהוֹרָא” – nehora, i.e. “light”!), the specific “sin” of Israel that is connected to a Lunar Eclipse is not intercalating the calendar correctly! Similarly, the sin of the “idolaters” although not specified, could easily be understood (from the phrase used) to be that they worship “stars and constellations” – also related to the celestial bodies.

Recall that the current fixed “Jewish Calendar” has been in use by Jews since roughly the 4th Cen. CE and is generally attributed to Hillel II. But in the ancient Jewish world things were not so simple. Before the 4th century the system for determining months and years was based on witnessing the new moon (by 2 witnesses) and testifying before the Sanhedrin, the “Supreme Court”, which, after cross-examining the witnesses, declared (or “sanctified”) the new month. In a similar manner, the Court would determine whether or not to intercalate a year – i.e. to add an extra “leap” month to a given year – based on several relevant factors, as discussed in the Talmud (see b. Sanhedrin 11b-12a). Thus it was the Sanhedrin’s constant annual responsibility to keep the calendar in sync with the seasons and natural phenomena.

It is also worth noting without going into detail that the entire next chapter following this passage deals with the “history” (and some details) of the intercalation of the calendar going all the way back to Adam and then Noah, the Forefathers, etc. to Moses and Aaron. It seems to be a really big deal!

This text seems to be either objecting to or lamenting either the whole establishment of a fixed calendar, or a specific event or feature of mis-calculated intercalations. This idea is found occasionally elsewhere in rabbinic literature as well; despite the obvious improvement in practicality, the rabbis viewed the “old fashioned” way of determining the months and years by the (rabbinic…) court as the preferred method, and hope for its return in the messianic future. (Perhaps because it required and illustrates the need for expert rabbis to guide everything.)

So in this passage we have a “sin” which is actually related to the Moon and Sun, and hence far more of an appropriate “midah k’neged midah” (lit. “measure for measure”) Divine “decree” – hiding the Sun and/or Moon – than in the Bavli. Likewise, the associated punishment is also “midah k’neged midah” – one of the Sanhedrin, the ancient Jewish “supreme court” is hidden away – i.e. dies, presumably. This was the very court that was ultimately responsible for having failed to properly intercalate the calendar. Also the “hiding” of a sage – a metaphorical luminary – corresponds to the hiding of a heavenly luminary. Unlike in the Bavli, the death of the sage is part of the resulting punishment, not part of the cause (due to insufficient eulogizing).

It is worth noting here that the aforementioned parallel text in Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 12:2 is precisely commenting on the mitzvah of sanctifying the new moon, given to Moses and Aaron in Exodus 12:2!

Now do we modern scientifically educated Jews really think that eclipses or other celestial events are signs and omens? Of course not! However, it would be quite reasonable to understand that the ancient rabbis would not have thought so naively either! The very nature of the calculations of the lunar cycle and the intercalations of the calendar is the same knowledge base required to calculate eclipses! (e.g. Metonic Cycles and Saros Cycles.) And we know that some ancients did successfully predict or calculate eclipses (e.g. Thales of Miletus, c. 585 BCE.)

Plots of the locations of solar eclipses, calculated using Saros Cycles

Perhaps, viewed with this in mind, the Rabbi Nehorai’s lament found here makes perfectly rational sense. (OK, I said “perhaps”… And perhaps only some portions of it…) The Rabbis should have, and used to have, the knowledge required to perform the astronomical calculations to perform their very important responsibility of calendar intercalation. In this day and age (i.e. in the days of the rabbinic author) once the rabbis are no longer relied on and required to perform such calculations, their knowledge of those astronomical calculations perforce became less well understood and more hidden. Hence the unusual idiom of “one of the Sanhedrin being hidden away” – the specialized knowledge of the Sanhedrin was hidden away!

Incidentally, Rabbi Nehorai’s very name is cognate to term featured in a fairly famous astronomical talmudic statement, thus hinting to a focus on astronomical knowledge:

מסכת ברכות דף נח,ב: ואמר שמואל נהירין לי שבילי דשמיא כשבילי דנהרדעא

b. Berachoth 58b: Samuel also said: I am as familiar with the paths of heaven as with the streets of Nehardea.

In we interpret the sugya like this, it’s not just describing an appropriate “midah k’neged midah” punishment. Every eclipse, in effect serves as a reminder of the loss of the special astronomical calculation functioning of the Sanhedrin, and its required knowledge of astronomy. If only rabbis still intercalated the calendar the way they should, then they could (perhaps…) also predict eclipses. “When Israel does the will of the Holy One Blessed be He” by applying astronomical know-how to their sacred task, then Israel would “not be afraid from the signs of the skies” – because they are empowered by their knowledge of astronomy! This rabbinic lament associated with eclipses is actually a lament for astronomical knowledge lost!

At least from an astronomer’s perspective, that makes it seem much less depressing than thinking about signs and omens.


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