Tuesday, April 07, 2009

My Response to Rav Bar-Haim's Answer On Birkat HaHamah

As I included in one of my blog roundups, Rav Bar-Haim, who is also in favor of Ashkenazim eating kitniyot, explained why he thinks one should not say Birkat HaHamah tomorrow. I will include his text, and place my comments in green between them.


Rabbi, I have heard different opinions regarding Birkath HaHamma (said once in 28 years), including some who say one should not say this B'rakha. What is your view?


This is a very complex issue, and it is quite impossible to explain the matter in this forum. Therefore I shall limit myself to the following:

The above is a fair point. In a short posting, one cannot explain complex matters. And so this in turn makes my critique of somewhat less use. Yet I will still offer it.

1. The text before us in the Talmudh Bavli (B'rakhoth 59b) is corrupt. The statement attributed to Abbaye - the supposed source of this B'rakha - was never said by him, and was interpolated into the text at the beginning of the period of the Rishonim. None of the G'onim knew of Abbaye's statement. Some, such as Rav Sa'adya Gaon (p. 90), contradict it. It follows that the notion of saying a B'rakha once in 28 years (and on something one cannot see) was never mandated by the Sages. This entire issue is based on an error in the text.

As I noted in an earlier post, we would of course have to see the manuscript evidence. But it is much more difficult to have an interpolation with attributed to a named Amora, than to have an anonymous interpolation. The latter is explanation, perhaps even on the margin and brought in during the next copy, while the former appears to be forgery. That the Geonim did not cite Abaye's statement could be attributed to not paskening like it, but rather like the Yerushalmi which makes no such clarification, or holding that one should not maintain like it because it is based on Shmuel's incorrect calendar, or some other reason. However, a Rishon is certainly entitled to argue with a Gaon, if he interprets the gemara in a different way. And indeed, Rishonim do do this.

2. The statement is almost certainly based on a sectarian solar calendar, such as that mentioned in the Book of Jubilees. Thus the entire concept contradicts Hazal who worked with a lunar calendar.

Yes, the statement is based on a solar calendar, presumably Shmuel's. That Chazal worked with a lunar calendar is irrelevant. We are dealing with astronomic phenomenon relating to the sun, so of course it makes sense to make use of a solar calendar.

3. Even if Hazal had mandated such a B'rakha once every 28 years, the calculation used today, based on the T'qupha of Sh'muel which assumes a year of 365.25 days, is inaccurate. The real figure is 365.24219 days. Over 2000 years, the discrepancy adds up -today it amounts to over two weeks. If anything, the B'rakha should have been said on the day of the vernal or March equinox (March 20), the astronomical event supposedly referred to by Abbaye. On Nissan 14th this year no astronomical event will take place, and saying the B'rakha then cannot be justified.

I would in general agree with that. Except of course people propose all sorts of justifications. For example, this is the institution of the blessing, and it has taken root as minhag, so even though it does not work out, this is the established practice. I disagree with many (most? all?) of these justifications, but perhaps one should still weigh them.

4. This B'rakha is mentioned in the Talmudh Y'rushalmi (B'rakhoth 9:2) and in WaYiqra Rabba (23:8). According to these sources (which also know nothing of a 28-year cycle) the B'rakha should be said whenever one sees the sun and is moved by its power and majesty, something which happens occasionally. When one internalizes the fact that this is a manifestation of HASHEM's wisdom and power, one makes the B'rakha. Further one should say it if the sun was not visible for three days (such as consecutive stormy or cloudy days). This is what I recommend doing. According to Rav Sa'adya Gaon one recites the B'rakha annually on the summer or June soltice (June 20-21). This too is possible.

The Yerushalmi indeed does say tekufata, which implies some regular cycle, such as an equinox, or solstice. I agree it does not mention 28 years, but I don't think one can correctly dismiss the tekufah aspect of it. The claim that it means that the sun was not visible for three days due to clouds or rain certainly seems to be a misinterpretation of that Yerushalmi, as I have discussed in an earlier post, so one should not cite it in this regard.

5. Unfortunately we have here another example of the rabbinic establishment burying its head in the sand, unwilling to tackle real issues of science and knowledge. This does the Jewish people a great disservice, and paints the Tora in a very negative light.

Some of them know the issues, but there are different ways of grappling with the combination of scientific knowledge and halachic precedent. Rambam presumably knew the correct astronomy, but still encodes it lehalacha. That the conclusions do not go the way we like does not do the Jewish people a great disservice. This might fit into the general theme of the machon of establishing new halacha as per Yerushalmi, and as per Torat Eretz Yisrael. The hamon am might seize upon this for X or Y, such as kitniyot, but I have the impression they would really dislike it in the general case.

6. The Tora world must formulate an intelligent and viable conception of Tora in keeping with objective knowledge and realities. We cannot and must not live in the Dark Ages; this was not HASHEM's intention.

Perhaps. But we (and I include myself) must also not be sore losers in the milchamtah shel Torah, and sometimes rationalizations or halachic processes overwhelm what we would personally see as ideal. I don't believe Rabbi Bleich lives in the Dark Ages, and he knows the astronomy, and he has a response, though I have my disagreement with it.

Hagh Sameah

Rabbi David Bar-Hayim

Chag Sameach to all!

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