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Friday, March 2

Eclipses in Halachah and Hashkafah

B'nei Yisroel are traditionally symbolized by the moon. The generations from Avraham are likened to the cycle of the moon. David and Shlomoh were the 14th and 15th generations from Avraham Avinu. It was during their reign that B'nei Yisroel was at its pinnacle. They conquered their enemies, stretched out their borders and built the Beis HaMikdash. This is just like the moon which is biggest on days 14 and 15. After Shlomoh, national stability began to deteriorate and B'nei Yisroel lost their splendour, just as the moon wanes after the 15th day.

There are many insights to be taken from this symbolism. The gemara (Rosh HaShanah 25a) quotes the pasuk (Tehillim 104:19) "Shemesh yada mevo'o," the sun knows its path. The gemara comments that the sun knows its path but the moon does not. The relative path of the sun as it changes from season to season is quite predictable and easy to figure out. The path of the moon, however, is erratic in nature and seems not to follow a specific pattern. We may understand this as analogous to the way in which the world is run. The nations of the world, traditionally symbolized by the sun, are governed, to a certain degree, by the laws of nature. There is a less focussed Divine Providence that guides their everyday events. This is akin to the predictable path of the sun. One need not look far to realize that B'nei Yisroel are governed in quite a different manner. The events of the holiday that just passed, the events of the holiday that approaches and the tragic situation we find ourselves in today are clear indications that there is nothing haphazard about the course of events that befall us. There are no patterns or laws of nature to rely on, just as the moon follows an unpredictable path.

The gemara (Sukkah 29a) tells us that when there is an eclipse of the sun, it is a bad sign for the gentiles. When there is an eclipse of the moon, it is a bad omen for B'nei Yisroel because we follow the lunar calendar and they follow the solar calendar. There is an intriguing insight that lies beneath the surface here as well. An eclipse of the moon happens when the moon moves into a position behind the earth such that the light of the sun cannot reach it. One might say that it is "the moon's fault" that it was eclipsed. This is the way we must view calamities that befall us. We must search within for the causes and realize that it is our own deeds that have brought them about.

An eclipse of the sun happens when the moon moves in front of the earth in such a way that it blocks the sun's light from reaching certain spots on the earth. Here, too, we see that it is path of the moon that has caused the eclipse. The sun and earth are insignificant players in a solar eclipse. The lesson learned from this gemara is that everything that happens in this world is, in some way, connected to B'nei Yisroel. Despite our relatively insignificant size, like that of the moon to the sun, the world was created us and continues to be governed according to our actions. This is not something to take advantage of but rather, a great responsibility that we must bear on our shoulders at all times.


Every month, the Shabbos before Rosh Chodesh, the molad is announced in shul. This time refers to the birth of the new moon on which Rosh Chodesh is based. Astronomically, this is when the moon passes in front of the sun, thereby completing its monthly cycle. Although the time of the molad will often determine the exact day of Rosh Chodesh due to larger scale considerations, we use this figure to determine when we can recite Kiddush Levanah. Based on the gemara in Sanhedrin, we may only recite Kiddush Levanah when the moon is new, that is, when it is waxing. Knowing the midpoint between the two molados allows us to determine this exact time. Also, we do not begin to say Kiddush Levanah until three whole days after the molad, when the moon is big enough to see.

The period of time between molad and molad (synodic period) that we use for these calculations is 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes and 3 and a third seconds. However, this is not an exact constant figure. This figure is just an average of all molados but that the time we have for the molad may be off by a couple of hours one way or the other. In general, we don't really know when it does differ and we just rely on the average synodic period for all relevant calculations. However, nature can sometimes tell us that our calculations are off - with an eclipse.

An eclipse of the moon happens when the moon is in a position behind the earth such that the sun's rays cannot reach it. Clearly, this can only happen at the exact middle of the month when the moon is exactly behind the earth with respect to the sun. An eclipse of the sun is when the moon moves directly in front of the sun, obstructing the view of the sun from earth. This will only happen at the exact beginning of the month when the moon is exactly between the earth and the sun.

The issue of eclipses is discussed in Beis Yosef and Darchei Moshe OC 426:3. The consensus there is that if an eclipse of the moon is witnessed, then Kiddush Levanah may no longer be recited, even if this is before the prescribed time for sof zman Kiddush Levanah, the halfway point between molados. A solar eclipse, however, is not so simple. Beis Yosef writes that a solar eclipse may not be used to determine the proper time after which one may not say Kiddush Levanah. However, there does not seem to be any discussion about beginning to say Kiddush Levanah. The reason I bring all of this up now is because today, there is supposed to be a solar eclipse which will peak a short time before 1:00pm. The time of the molad announced in the shuls comes out to 8:29pm EST tonight. There is a significant eight hour difference between the "average" molad and the true molad. Would one be allowed to recite Kiddush Levanah on Thursday night at 8 pm.? If we are required to go by the average molad, then one may not. However, if we are permitted to use the eclipse as the molad, then one may.

Another interesting issue: When Beis Din established Rosh Chodesh based on witnesses, would the witnessing of a solar eclipse be sufficient testimony to the birth of the new moon? I hope this is has not been to difficult to follow.


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