What were those crazy Jews up to this morning?

April 9, 2009

On Wed, April 8th at sunrise, a whole bunch of crazy Jews gathered around the world to apparently worship the sun.  An article about the phenomenon ran in the paper (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/08/AR2009040803355.html) and my rabbinic friend, Juan Muerdleberg, asked me what the deal was, to which I responded, “I have no friggin’ clue!”  However, after some serious scholarly research I have come up with a helpful series of questions and answers: 


What were those crazy Jews up to this morning?


They were reciting a prayer called the Birkat Hachama that honors God for creating the Sun.  The prayer is said once every 28 years when the sun returns to the exact position in which it was created by God.


Where does the 28 years come from?


Jews believe that the position of the sun when the vernal equinox occurs on a Tuesday at sunset matches the position in which God originally created the sun and once every 28 years is how often the Vernal Equinox occurs on a Tuesday at sundown


Why were people reciting the prayer at sunrise instead of sunset the night before?


The Birkat Hachama is recited when the vernal equinox occurs at sundown on a Tuesday, but because the sun is no longer visible, you wait until sunrise of the following day to recite the prayer


Didn’t the vernal equinox occur this year on the 20th of March?


The Birkat Hachama is said not during the true vernal equinox, but during the halachic (religious) equinox.


So, how did we come up with Tuesday?


Judaism believes God created the Sun on the fourth day (Tuesday) of the month of Nissan.


If the Jewish week begins on Sunday, why isn’t the prayer said on Wed rather than Tuesday since Wed is four days from Sunday?


Judaism believes a day is measured from sunset to sunset, so Tuesday sunset marks the beginning of the new day, which equals four days from Saturday sunset.  When we say Tuesday sunset, we really mean the start of the next day.


So, now we have a prayer that has to be recited when the halachic vernal equinox occurs on a Tuesday at sunset, how do we determine when the halachic vernal equinox occurs?


Rabbis in the year 45 BC set the date as the 25th of March.


If it was set as the 25th of March, why was it observed on the 8th of April?


The 25th of March refers to the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar which is what the world currently follows. 


When and why did we switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar?


The Julian calendar was created by Julius Caesar and was based on 355 days alternating with intercalary years of 377 or 378 days, but this became very confusing and didn’t work very well so Christian leaders got together at the Council of Nicea in 325 CE and established a new calendar that was designed to correct errors in the old calendar and make it so it aligned perfectly with the sun’s cycle without human intervention.  This calendar was adopted by the European world in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII which is why it is called the Gregorian calendar.  The Gregorian calendar was designed to be 365 ¼ days, with an extra day every 4 years to realign the calendar with the sun.


What did the switch from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar mean for Birkat Halachah?


When converting from a Julian to Gregorian calendar you have to jump ahead about 10 days.  This is because the inaccuracies inherent in the Julian calendar cause extra days to build up and at the time the switch occurred, there were about 10 extra days that had to be removed.  So when the Julian calendar ended on Thursday 4 Oct 1582, the next day when the Gregorian Calendar started was Friday 15 October 1582.  However, because of the religious reasons behind the change, Judaism didn’t accept the switch from Julian to Gregorian, so according to the Jewish calendar the first post-Gregorian Birkat Halacham occurred on March 25th, 1609, but for the rest of the world it was April 4th, 1609.  


If Birkat Halacham occurred on Apr 4th of the Gregorian calendar to correspond with March 25th of the Julian calendar, and Birkat Halacham always occurs on the Julian March 25th, why was it observed on April 8th of this year? 


The Gregorian calendar gains one day each century year that is not a leap year in relation to the Julian calendar.  A leap year is defined by the following algorithm:


    1. Every year that is divisible by four is a leap year;
    2. of those years, if it can be divided by 100, it is NOT a leap year, unless
    3. the year is divisible by 400. Then it is a leap year.


Therefore, the years 1600, 1700, 1800, and 1900 all resulted in the Gregorian calendar gaining one day in relation to the Julian calendar meaning that the Birkat Halacham jumps forward one day in the Gregorian calendar every 100 year in relation to the Julian calendar.  This means that if the first Birkat Halacham of the Gregorian calendar was April 4th, 1609, you have to add 3 days in order to get the most recent date.  The following shows why:


a.       If you add one day for each non-leap century year, you get the following:

                                                               i.      1709 = Apr 5

                                                             ii.      1809 = Apr 6

                                                            iii.      1909 = Apr 7

                                                           iv.      2009 = Apr 7 (not Apr 8, because the year 2000 was a leap year, therefore an extra day did not need to be added)




In conclusion, the Birkat Halacham started on March 25th of the Julian calendar, then shifted to April 4th of the Gregorian calendar because of the 10 days that were skipped when the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar occurred, and you then add 3 more days for each non-leap century year that has occurred since the switch from Julian to Gregorian, which results in the Birkat Halacham being recited on April 7th, but because you wait until sunrise of the following day, the prayer was said on April 8th at sunrise.


And that’s what those crazy Jews were doing this morning.



  1. As the mother of the author and a woman who knows what does and does not interest Jewish children, this article is stellar (no pun intended)! It will keep any age child’s interest and add much conversation to any holiday gathering. Keep this handy cheat sheet for the sun and use it whenever you want to reengage your kids in their religion. It will work!

  2. Wasn’t this year also the alignment of the moon on the same day as the alignment of the sun?

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