On April 8, 1981, the last time that Jews observed a rare Jewish ritual revolving around the sun, the Phillies were coming off a World Series championship, and a new president was set to steer the nation out of an economic crisis.
Now, nearly three decades later, Jews are preparing once again to mark Birkat Hachammah, or the "Blessing Over the Sun" — a prayer recited once every 28 years when, the Talmud says, the sun reaches the same spot in the firmament as when it was created.
Jews across the denominational spectrum and around the globe are planning a range of celebrations, many of them environmentally focused. The prayer will be said on April 8, which this year falls on Passover eve.
The prayer, whose origins lie in the Talmud, blesses God "who makes the work of creation," and is the same blessing said over other rare natural phenomena, like lightning or a meteor.
In honor of the event, Rabbi Leonard Gordon of Germantown Jewish Centre has helped create Massechet HaChammah ("Tractate of the Sun"), a 68-page book drawing on two millennia of Jewish thought on the sun and heavens. Composed of commentary drawn from a number of Jewish texts and traditions, the work is intended as a resource for these times, with a focus on the environment, and energy consciousness and sustainability.
ArtScroll Publications, an Orthodox publishing house, has also reissued an updated version of Rabbi J. David Bleich's seminal 1981 book Bircas HaChammah, probably the most definitive English-language treatment of the subject.
And Canfei Nesharim, an Orthodox environmental group, is working on a number of initiatives, including a sun-themed mishloach manot — the food baskets traditionally given on the holiday of Purim, which occurred earlier this week.
Bleich's book includes a rigorously detailed discussion of the evolution of the Jewish calendar, as well as the complex calculations of lunar and solar cycles that determine the dates of Jewish observances.
"The blessing on this occasion, it would seem, is evocative rather than responsive," wrote Bleich, a professor of Jewish law and ethics at Yeshiva University. "It is designed to arouse man from his lethargy, to force him to reflect upon this cosmic phenomenon, to summon him to contemplation. Marking yet another solar milestone in the calendar of eternity, the occasion calls out to man: Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these?"
Despite the complexity of the talmudic discussion, the determination of April 8 is almost certainly inaccurate, Bleich told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
But the sages of the Talmud ordained the blessing not as a precise astronomical commemoration, according to the author, but as a pedagogic device to impress upon future generations God's continuing role in sustaining the universe.
Marking the Event
As chair of the Commission on Social Justice and Public Policy of the Leadership Council of the Conservative movement, Gordon has worked to increase Birkat Hachammah awareness by holding local workshops.
With a similar eye toward increasing awareness of the ritual, Kolot: The Center for Jewish Women's and Gender Studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, has helped create Birkat Hachammah-related content for the Web site www.ritualwell.org.
Elsewhere, 14 Jewish organizations nationwide have joined to launch BlessTheSun.org, a Web site with links to educational materials and ideas for this year's activities. The site asks users to sign a Covenant of Commitment in which they "pledge to hasten the day of environmental healing, social justice and sustainable living for all."
"It's a perfect moment to link Judaism to environmentalism and to think about the sun as a resource for renewable energy," said Lori Lefkovitz, Kolot's director. She called it an opportunity "to notice that our tradition sometimes attends to cycles that are bigger than the week or even the annual cycle."
When the ritual last took place, celebrations were held at sites such as the National Mall, Independence Hall, and atop the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center.
This time around, Jews appear to be communing mostly on the Web, noted Rabbi Shawn Zevit, director of outreach and tikkun olam for the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation.
Locally, a public event will be held on April 8, at 6:30 a.m., at the Curtis Arboretum in Wyncote, organized by Or Hadash: A Reconstructionist Congregation in Fort Washington.
So what's behind the event's relatively unknown status?
"I think for a long time, Jews were concerned about rituals that might have seemed too pagan," explained Gordon. "The idea of focusing on the celestial bodies as being alive is something that a lot of people walked away from for a long time, as we were trying to present Judaism as being more rational."