James A. Goldman of New York writes to ask about Birkat Hachamah, the Blessing of the Sun — that once-in-28-years event in Jewish liturgy that, despite my best intentions, I slept through for the third time in my life when it was observed at sunrise Wednesday, April 8. As the sun peered over the horizon that morning, Jews stopped reciting their morning prayers to face it and say, “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the universe, for repeating the deeds of Creation.” They then broke into song and dance.
The Blessing of the Sun is based on the Talmudic belief that the sun returns every 28th year to where it was in the sky at the moment of its creation on the fourth day of the Year One. Although the astronomy of this is complex, suffice it to say that the sages of the Talmudic age held that God created the world at the time of the vernal equinox in the spring month of Nisan, and as we are now in Nisan in the year 5769 — that is, 206 x 28 years later — last week marked the sun’s 206th anniversary. (As for the objection that the vernal equinox falls March 20 or 21 and not April 8, this discrepancy is explained by a combination of imprecise rabbinic calculations and Europe’s shift to the Gregorian calendar in 1582 from the Julian, as a result of which the Talmud’s spring now begins 17 days after Nature’s.)
Mr. Goldman’s query, however, has nothing to do with the calendar. What bothers him, rather, is, “Admittedly, it is more than a half century since I attended Hebrew school, but the Hebrew word for sun that I remember quite distinctly is shemesḥ” He wants to know why, when we bless the sun, we don’t say a birkat ha-shemesh rather than a birkat ha-ḥamah?
The answer to this is that shemesh and ḥamah are synonyms for “sun” in Hebrew. Both go back to biblical times, with one or the other preferred in different stages of Hebrew’s history. Shemesh, the Hebrew cognate of an ancient Semitic word (in Arabic, it is shams), was the everyday word in the period of the Bible, in which it occurs more than 120 times.
Ḥamah, on the other hand, can be found only five times in the Bible. Formed from ḥam, “hot,” so that its literal meaning is “the hot one,” ḥamah was a relatively rare epithet for the sun that was reserved for literary or oratorical occasions. An exact parallel exists in Hebrew’s two words for the moon, yare’aḥ and levanah (literally, “the white one”), yare’aḥ appearing in the Bible 25 times, levanah (from which comes the Yiddish word for “moon,” levoneh) but three.
Twenty-five is also the number of times shemesh appears in Kohelet or Ecclesiastes, one of the last books, written in the third or second century BCE, to make it into the biblical canon; ḥamah is not found there at all. Yet when we come to the rabbinic Hebrew of the Mishnah, which was redacted about 250 C.E., the situation has been reversed: Now, ḥamah has become the common word for “sun” and shemesh is used rarely. (The same is true of yare’aḥ and levanaḥ) In the intervening 500 or so years, from which we possess few literary remains, a once purely literary word had become popularized in ordinary speech and pushed aside its predecessor. This is why the Blessing of the Sun, a custom that (although it may be based on an older ceremony of some sort) is rabbinic rather than biblical, is called birkat ha-ḥamaḥ
Contemporary Israeli Hebrew, of course, is far removed from both biblical and rabbinic Hebrew, though in many matters of syntax and morphology it is closer to the latter. When it comes to vocabulary, however, it often favors the Bible. Thus, for example, given the choice of biblical ets and Mishnaic ilan, both meaning “tree,” Israelis say ets. Similarly, they use biblical anaḥnu rather than Mishnaic anu for “we”; biblical ne’arah rather than Mishnaic rivah for “girl”; the biblical verb gar rather than the Mishnaic verb dar for “to dwell” or “to live [somewhere],” etc. And by the same token, they say shemesh and yare’aḥ instead of ḥamah and levanaḥ. The pendulum has swung back again to where it was in the days of the Bible, in which shemesh was the everyday word for the sun and ḥamah a purely literary one.
I don’t know what Hebrew school Mr. Goldman attended when he was young, but I would assume that, though he may have studied a bit of Bible and Mishnah, the Hebrew he was taught was essentially the spoken Hebrew of Israel. Hence, the word he learned for “sun” was shemesḥ Today, I would say, the average Israeli uses ḥamah about once in 28 years, either when he participates in the Blessing of the Sun himself, or when, having slept through it, he sees it on the TV news.
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