David Silverman/Getty Images
As the sun rises over the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel Wednesday, Jews cover themselves and their sons to receive the priestly blessing during the Blessing of the Sun.
As the sun rises over the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel Wednesday, Jews cover themselves and their sons to receive the priestly blessing during the Blessing of the Sun. David Silverman/Getty Images
Passover, or the annual celebration of Jews' exodus from Egypt, began Wednesday. This year, it's a once-in-a-generation event.
It coincides with the Birkat Hachamah — the "Blessing of the Sun" — a celebration that occurs every 28 years, when the sun is in a precise location in the sky.
To mark the occasion, a group of religious Jews gathered for a 7 a.m. standing-room-only service at the Chabad Lubavitch house in Gaithersburg, Md. Men wearing prayer shawls chanted from the Talmud before moving outside into the soft early light. It was time for a special blessing.
"Raise your hand if you did this either in 1953 or 1981. Anybody?" asked Rabbi Sholom Raichik.
Raichik surveyed the crowd of 100 men and women, and only a half-dozen hands went up. It's not surprising, since the blessing of the sun is so infrequent. He directed them to face east, punctuating the Psalms with explanations.
According to Talmudic tradition, on Wednesday morning the sun was at the exact position in the skies as it was the moment the Earth was created — 5,769 years ago. It's a complicated calculation. And after some description, the rabbi defaulted to modern technology.
"If you want to know what that means, our Web site has an audio of the class that explains that," he said.
Of course, at the last Blessing of the Sun, there were no Web sites, no cell phones, no text messages. It's a remarkable shift for Meir Shamoulian, who passed the previous blessing in Iran.
"Everything changing — but still sun is there, and universe is there, everything is as same as a long time ago, million years ago," Shamoulian said. "The nation is same thing. They make something new — Internet, telephone or something else. But still you're in the same world. God cannot be changed, and also the universe cannot be changed."
Shamoulian's 21-year-old-son, Moshe, says technology highlights the astounding precision of God's creation.
"And like, there are so many pictures that the Hubble telescope can capture — it's just miraculous," Moshe Shamoulian said. "So we say the blessing not only on the sun but on everything, really, like the entire universe. That God made such a beautiful universe."
Back in 1981, Rabbi Raichik was a 17-year-old yeshiva student. Today, he has a wife and eight children. He notes that the last time around, the Soviet Union, or what he calls the "evil empire," was America's major rival. President Ronald Reagan had just been shot. And word of the sun blessing ceremony got out by letter and word of mouth. But today, it's a different mode of communication.
"How did I get the word out? I didn't mail a piece of information out for this at all," Raichik says. "There was no mailing; there was e-mails and notifications and e-mail templates. One person creates it and another person posts it and you share your ideas. The world is obviously a much smaller place than it was back then."
And, he thinks, a safer place. As for his wife, Hanna, she looks forward to the next Blessing of the Sun in 2037.
"God willing, we'll all be in Jerusalem," Hanna says. "God willing, we should have total peace in the world, and the Messiah should be here and there should be total peace in the world. And life will be very good for everybody."
In the meantime, they'll immortalize the occasion with a photo — which they are posting online.