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Eclipses: Physics or Metaphysics?


On Monday August 21, 2017 there will be a total solar eclipse that will cover most of the United States. Is there any special meaning to this in Judaism? Thanks. answered:

Yes. The Talmud refers to eclipses of the sun and the moon as unfavorable periods for the world in some way. It further states that solar eclipses occur for four different reasons: One reason is if a Torah scholar is buried without being adequately eulogized. Three other reasons are mentioned there, and are available for further study. (Succah 29a)

But we all know eclipses are predictable events that follow a set pattern and can be calculated in advance. So why do the Talmudic Sages give reasons for their occurrence as punishment for certain transgressions if the eclipses occur at predictable times? I have seen two explanations to answer this question.

The first approach states that the Talmud certainly knew that eclipses are physical and predictable events. Rabbi Yaakov Ettlinger writes that the Talmud clearly understood solar eclipses to be caused by the moon obscuring the sun, as is clear from the parable that it uses. He also points out that the Talmud uses the seemingly superfluous wording, "at the time when the sun is eclipsed, it is an unfavorable period," when it could have simply said "when the sun is eclipsed." The word "time" in Hebrew, “zman”, is related to the word "zamen," which means “prepared”. (Every time it appears in Tanach, it is written only in reference to pre-appointed times.) Thus, the usage of this word shows that eclipses were known to be pre-arranged and predictable events. However, this does not present a contradiction to their being signs of sin. Rabbi Ettlinger explains that God exacts retribution for certain sins during eclipses. Certain periods are set aside for Divine justice to be meted out, and these are indicated in the physical universe by eclipses.

A different approach is taken by Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschitz in his book called Ya’arot Devash (2:12). He explains the Talmudic term for a solar eclipse — “likuy ha’chama” literally "the striking of the sun" — to be referring not to solar eclipses but to sunspots. These are cool dark patches on the face of the sun, often larger than the Earth, caused by magnetic storms. Since these are events of unknown natural occurrence and predictability, he explains them to be a sign of God’s displeasure. Indeed, sunspots send vast amounts of charged protons into our atmosphere, and several studies have tentatively shown corresponding variations in animal populations and incidence of disease among people. Rabbi Eybeschitz states that people of earlier times were more sensitive to such aberrations of the sunlight. Although sunspots and solar storm disturbances occur in an approximately eleven-year cycle, this can vary from seven to sixteen years.

I hope this answer provides a starting point from which you will be able to continue to explore and “shed light” on this topic even more!

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