Back to Creation: Jews bless sun in once-in-28-year event

Abraham Shemtov, chief rabbi of the local Lubavitchers conducts part of the ceremony Birkat Hachamah, or Blessing of the Sun, on the roof of the Franklin Institute as the rising sun peeks out between the morning clouds. According to Jewish tradition, the sun returns every 28 years to its original place in Creation. Early Wednesday morning the local Chabad-Lubavitch group of Hasidic (ultra-Orthodox) conducted the Jewish ceremony Birkat Hachamah, or Blessing of the Sun, atop the Franklin Institute as the sun rose over the Philadelphia Skyline.
Abraham Shemtov, chief rabbi of the local Lubavitchers conducts part of the ceremony Birkat Hachamah, or Blessing of the Sun, on the roof of the Franklin Institute as the rising sun peeks out between the morning clouds. According to Jewish tradition, the sun returns every 28 years to its original place in Creation. Early Wednesday morning the local Chabad-Lubavitch group of Hasidic (ultra-Orthodox) conducted the Jewish ceremony Birkat Hachamah, or Blessing of the Sun, atop the Franklin Institute as the sun rose over the Philadelphia Skyline. (Frank Wiese)
Posted: April 08, 2009

In a centuries-old tradition honoring Creation and its Creator, observant Jews across the world - and atop the Fels Planetarium - gathered this morning for a special blessing of the sun that occurs just once every 28 years.

The Birkat Hachamah ceremony also prefigured the start of Passover at sundown this evening.

The morning event, sponsored by the Lubavitch Center of Greater Philadelphia, drew hundreds of Hasidic and Orthodox Jews to the chilly rooftop of the Franklin Institute.

As the women stood off to one side, the men - nearly all wearing traditional fringed prayer shawls known as tallit, and leather prayer boxes, or tefillin, on their foreheads - bowed and prayed in the early morning darkness, starting about 6 a.m.

"It's supposed to be spring," one small, cold boy complained to his friend. Many of the smaller children, not yet bar mitvahed, wore T-shirts bearing an image of the sun and hats that read "The Moment."

According to Jewish tradition, the sun returns every 28 years to its original place in the divine creation of the heavens.

Official sunrise for the eastern United States was 6:34 a.m., and layers of pale pink appeared on the gray horizon starting around 6:15. But broken clouds and the urban skyline delayed the Philadelphia moment to 6:49 a.m., when rays of the sun broke through a seam in the clouds.

At that, Rabbi Yehudi Shemtov led the crowd in a Hebrew prayer known as the "Blessing of the Sun."

"Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise Him in the celestial heights," it began. "Praise Him all His angels; praise Him, all his Hosts...praise Him, all the shining star...Let them praise the Name of the Lord, for He commanded and they were created."

Minutes earlier Rabbi Shemtov, head of Chabad of Bucks County, reminded the crowd that though they face the sun and bless it, the prayers are directed to God.

After the blessing his father, Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, called the moment a "time to be inspired."

The senior Shemtov, head of the Philadelphia area Chabad and a leader of the international hasidic Lubavitcher movement, also called on the gathering carry the morning celebration to into tonight's seder, the annual Passover dinner that marks the Jews' flight from Egypt.

Charles Schnur, 30, said he came to the rooftop to partake in the blessing "because it's once every 28 years. I just like this."

"It was a once in a lifetime moment," exclaimed one young man riding down in the elevator afterwards.

"It better not be," said his friend. "I'm hoping to be around for the next one."

Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.

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