The least frequent mitzvah in the Jewish calendar is that of Birchat Hachamah, the blessing of the Creator of the sun. This mitzvah is only performed once every 28 years and it is recited on a Wednesday during the month of Nissan. Since it depends on the sun and the civil calendar is based on the sun, (at present) it is recited every time on 8 April.
I have been privileged to take part in this ceremony three times. The first occasion was in England and the next two occasions in Eretz Israel.
In this paper, I record my reminiscences of each occasion.
I pray to the Almighty that I will again be able to take part in such a ceremony in 5797/2037.
My first Birchat Hachamah was when I was 10 years old and took place at the Edgware United Synagogue which is located just outside North-West London.
This Synagogue was first built in 1934 in Mowbray Road, Edgware. The land had been donated by a far sighted land developer who realized that a Synagogue in the area would draw Jews to live in Edgware. He was right! At the time there were very few living there, but in the subsequent years a very large number of Jews moved there.
The Synagogue, then known as Edgware District Synagogue, was one of the United Synagogues. It was a one story building and as with many Synagogues in England at the time, its Bimah was at the front. On weekdays the Baal Koreh faced the Ark when leining, but on Shabbat he faced the congregation.
In 1939, a two story communal hall known as the “Rose Harris Hall” was built adjacent to the Synagogue. On the top floor was the communal hall, and on the lower floor were, as I recollect, four classrooms for the Hebrew Classes. At a later date, as the Hebrew classes grew in size movable partitions were erected in the communal hall to divide it into four additional classrooms. The stone commemorating its opening was dated 3 September 1939. However this was the day that Britain entered the Second World War and the opening ceremony was cancelled at a few hours’ notice.
By at least the late 1940s, there was not enough room for all the worshippers who attended on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in both the Synagogue and the “Rose Harris Hall” and a marquee was therefore erected in the grounds of the Synagogue as a venue for an additional service.
During the year 1953 there was the ceremony of Birchat Hachamah. This occurred that year on Isru Chag Pesach and I attended Synagogue that morning with my father. The Synagogue then held services every morning and evening and on weekdays most of the worshippers were mourners saying Kaddish.
After the Shacharit service, the then Minister, Rev. Saul Amias, announced there would be the ceremony of Birchat Hachamah and as an encouragement to the worshippers to remain for it said there would be a mourners’ kaddish at the end. The worshippers then went outside the Synagogue to the courtyard with their Siddurim. Rev. Amias had a list of the prayers to be recited at this ceremony and he announced them to the congregation. That day a bright sun could be seen in the sky and we were thus able to say the berachah “oseh ma’aseh beraishit.” At the end of the ceremony I recollect one of the elderly worshippers saying that in 28 years time, B’ezrat Hashem, he will be able to participate in this ceremony again.
I was 38 years old at my second Birchat Hachamah and it took place in Kiryat Arba – Hebron, City of the Patriarchs.
In the summer of 1978 I had returned from Liverpool in England, where I had been Director of Jewish Studies at the Jewish High School there. In Liverpool I had made a special study of the use of audio visual materials in teaching Jewish Law. At the beginning of 1981, I happened to mention to Yigal Kutai, a resident of Kiryat Arba of this study I had made. He replied that I had been sent to him by Heaven. He had just got the Kiryat Arba Local Council to purchase a whole variety of video equipment, but having no-one to operate it, he had thought he would have to return it. He said that I had spoken to him at the ideal moment and I was then immediately appointed by the Local Council to be the Director of the Audio-Visual Centre which was then set up.
A few weeks later was the ceremony of Birchat Hachamah and as we shall soon see, I filmed on video one of the local ceremonies.
Meanwhile in the period preceding this ceremony, a number of booklets and leaflets were published (or republished). These include a small book by Rabbi Yechiel Tuchachinsky and a booklet by Mercaz Agudat Yisrael. Also, as far as I remember, Rabbi Zalman Koren, who then lived in Kiryat Arba, and was an authority on matters connected with the Jewish calendar, gave a public shiur on Birchat Hachamah in Kiryat Arba.
Needless to say that all the Synagogues in Kiryat Arba had the Birchat Hachamah ceremony. Amongst them was the Kiryat Arba Religious Primary School. Since it was on 4 Nisan, the school had not yet broken up for the Pesach vacation.
In 1981, there were only Primary Schools in Kiryat Arba. The Ulpana and the Yeshivah Tichonit were things of the future. By far, the largest school was this Religious Primary School and it was situated in the building which is today shared by the Talmud Torah and the Secular School. The Headmaster of the Religious Primary school was Rabbi Shalom Horowitz.
As stated above, the Local Council had just purchased the video equipment and I had started to film events in Kiryat Arba. The ceremony of Birchat Hachamah at the Religious Primary school was one of them.
As is customary when this ceremony takes place, one has a “vatikin minyan” for Shacharit which is followed by this ceremony. That morning I took the video equipment to the School, and davened Shacharit there. After the service, we went out to the courtyard outside the main door of the upper story of that building and I attached the camera to the tripod. As the ceremony progressed I would film many the pupils participating in the ceremony. Unfortunately the day was cloudy and it was not possible to then say the berachah “oseh ma’aseh beraishit.” I say “then” since soon after I returned to my own apartment, someone called out from the street that the sun had appeared and people ran out of their apartments to say the berachah.
I was 66 years old at my third Birchat Hachamah and, as on the previous occasion, it took place in Kiryat Arba – Hebron, City of the Patriarchs.
The weather forecasts of the previous days had been pessimistic that the day would be cloudy and people were thus apprehensive that they would miss the opportunity to say the berachah. Being also erev Pesach, which is always a very busy day, we realised that the day would be even busier on account of this “once in 28 year Mitzvah”.
The Local Religious Council of Kiryat Arba had duplicated pages with the Order of Service for the Mitzvah, and its Chairman gave me a pile of these sheets to distribute in the “Chasdei Avot” Synagogue, where I was the Honorary Rabbi, which I did.
It is customary in many places to have a “vatikin minyan” on such a day, so that one would be able to perform this mitzvah at the first available moment. The time of sunrise in Kiryat Arba on that day was 6.18˝, and thus to have a “vatikin minyan” one would have to start the service at around six o’clock. I would like to have arranged an additional minyan at Chasdei Avot Synagogue that morning, in addition to the regular minyanim of 6.40 and 8.00 but such a “vatikin minyan” would not have finished before the worshippers starting arriving for the 6.40 minyan. The Religious Council had published that there would be a “vatikin minyan” in the Cave of Machpelah and also in the various Synagogues in Kiryat Arba. I enquired whether this included the Nir Yeshivah, but was informed that it probably would not have such a minyan. From my further enquiries I learned that there was a minyan starting at 6.00 at the “Alon Yosef” Synagogue, which is situated in an annex to the Nir Yeshivah.
That morning, I went to this minyan. The service seemed at a rather fast pace and they in fact reached the amidah at about five minutes before sunrise. When they reached aleinu towards the end of the service, the gabbai announced that we would then go outside and recite Birchat Hachamah. It was then about a quarter of an hour after sunrise. We went outside but could not yet see the sun. There were buildings and trees blocking our view. We walked around in almost a complete circle, continually looking for a sign of the sun but in vain. We finally arrived at the plaza of the Nir Yeshivah which had been erected several years earlier by the Nachliel family, in memory of Avraham Nachliel (Borganin), for the recitation of the monthly Kiddush Levanah.
We could still not see the sun, but we began by reciting the various accompanying prayers to Birchat Hachamah, but still no sun! Whilst waiting, we then finished the morning service.
It is not specifically written that one should say the berachah Shehecheyanu over this mitzvah, but instead one should say the berachah over a new fruit or garment and bear this mitzvah in mind at the same time. The Rabbi of this Synagogue had a new tallit, and recited shehecheyanu over it asking the congregation to have in mind that this berachah was also for Birchat Hachamah.
Finally the sun could be seen emerging between trees which had until then been blocking us seeing the sun and everyone then recited the berachah “oseh ma’aseh beraishit”. We all then started singing and dancing.
A little later, I arrived towards the end of the 8.00 service at Chasdei Avot (the minyan I usually attended), and after the service the worshippers went outside, recited the Birchat Hachamah service and then danced.
After that I went home, and in accordance with the opinion that women recite this berachah, went outside with my wife, and a granddaughter who had already arrived to stay with us for the first day of Pesach, and they recited the berachah.
One of my daughters had gone that morning to the Cave of Machpelah, where amongst a multitude of people, the service was conducted, but she informed me that they did not dance afterwards.
Fortunately, the weather forecasters had been wrong. There was glorious sunshine during the entire period when this berachah could be recited!