Justice, Religion

Policeman Foley and the Dustup at Tompkins Square

birkatchachamaAs was noted here previously, the Jewish world is getting sun stroke as it prepares for Birkat Hachama (“Blessing of the Sun”) – observed only once every 28 years – on Wednesday, April 8.¬† As predicted, right about now, reports of BH observances are virtually exploding throughout the Jewish community. (At my congregation in Evanston, IL, we’re going to observe BH with a sunrise meditation service, yoga sun salutations along with the traditional ceremony itself.)
An increasing number of BH related items have been crossing my desktop of late – my favorite is this article from the April 8, 1897 issue of the NY Times. Apparently when a group of venerable rabbis tried to observe the sun ritual in Tompkins Square, NY, they were almost shut down by the police. My favorite line from the (very detailed) piece:

No Permit Had Been Thought Necessary for the Gathering and Policeman Foley Could Not Understand What It Meant.

(Hey, get in line, Policeman Foley…)
Here is an extensive list of Birkat Hachama resources (including where to get your own commemorative t-shirt.)

One thought on “Policeman Foley and the Dustup at Tompkins Square

  1. Another highlight is of course: “The celebration is rather a complicated matter to explain to anybody. Rabbi Klein’s knowledge of English is slight, while Foley’s faculties of comprehension of matters outside of police and park regulations and local events are not acute. The attempt of a foreign citizen to explain to an American Irishman an astronomical situation and a tradition of the Talmud was a dismal failure.”
    The Times article contains a few serious errors. Near the beginning, it says “The festival comes once every twenty-eight years, on the fourth day of the first week of the Hebrew month Nisan, corresponding practically to the month of April.” Later, it says “The ancient rabbis calculated that on the night before the fourth day of the month of Nisan of every twenty-eighth year the sun is in precisely the position in which it was placed at the moment of creation.”
    In fact, the timing of birkat ha-chamah has nothing to do with the lunar months, but is based on the solar 365-1/4-day year. In the 19th century (as in this article), birkat ha-chamah always took place on Wednesday, April 7 (on the Gregorian calendar). In the 20th and 21st centuries, it is Wednesday, April 8. In the 22nd century, it will be Wednesday, April 9, and so on. (This drift is due to the disparity between the Julian and Gregorian calendars.) This is a case where a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Someone with zero knowledge of the Hebrew calendar might have just assumed that birkat ha-chamah happened then because it was April 7, but the Times reporter knew about the month of Nisan and assumed it was relevant.
    Furthermore, the article contradicts itself. “[T]he fourth day of the first week of the Hebrew month Nisan” is very different from “the fourth day of the month of Nisan”. Birkat ha-chamah does in fact always take place on the fourth day of the week, i.e. Wednesday. And April 7, 1897 was in fact the first Wednesday in Nisan. However, “the fourth day of the month of Nisan” wasn’t correct even in that year: April 7, 1897 was actually the 5th of Nisan. (But it is possible for birkat ha-chamah to be on the 4th of Nisan, and it was in 1981.)

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