(The response below is based on a talk of the Rebbe the day before the blessing on the sun in the year 1953. Time has not permitted a proper footnoting and referencing. Those interested should see the talk as it is printed in Torat Menachem 5713, volume 2, Acharon Shel Pesach.)
I'm hearing a lot about the blessing on the sun this year. I'm told it happens on April 8th, the morning before the seder night. Yet the explanation I was given has much to do with the spring equinox. Well, for your information, the spring equinox this year occured on March 20th. Way off.
On the other hand, I was also told that the Jewish calendar is designed to keep Passover in the spring and also 15 days after the new moon. I checked my almanac and found that, while the 15 days are not always precise, you have managed to keep Passover within the spring season for as far back as I have calculated. So it seems the Jewish rabbis knew their stuff. If so, the question is even stronger: If they could figure that out, why are they so far off with this blessing on the sun? So what gives?
What gives is that we are using two different calculations for two different things. To determine the blessing on the sun, we are using what's called the period of Mar Shmuel, which puts the solar year at 365 and a quarter days. That way, the vernal equinox moves ahead by one day every four years. After 4 x 7 = 28 years, we're back to Wednesday again, where we started. Simple.
From Maimonides' calculations, it's apparent that he knew of an even more precise measureThat won't work, however, to keep Passover in the spring. Using this calculation, quite often we will find the whole of Passover occurring before April 8th (not so long ago, that was April 7th). But that's no problem, because everyone agrees that Mar Shmuel's calculation is only an approximation. A more accurate calculation, known to the rabbis of the Talmud, is that of Rav Adda, who placed the solar year (which astronomers know as the tropical cycle) at 365.24682 days. From Maimonides' calculations, it's apparent that he knew of an even more precise measure. Really, it could just be that Rav Adda's calculation was meant as an approximation in order to establish a reasonably workable 19 year cycle. The current estimate of the average length of the tropical cycle is 365.242190419, so it's not that far off—especially considering that the tropical cycle was likely 10 seconds longer 2,000 years ago.
In case you're concerned that the rabbis of the Talmud really hadn't a handle on what's going on in the skies, here's something to make you think again: The current estimate of the number of stars in the universe is about a thousand billion trillion (1024). The Talmud states as follows:
Each of the Zodiac constellations has 30 armies. Each army has 30 legions. Each legion has 30 divisions. Each division has 30 cohorts. Each cohort has 30 camps, and each camp has 365 myriads of stars.
Doing the math: 12 x 30 x 30 x 30 x 30 x30 x 365,000 x 10,000 = 1.06434 x 1018.
But then we have to include the other non-Zodiac constellations, bringing us closer to the 24th power. Apparently, these rabbis had a higher source of knowledge.
At any rate, by the calculation of Rav Adda, the nineteen year cycle we use to keep Passover in the spring works just fine. The question you're waving your hand in the air to ask is, if we have an accurate calculation, why do we rely on an inaccurate one for the blessing on the sun?
The standard answer is: If we used an accurate calculation, we would never get a chance to say the blessing. Imagine waiting for the sun to arrive at precisely the same location on the same day of the week at the same time of day! Centuries, millennia would pass and someone would still be saying, "Nope, it's still .243 seconds off." To get back to the precise position at the beginning of a 19 year cycle would take 689,472 years! Mar Shmuel, on the other hand, gives us a chance once in a generation to make the blessing.
How can you make a blessing "upon seeing the sun at its original position"? By fudging the figures?That's the standard answer I've been hearing—that it's just commemorative, that we might as well use this calculation or else we will never get a chance. If the Talmud would tell me, "Once in 20 years, making a blessing on the sun," I would have to agree. But it doesn't. Take a look at the source text in the Talmud:
One who sees the sun at the beginning of its cycle…says, "Blessed is the One who performs the act of creation."
Next, the Talmud asks when this blessing on the sun is to be said. Abbaye, a later rabbi of the Talmud, explains that it's once in twenty-eight years. In fact, there were those of the post-talmudic era who determined that we do not make this blessing once in 28 years. They said that Abbaye was using Mar Shmuel's calculation, but since we know this is inaccurate and we are following a 19 cycle based on Rav Adda's calculation, we will have to part ways with Abbaye on this. They interpret the passage to mean that if the sun disappears behind the clouds for three days and then appears again, we should say a blessing because it is as though the sun has just been created again!
Yet we say the blessing once in 28 years. But if the sun is not in the right place, how can you make a blessing "upon seeing the sun at its original position"? By fudging the figures? So you're making a blessing on a fudged result?
It's quite apparent that there's something else going on here. But we'll need a few tidbits of information to explain.
As is common with such matters however, a solution is not devisable within the framework of the problem. Rather, a higher paradigm must be sought, in which the problem ceases to be a problem.
In truth, this is a universal principle: There is nothing that exists securely and wholly within its own little world; nothing without need of some element transcendent of itself. In all the universe, there is not a single truly closed system--including the universe itself.
"The universe," the sages of the Talmud enigmatically tell, "is similar to a veranda; enclosed from only three sides with the north side left open." Their words have profound meaning. Rabbi Eliezer explains the reason behind this peculiar design, "So that if anyone should come and say he is a god, the true G‑d can challenge him, saying, "If so, let us see you fill in the missing side of the universe!""
There will always be axioms, and these axioms can never be proven from within their own systemIf one side is missing, every part of the universe is deficient. All the universe is that which "G‑d created to do." To do, Rabbi Akiva translates, means to repair. Nothing is complete, other than the Creator Himself. Every part of the creation needs to be connected to a context higher than itself, and until that is done, it cannot stand on its own.
So it is even with the world of ideas: Every discipline, no matter how rational, begins with axioms that can neither be proven nor falsified from within that discipline. When a person begins to study any field, whether it be a field of mathematics, physics, biology or sociology, his first step is to master its set of axioms. Only once these are mastered can the student proceed to manipulate them with his reasoning, applying them to empirical data and achieving results. If he does not like his results, he can always decide to change the axioms; and if he can convince others, he may transform that particular discipline—or perhaps create a new one. But there will always be axioms, and these axioms can never be proven from within their own system.
So it is even with Torah: The written Torah itself is incomplete for it contains words that are not to be pronounced the way they are written. The written form of each of these words has no explanation on its own; it can only be explained through the spoken form. From this it is understood that even the spoken form of the written Torah—which does have an explanation—as well as the entirety of the written Torah, is not what it seems to be. Its principal substance is not its written form, but its explanation in the oral Torah.
Continuing in this vein, the same applies to the oral Torah itself, which also contains multiple strata: Outer, self-apparent strata that are generally understood within the framework of a quantifiable, tangible world; and inner, more abstract strata that require a quite different paradigm of understanding. The realm of halachah generally belongs to the outer layers, and yet, quite often, we find matters that can only be understood when we dig to a deeper, esoteric level of understanding. As it turns out, the principal substance of the outer layer—the halachah—is that inner layer of Torah. One can understand the outer layer as Torah's body, the inner is its soul: Just as a person cannot be understood if all that is considered is his body—a slab of walking meat—so the Torah cannot be understood by consideration of its revealed strata alone.
Among those matters of the revealed strata of Torah that demonstrate a dependency upon its inner soul are those matters that deal with time. One such instance is this blessing on the sun. Another is the declaration of the new moon.
But what is astonishing here is that the ruling is established even if made in error!Let's start with a discussion of the declaration of the new moon. The first mitzvah given to the Jewish People was to declare the new month according to the new moon, beginning with the spring month of Nissan. As Maimonides writes at the very beginning of his treatise on the subject:
This is how our sages taught: G‑d showed Moses the form of the new moon in a prophetic vision and said, "When you see it like this, declare the beginning of a new month."
In the times of the central court of sages in Israel, those who witnessed the new moon at its proper season came to the central court and their testimony was compared to known astronomical data. If the moon, as described by two witnesses, was in the position in the sky that the sages had estimated for it, their testimony was accepted and the court would declare amidst much pomp the beginning of the new month.
So far, nothing much out of the ordinary. Two witnesses are always the measure for matters of import in Jewish law. Yet these two witnesses were different. In general, if witnesses turned out to be false, or if the court realized it had made a mistake, the entire case would be thrown out as though it never happened. In the case of the new moon, however, the Talmud rules otherwise. As Maimonides summarizes the ruling:
"Once a court establishes the month, whether they be negligent, mistaken or coerced [according to one version: deliberately in error!], the month is established and all must keep the festivals in accordance with their ruling."
True, we must have a central authority when it comes to matters that effect the entire community. We can't have one set of rabbis declaring Passover on one day and another declaring it a day later. Judaism wouldn't last too long. But what is astonishing here is that the ruling is established even if made in error! This seems to conflict with everything we know of Torah law.
Rabbi Yosef Rosen was known as the Rogotchover Gaon—the genius of Rogotchov. Someone once commented that he had a great memory, able to recall any passage of the entire corpus of Talmudic/halachic literature with ease. Another commented that this was not a feat of memory—since the gaon went through the entire Talmud and Maimonides' code in his mind every day, in everything he learned, there was no time for him to forget any of it.
Although he lived some 700 years later, the Rogotchover Gaon considered Maimonides to be his guide and teacher. He found in the words of the Rambam an answer to every question, and in his method an approach to every problem.
The moon we see is only the hand of a clock—and the clock is not always properly woundThe Rogotchover Gaon was also perplexed with this law about the new moon. Again he resolved it from the words of Maimonides: "G‑d showed Moses the form of the new moon in a prophetic vision and said, 'When you see it like this, declare the beginning of a new month.'" When you see it like this? How are witnesses going to report on a prophetic vision?
Therefore, these witnesses, the gaon concluded, are not really witnesses. Because the moon they are reporting on cannot be seen. After all, it is not the moon here in our world that determines the time for eating matzah or for fasting on Yom Kippur. It is a moon seen only in a prophetic vision, a moon of a higher realm. The moon we see is only the hand of a clock—and the clock is not always properly wound.
The witnesses must see a moon. They must come to the court. The court must make their declaration—but it is all a ritual, not a true judgment. The real determination is not the appearance of the moon, but the declaration of the court. They are the hands of a clock that cannot be faulty.
Now the question is: On which sun are we making a blessing? On the sun as it moves in our world, or on the real sun, the ideal sun, the sun above?
What's the difference? A difference of a few minutes a year: The ideal sun is measured perfectly in its cycle at 365 and a quarter days—as per Mar Shmuel. Our world, however, is imperfect, therefore the cycle is slightly off—as per Rav Adda. Perhaps we are making a blessing on that supernal sun, and therefore following Mar Shmuel?
If you're sharp, you'll tell me it can't be. The Talmud instructs, "One who sees the sun…" We are talking about a sun that can be perceived with the eyes—not a prophetic vision, as Maimonides describes the original vision of the moon. We can't see the sun "up there," so we must be saying a blessing on the sun we see down here. And that sun moves with a different calculation.
Yes it can be. You see, we failed to ask another question: Why are we making a blessing over the creation of the sun in the spring? Don't we celebrate the creation of the world on Rosh Hashanah, in the fall?
Well, that's a matter of debate. Rabbi Eliezer cites a tradition that the world was created in the fall. Rabbi Yehoshua cites a tradition that it was created in the spring. How can a Torah of truth contain a debate over a fact? Simple: They are talking about two different creations. First, the Creator imagined a world; then He spoke it into being. First, He imagined a beautiful sunset—at the onset of spring; only later did He speak it into being in the fall.
As it turns out, the blessing we are making is for G‑d's wonderful imaginationAs it turns out, the blessing we are making is for G‑d's wonderful imagination, to conceive of such a magnificent splendor as the sun at spring. To connect with such a thought and bring it into our world, we need an other-worldly calculation—namely, the calculation of Mar Shmuel.
One last issue to resolve: How about Passover? To keep that in the spring, we can't rely on Mar Shmuel. In many years, spring begins after Passover according to his calculation (but never according to Rav Adda).
When it comes to Passover, we can use the worldly clock that our eyes see. Because Passover is a mitzvah of the Torah. A mitzvah is the same below as it is above—no need to traverse worlds. In this case, the Torah has already glued them together.