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Eclipses and Spiritual Causes: Jewish Perspectives

Written by שי טחן, 3/4/2024


Eclipses and Spiritual Causes: Jewish Perspectives

Rabbi Shay Tahan


On Monday, April 8, a historic total solar eclipse will take place. This cosmic event will be visible across a narrow route, called the path of totality, which extends through Mexico, the United States, and Canada. During this event, on that path, the sky will darken for several minutes and the air will get colder. After the total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024, the next one visible from the contiguous United States will be on August 23, 2044. (Of course, we expect Mashiach to arrive way before then.)

Rashi(בראשית א, יד)  addresses eclipses and says that when Hashem created the world, He created the two big luminaries. Rashi points out that when the lights are dimmed, as in a solar eclipse, it is a bad omen (sign) for the world.

The Gemara(סוכה כט, א)  also tells us why eclipses happen, attributing them to four different sins.

The mefarshim (commentators) ask that since an eclipse is a natural world event that can be calculated ahead of time, why would we consider it good or bad. It's not any different from any other natural occurrence.

For example, the Torah tells us that Hashem had a treaty with the world not to flood it again as He did in the time of Noah. As a sign at times when the world should be flooded as a result of their bad deeds, He creates a rainbow. The rainbow is a reminder of this treaty. The question is obvious: rainbows occur when light from the sun is scattered by water droplets (e.g. raindrops or fog) through a process called refraction. Refraction occurs when the light from the sun changes direction when passing through a medium denser than air, such as a raindrop. So, why then does the Torah say the reason is the treaty?

Amongst the various explanations, one that we like to bring out is the Maharal's(באר הגולה באר ששי) . He says the above question is based on a mistaken assumption that Chazal told us how nature operates, and therefore we can assess their statements and see if they fit scientific scenarios, which many times they do not. Thus, we come to the mistaken conclusion that they were wrong.

The truth, explains the Maharal, is that Chazal don't deal with earthly things because it's beneath their endless wisdom to concern themselves with findings that can be done by scientists. Rather, they deal with the spiritual reasons things happen. Chazal teach us that every event that happens in the world has spiritual causes, which are not revealed to anyone besides Torah scholars.

Therefore, when people sin to the point that Hashem wants to flood the world, He sends rain and then scatters the droplets by sunlight, which creates a rainbow.

When Chazal tell us the reasons eclipses happen, it is to point out which sins brought nature to operate this way.

This means that since those sins mentioned in the Gemara were not rectified, nature will continue to have eclipses at those times. However, if they were to be rectified, then nature would change its course, and no eclipses would occur anymore.

It's like a person who experiences back pain every time it rains. Therefore, we can predict that whenever it rains, he will be in pain. Similarly, with the sins and eclipses, the sin brings about the eclipse every once in a while. If the sin is not corrected, the celestial sign of the eclipse will continue to manifest at their predicted times.

The gmara(סוכה כט, א)  presents three opinions regarding the eclipse ramifications. The last of the three opinions holds that when the sun is eclipsed, it is a bad omen (sign) for the nations. When the moon is eclipsed, it is a bad omen for the Jewish people.

Let's try to understand the reason behind those words. Israel is often compared to the moon, while the nations of the world are compared to the sun. There are many explanations for this comparison. Some explain it is because, like the moon, Israel renews itself every month; even after falling, they raise themselves up. Additionally, after persecutions, they always come back in full force. Another explanation is that eventually, when Mashiach comes, they will shine out as a new creation.

Now that we understand what each player represents and that the eclipses represent the spiritual status of the nation, let's see how eclipses happen. A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes between the Sun and Earth, causing the Moon to cast a shadow on Earth. On the other hand, a lunar eclipse occurs when Earth is between the Sun and the Moon, causing Earth to cast a shadow on the Moon.

During a lunar eclipse, when the moon receives no light from the sun because the earth is between those two celestial bodies, it is considered as the worldly desires, represented by the earth covering the moon. As the moon resembles Israel, when it is covered by the earth (representing physical desires), it signifies that our physical desires are overtaking our nation and covering us completely. Chazal point out that this is a bad sign, possibly indicating negative events to come.

On the other hand, during a solar eclipse, the moon stands between the sun, representing the world’s nations, and covers the earth. This represents that the small nation of Israel, which covers the sun, sometimes has the power to overcome all the nations and be victorious. This is a bad sign for the nations but a good sign for Israel.

Since a total solar eclipse is a rare event, recurring somewhere on Earth every 18 months on average, yet estimated to recur at any given location only every 360–410 years on average, the prophet Yoel already prophesied that before the time of Mashiach we will experience such eclipses(יואל ג’) :

"Before the great and terrible day that Hashem comes, I will set portents in the sky and on earth: Blood and fire and pillars of smoke; The sun shall turn into darkness And the moon into blood."

The prophecy says that at the time of the solar eclipse, the sun totally darkens and the moon turns a color of bloody red, which is indeed the moon's color expected to be at the upcoming eclipse.

The Zohar(פרשת כי תצא דף רפא ע״ב)  is more specific, saying that since Israel and Ishmael count the days of the month according to the sun (as opposed to the Christians who count according to the sun), depending on the day of the month when the solar eclipse happens, it makes a difference if it's considered bad for Israel or Ishmael. The Zohar says: "Since the moon can be good or bad, and since Israel and Ishmael count according to the moon, thus if the eclipse happens when the moon is full, it's a bad sign for Israel. But when the moon is not full, it's a bad sign for Ishmael."

Since the eclipse happens on Monday, which is the end of the month of Adar, it is when the moon is completely missing and not visible in the sky, which is the very end peak of the month. This is hopefully a good sign of victory as the Zohar explained and hopefully a sign that Mashiach is here, as prophesied by Yoel.

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