עֹ֖ד כּל־יְמֵ֣י הָאָ֑רֶץ … וְי֥וֹם וָלַ֖יְלָה לֹ֥א יִשְׁבֹּֽתוּ׃
“While the earth remains…day and night will not cease.” (Gen. 8:22)
On October 14, an annular solar eclipse crossed the sky from Oregon to Texas. On April 8, 2024, a total solar eclipse will be visible from Texas to Maine. Does a person recite a blessing on witnessing a solar eclipse?
In Brakhot (59a), the Rabbis established that a blessing should be recited upon experiencing thunder, lightning, an earthquake, a shooting star and powerful winds. As a matter of halakha, with the exception of hearing thunder, we recite the blessing oseh ma’aseh bereishit (“Who makes the works of creation”) over these phenomena (SA OH 227-228).
What about reciting a blessing over phenomena that are not mentioned explicitly by the Rabbis, such as waterfall, a geyser, or an active volcano? R. Chaim David Ha’Levi, R. David Lau, and R. Chaim Kanyevsky are all opposed to doing so, and particularly in the case of a solar eclipse, since the gemara in Sukkah (29a) states that a solar eclipse is a bad omen for the world. However, aggadic statements carry little halakhic weight, and this argument is clearly contradicted by the fact that a blessing is recited over an earthquake, a profoundly negative and destructive phenomenon.
The argument not to recite a brakhah on an eclipse rests primarily on the fact that it is not mentioned explicitly in the Talmud or Shulkhan Arukh. But there is no reason to think that the Talmud’s list is exhaustive, and many poskim argue that it is not. These include: R. Nissim Karlitz, R. Shmuel Vozner and R. Eliezer Melamed.
On one level, this debate is a technical one. It seems to me, though, that there is something deeper at play here; should we maximize opportunities to make brakhot when possible within halakhah, or should we adopt a more conservative, cautious approach out of concern for brakhah li’vatalah (a blessing in vain) and brakhah she’einah tzrikhah (a blessing that is superfluous). This can be framed, as R. Yoel bin Nun has described it, as a question of whether to give primacy to ahavat Hashem or yirat Hashem.
In addition to that tension, we need to ask: What does it mean when our religious impulse to praise God and see God in the world is not able to find expression in halakhic forms, such as the recitation of brakhot? Does this not run the risk of making brakhot and tefillah purely a matter of rule-following and not a vehicle to express our gratitude and connection to God?
In any given case, the halakhic issues have to be weighed carefully and any psak has to be rigorously argued. Sometimes, there will be a serious doubt as to whether a brakhah should be made and the principle of ספק ברכות להקל will dictate. Other times, the more persuasive argument may be that a brakhah should be made. In these latter cases, it is my position that we should recite a brakhah and bring our religious and halakhic lives more fully in sync. And when it comes to making a brakha on a solar eclipse, the argument that one should make the brakha is, in my opinion, the far more persuasive one.
If you merit to see a solar eclipse, you should give religious and halakhic expression to our sense of wonder when contemplating God’s glorious creation and recite the brakha of oseh ma’aseh bereishit. Truly, mah rabu ma’asekha Hashem!