Last night/early this morning, North Americans were able to view a complete lunar eclipse. While this is not a rare occurrence, it is always a fascinating event.

One might expect the sages to record eclipses as moments of awe, but instead the Talmud (Sukkah 29a) ascribes what seems to be a strange meaning to them:

“Our Rabbis taught, When the sun is in eclipse, it is a bad omen for the whole world…when the moon is in eclipse, it is a bad omen for Israel, since Israel reckons by the moon and [others] by the sun…But when Israel fulfills the will of the Omnipresent, they need have no fear of all these [omens]”

Although there are numerous places in the Talmud where it discusses the sages’ knowledge of both astronomy and astronomers, this statement seems like a superstitious view of eclipses. However, the fact that it concludes by reminding the Children of Israel that if they follow the “will of the Omnipresent” they need not fear, provides an insight into the minds of the sages.

Humankind came to worship the heavenly bodies, according to Maimonides, because “they believed that it would be pleasing to God if they were to venerate the forces of nature which serve Him…Soon they were…offering sacrifices and hymns of praise to them…” Knowing humankind’s fascination with the heavenly bodies, the rabbis most probably described eclipses as bad omens in order to inspire prayer and repentance.

Why did the rabbis differentiate between eclipses? A solar eclipse, when daylight is blocked, is noticeable to almost everyone. A lunar eclipse, however, is less noticeable because people are used to the waxing and waning of the moon and may not notice unusual darkness. But watching the moon is an integral part of the calculation of the Hebrew calendar, and therefore the opportunity for repentance at the time of a lunar eclipse is particularly potent for the Children of Israel.

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