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Stars of David
(Part 1 in a series)

Miryam Z. Wahrman, Ph.D.

"He telleth the number of the stars; He calleth them all by their names"
- Psalms 147:4

Our ancestors were avid stargazers. In the days before electricity and television, it was more common for people to spend nights looking up in wonderment at the celestial bodies. Ancient references to heavenly bodies abound in all cultures, but the Biblical references have achieved legendary stature.

Biblical references to celestial events

"Thus I shall surely bless you and multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens," God promised Abraham [Genesis 22:17]. For the rest of Abraham's life, whenever he gazed at the stars, he must have imagined his destiny and the generations to come.

Three generations later, Joseph's astronomical dream foreshadowed his future fate as royalty in Egypt. "Behold! The sun, the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me." [Genesis 37:9]. Joseph learned at the knee of his father Jacob, of God's promise "as the stars of the heavens". So when he dreamed, his mother and father became the great luminaries and his brothers became stars.

Joshua, who led the Israelites into Canaan and bravely conquered the land, experienced unusual and miraculous celestial events. Joshua's soldiers were in the midst of battle, routing the five Amorite kings and their armies. "Sun stand still at Gibeon, and moon, in the Valley of Aijalon," commanded Joshua. By Divine intervention, "then the sun stood still and the moon stopped until the people took retribution against their enemies." [Joshua 10:12-13]

Some commentaries explain that King David witnessed a comet when he observed "an angel of God standing between the Earth and the heaven with his sword drawn in his hand, stretched out over Jerusalem." This vision coincided with a terrible plague, a punishment from God, which resulted in the death of 70,000 of David's men. After David repented, "God then commanded the angel, and he returned his sword to its sheath." [I Chronicles 21:16,27]

Time and seasons

The biblical tradition of reverence for the natural creations of the Almighty is reflected in dozens of other references to sun, moon and stars. In Jewish tradition, sunset determines the beginning and end of each day. The exact moment of sunset is thus critical in determining the onset and conclusion of the Sabbath. The seasons of the year and the holidays are determined by the moon. Jews are required to keep track of the phases of the moon in order to determine the appearance of the new moon which signals the new month. These basic tenets of the faith guaranteed that the Jewish people would be ever aware of celestial events. After all, they had to keep watch on the heavens to go about their daily observances.

Special ceremonies were devised regarding the sun and the moon. For the moon, the ceremony, called Kiddush Levana, was developed by the tannaim, the sages who compiled the Mishnah. They composed the blessing to be recited upon seeing the new moon, "Blessed is He who renews the months". The current version of the ceremony includes the blessing, "who by His word created the heavens". Also included is the passage, "Praise Him sun and moon, praise Him all bright stars" (Psalm 148:2). It is customary for the ceremony to be held with a quorum of ten men, under an open sky, from three to fifteen days after the sighting of the new moon. It is usually recited at night, immediately following the conclusion of the Sabbath.

The Blessing of the Sun is recited once every 28 years (next scheduled for 2009) during the month of Nisan. The ceremony acknowledges the creation of the sun on the fourth day of the world, and gives thanks for its creation. It includes the blessing "Praised be the Maker of creation" and passages from the bible which mention the celestial bodies. For example, "For a sun and a shield is God" (Psalms 84:12), and "By day the sun will not harm you, nor the moon by night" (Psalms 121:6). The timing of the ceremony signifies the return of the sun to the same position in the heavens as during the creation.

Talmudic lore on astronomy

In light of the significance of celestial events in Jewish life, some Jews became particularly proficient in the astronomical sciences. The Talmud [Horayoth 10a] documents astronomical expertise amongst the rabbis. The story of Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua who once traveled together on a ship is recounted. Rabbi Yehoshua brought along enough food for himself, and even had extra food for his friend, who did not pack enough. Rabban Gamliel asked Rabbi Yehoshua how he knew that the journey would take so long. Rabbi Yehoshua explained that there is a certain star [perhaps Halley's Comet] which rises once every seventy years and confounds the sailors, who navigate by the stars. He had calculated that the star was due to appear while they were on their journey. Sure enough, it did appear and because of it the sailors did not properly navigate. Thus, the journey took longer than expected. Rabban Gamliel was impressed with his friend's knowledge of astronomy. In response to his praise, Rabbi Yehoshua mentioned the astronomical expertise of Rabbi Elazar ben Chisma and Rabbi Yochanan Gudgada, "who possess amazing knowledge in all the sciences but have neither bread to eat not raiment to wear". From this tale we learn how scientists, even in those days, did not make generous salaries. We also learn of Rabbi Elazar ben Chisma who was considered a renowned man of science.

In the Mishnaic tractate Ethics of the Fathers [3:23], Rabbi Elazar ben Chisma - the astronomer - teaches, "The laws of sacrifice of birds and family purity, they, they are the principal laws. Astronomy and geometry are only added condiments to wisdom." Rabbi Chisma is declaring that the precepts of the Torah are the "main course", while the sciences are the "condiments", not essential for survival, but valuable to liven up the taste of the "food". Accordingly, the observance of halacha [Jewish law] and appreciation of the works of the Creator are facilitated, in many instances, by knowledge of science.

Next: Part 2 - Should Jewish astronauts observe mitzvot in outer space?

Dr. Miryam Z. Wahrman is Professor of Biology and Director of General Education at William Paterson University in Wayne, NJ.


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