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At t​he Fels, It Was All 'Good Day Sunshine'

April 9, 2009 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Feature
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Talk about your wake-up calls!

On April 8, hundreds gathered atop the roof of the Fels Planetarium at the Franklin Institute, waiting under a pre-dawn sky to celebrate Birkat Hachammah, or the "Blessing Over the Sun," an obscure talmudic ritual that occurs only once every 28 years, when the sun is said to return to the same place as at the moment of creation.

The event was marked world-wide, with roughly 50,000 people flocking to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Here at home, a mostly Orthodox crowd spanned the planetarium rooftop -- which, with few tall buildings nearby, offered one of the best views of the city, with skyscrapers to the south, the art museum to the west and the rising sun in the east.

The maximum roof capacity was relegated to 200 people; some 60 more or so were reported to have stood on the steps of the Franklin Institute, where they watched a live feed of the action higher up and performed the ritual themselves.

Participants also watched an Internet video stream -- largely unimaginable 28 years ago -- of a scene captured earlier that day in New Zealand, the first place on the planet to mark the event.

Those present were warned not to look directly at the light during the prayer -- not only for safety's sake, but because the ritual praises the creator of the universe, not the massive star so central to the solar system.

Cloudy skies made it difficult to see the exact moment when the sun rose, but the ceremony began at 6:34 a.m., sunrise on the East Coast. The brief ritual included readings of psalms and reciting traditional prayers like the Shehecheyanu and Aleinu, in addition to the blessing itself.

As luck would have it, despite the haze, midway through the service the clouds parted above the Philadelphia Inquirer building, briefly letting in some light.

"How many times am I going to get to do the blessing in general, let alone on the roof of the Franklin?" gushed Temple University sophomore Carly Feldman, 19, a Jewish-studies and English major.

Because the rare rite took place on Erev Pesach, the confluence of Jewish rituals "forces us to focus on a bunch of different concepts at the same time," said Rabbi Shaya Deitsch of Chabad of Montgomery County.

This was his second Birkat Hachammah.

"I was 9 in 1981, and it made a lasting impression on me," said the rabbi, adding that 28 years ago, the weather was warmer.

Commemorative T-Shirts
The Lubavitch group hosting the Center City gathering gave away T-shirts and hats festooned with images of rising suns and phrases like "Celebrate 'The Moment' " and "I was there."

But there were other local festivities as well, including one at the Curtis Arboretum in Wyncote and at a number of area synagogues. At one such shul, Germantown Jewish Centre, Rabbi Leonard Gordon helped create a 68-page book about the ritual.

"After it was all over, I took all the material from now and put it away in a file in a great act of optimism that I'll get to lead this one more time in my lifetime," said the 53-year-old rabbi.

Because the blessing is said so infrequently, many made sure to bring the entire family.

"I want my kids to be a part of it," Roni Pasternak said after coming in from the rooftop. Originally from Tzfat, Israel, Pasternak brought along her three children, ages 6, 3 and 15 months. "Everything that's holy makes an impression on the little ones, whether they remember it consciously or not."

For those who missed it, Birkat Hachammah will next occur at sunrise on April 8, 2037.

Don't oversleep!  

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