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Page last updated at 11:51 GMT, Wednesday, 8 April 2009 12:51 UK

Jews celebrate 'dawn of creation'

Sunrise in Jerusalem
"'It was like seeing the sun for the very first time," said one spectator

Across the world Jews have been celebrating Birkat Hachama, or the Sun Blessing, as Erica Chernofsky witnessed in Jerusalem at daybreak.

The blare of a ram's horn filled the early morning air, alerting the thousands of people gathered at the Western Wall that the sun was about to rise.

When it finally appeared above the ancient stones on Wednesday, the crowd gasped in unison and then began to recite a special blessing: "Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the universe, who makes the works of creation."

To those standing at Judaism's holy place, known to them as the Temple Mount, this was no regular sunrise but one that only occurs every 28 years.

The Sun Blessing - Birkat Hachama in Hebrew - takes place when the Sun returns to the point at which it was, Jewish tradition says, when God created the world thousands of years ago.

Joel Atkin and his daughter Shelby
How many chances do you get to do something like this?
Shelby Atkin

"What an amazing experience," said Joel Atkin, who came to watch with his daughter Shelby, 17.

"It was like seeing the Sun for the very first time."

"How many chances do you get to do something like this?", Shelby asked excitedly.

The source of the ancient tradition comes from the Talmud, a set of holy Jewish writings which states that, "he who sees the Sun at its period recites the blessing".

"Its period," it later explains, recurs every 28 years on the vernal equinox, the date when the Sun crosses the equator.

It is more commonly known as the first day of spring, when Jews believe the Sun was created.

In the Biblical book of Genesis, the Sun, along with the moon and stars, was created on the fourth day, which in modern times translates to Wednesday.

The Sun returns to this position, believed to be its first position, every year.

Emotional moment

But only once every 28 years does this happen both on the vernal equinox (as calculated by Jewish tradition) and on a Wednesday - just as Jews believe it did when the universe was created.

Sunrise in Jerusalem
Some view the Birkat Hachama as an important reminder not to take the Sun's energy for granted

"It's one of those occasions you just don't miss," echoed Jeremy Shebson, in Jerusalem from London on holiday.

"The one thing we don't appreciate are all the wonders of the world, and an event like this makes you appreciate something that happens every day."

As the sun began to rise slowly higher above the Wall, the throngs of Jewish men clad in black and white prayer shawls, their heads adorned with tefillin (black leather boxes containing Bible scrolls), jostled for the best spot.

A few women shed tears as the sun lit up the morning sky, and held up their prayer books to block the sharp rays as they recited the special blessing.

'Outdated'

However, the tradition is deemed by many to be based on archaic calculations, which today are known to be erroneous.

I heard this could bring redemption, and I came because I want redemption to come today!"
Tzippora

Two thousand years ago, Judaism, along with other Middle Eastern cultures, believed the length of the year was 365 days plus 6 hours.

But centuries later, Judaism readjusted the calendar year to 365 days, five hours and 55 minutes, while modern science now puts the year at 365 days, five hours and 48 minutes - 12 minutes less than the original calculation.

This small discrepancy adds up when multiplied by thousands of years.

Wednesday's event was actually celebrated 19 days later than the real first day of spring, which fell on 20 March, explained Professor Ariel Cohen of the astronomy and atmospheric physics department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"So it's a very nice tradition but 2,000 years ago, it was a tradition based on scientific values, and today they need to re-evaluate,' he said.

"Now that we know it is no longer accurate we have to either modify the tradition or abandon it completely."

Rabbis acknowledge this inaccuracy but stress that the mathematical calculations are less significant than the meaning behind a tradition that has been kept by Jews for centuries.

"There are many opinions as to when exactly to say Birkat Hachama, some even say you should recite the blessing if you haven't seen the Sun in three days because it is cloudy," says Rabbi Shlomo Vilk.

Man praying at the Western Wall
Crowds of worshippers gathered to say the blessing

"But it's not the day which is important, it's about appreciating the creation of the Sun, such a powerful source of energy that we all take for granted."

This year, the event has added significance as it falls on the eve of the holiday of Passover, marking the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt.

Some rabbis even view it as a sign heralding the coming redemption and arrival of the Messiah.

"In Judaism we want the Messiah to come every day, but we do say there are times that are more opportune and significant," explains Rabbi Mordechai Genut, an astronomy expert and prominent figure in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community.

"It doesn't mean it will happen, but it's a good sign."

Rabbi Vilk relates redemption less to the cosmic event and more to the people who celebrate it.

"The Messiah will come if we will all be good. If everyone goes out to say this blessing, the Messiah will come because we appreciate what we have and bless God for it."

While not everyone who woke up early to witness the special sunrise expected the Messiah, Tzippora, 42, had not entirely ruled it out:

"I heard this could bring redemption, and I came because I want redemption to come today!"



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