Monday, February 2, 2009

A New Study Text: Massekhet Hahammah

On April 8, 2009, the Jewish world will celebrate a unique alignment of ritual moments. In addition to erev Pesach, and thus the Siyyum of the Firstborn, April 8 is also the date of Birkat HaHammah (“Blessing of the Sun”) when, once every twenty-eight years, Jews everywhere celebrate the sun’s return to the place in the sky that it occupied at the moment of its creation.

In response to this unique moment, and in partnership with a broad coalition of Jewish environmental organizations, the Commission on Social Justice and Public Policy of the Leadership Council of the Conservative Movement has produced a new study text, Massekhet HaHammah ("Tractate of the Sun"), edited and translated with commentary by Abe Friedman (a rabbinical student at the Zeigler school at AJU). Massekhet HaHammah draws on two millennia of Jewish thought on the awesome majesty of the sun and other celestial objects. Through its commentary, Massekhet HaHammah demonstrates how classical Jewish texts offer important guidance for contemporary Jews struggling with climate change, resource allocation, and other crucial environmental challenges.

In bringing together diverse texts from all periods of the Jewish tradition, Massekhet HaHammah offers a fresh look at Jewish attitudes toward the sun, moon, stars, and the mysteries of creation. Through diverse topics such as the dynamics of power between humans and the heavenly lights, astrology and omens, and return and redemption, Massekhet HaHammah enables learners to reflect on the natural world and their place in it. The texts are presented in the original Hebrew and Aramaic with a new translation, and the commentary both elucidates the nuances of the text and helps tie the issues raised in the traditional sources to contemporary environmental challenges. Rabbi Elliot Dorff notes that “as a modern example of some of the massekhtot ketanot … people who study it may say the Hadran prayer afterward,” and it is our hope that rabbis and educators throughout the Jewish community will look to Massekhet HaHammah as they plan their pre-Pesach study.

Massekhet HaHammah is currently available on the website (look under Birkat Hahammah) and will be up in coming days on together with a study guide designed for educated laypeople (written by JTS student, Jill Levy). It will be available soon from the Rabbinical Assembly’s publications site, along with Rabbi Joe Prouser’s Sun Siddur, as a print on demand book.

At the upcoming Limmud conference in Philadelphia (on Sunday, February 22 at 3:00 p.m.) I will be teaching excerpts from the Massekhet together with Professor Mitch Marcus of the University of Pennsylvania.

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