Few natural phenomena evoke as much deliberation as a celestial eclipse.

Basic to Jewish Kabbalistic thought is the idea that everything in the physical world is a metaphor for a spiritual concept. What then is the specific message of a solar eclipse?

The Talmud (Sukkah 29a) declares: "An eclipse of the sun is a bad omen for the world." Why? It's like a king who made a huge banquet and set up a lantern to illuminate the party, but then the lantern was covered. Similarly, this world is a beautiful banquet which God has prepared for us. If the lantern is covered, as in a solar eclipse, it diminishes our enjoyment of the world.

So why would God send us such a gloomy message?

The Talmud specifies that the sun is eclipsed when a great rabbi dies and is not eulogized properly.

The Talmud specifies that, among other reasons, the sun is eclipsed when a great rabbi dies and is not eulogized properly. If a society does not grieve properly for a great teacher, it shows a lack of appreciation for the ethical values that he upheld. This is a bad omen -- indicating a society in a state of moral and spiritual decline.

The Maharsha, a rabbi who lived in 17th century Poland, said that a great teacher is compared to the sun in that he "radiates" Torah to the people. For example, the Talmud (Baba Batra 75a) compares "the face of Moses to the face of the sun." So a solar eclipse could be called an "eclipse of the spiritual sun."

A TIME TO PAUSE

An eclipse is an opportunity to pause and examine our own relationship with Torah scholars. Do we scorn them? Or do we see them as luminaries of humanity? Did we make an effort to become close to them? Did we even know their names?

Of course, eclipses are easily predictable, and even in Talmudic times the astronomers were already able to accurately predict celestial cycles. So how can we say that eclipses portend anything about modern society?

God knows the future, and at creation was able to determine when cycles of moral and spiritual decline would occur when great teachers would not be properly appreciated.

Thus He set the cycle of eclipses to correspond. Of course, the whole concept that God is outside of time and space is difficult for us mortals to comprehend. But that's the way it is.

A LITTLE SCIENCE

Kabbalah aside for a moment: From a scientific standpoint, what causes a solar eclipse?

The moon orbits the earth, and whenever the moon is lined up between the earth and the sun, the illuminated side of the moon faces away from the earth and cannot be seen. This moment is called a "new moon" and is the beginning of every Jewish month (Rosh Chodesh).

The orbits of the moon and earth are tilted and do not usually line-up precisely enough for an eclipse.

So why isn't there a solar eclipse every month? Because the orbits of the moon and earth are tilted at an angle, and the line-up is usually not precise enough for an eclipse.

Interestingly, the sun is 400 times larger than the moon, so how could it be that the moon can actually fit as a perfect cover over the sun? The answer is that the sun is also 400 times farther away than the moon. Hence a perfect fit!

EXERCISE CAUTION

On a practical note: If you encounter a solar eclipse, even though the sun appears covered, don't look. The sun's corona is still as powerful as ever. People have gone blind after looking at an eclipse for as few as four seconds. There is no pain when the retina is being burned, and the resulting visual symptoms do not occur until at least several hours after the injury has occurred -- by which time it is far too late.

Maimonides writes (Yad Deyos 4) that it is a Torah obligation to guard one's physical health. Therefore, regardless of how tempting it is to look at the sun during the eclipse, don't do it. Sunglasses are not effective; you must use specifically approved treated plastic or glass filters, or indirectly view the sun's projection through a pin-hole.

May the Almighty illuminate our hearts, and shine His light of Torah throughout the world.