JERUSALEM – Devout Jews around the world on Wednesday observed a ritual performed only once every 28 years, saying their morning prayers under the open sky in a ceremony called the “blessing of the sun.”
Tens of thousands of worshippers stood next to the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s walled Old City, the holiest site where Jews can pray. Hundreds headed to the ancient desert fortress of Masada, while others prayed on the roof of a Tel Aviv high-rise and congregated on road sides.
“God created the world in seven days,” said Yona Vogel, one of the estimated 50,000 who attended the Western Wall prayers. “On the fourth day he put the sun into orbit and every 28 years it returns to the original place that it stood when God created the world.”
The special blessing — called the Birkat Hachamah in Hebrew — was marked in many time zones, starting with members of the small Jewish community in New Zealand. In hundreds of places, from Israel and Italy to New Zealand and Kyrgyzstan, observant Jews rose before dawn for outdoor prayers and dancing.
The prayer came on the eve of the weeklong Passover festival, in which Jews commemorate the exodus from slavery in Egypt. The timing was coincidental, but added to the joyous feeling felt by many worshippers.
In New York City, a rabbi was to lead a morning gathering near the United Nations. Another group was to pray on the deck of a 17th-story penthouse near ground zero, the site of the demolished World Trade Center.
A Birkat Hachamah ceremony in 1981 was held on the 107th-story observation deck of the World Trade Center’s South Tower, and the rabbi was dedicating Wednesday’s blessing to the memory of those who died in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Organizers of a ceremony on the boardwalk in Long Beach, New York, on Long Island, said they would distribute sunglasses to worshippers. But they might go unused; the forecast was for a cloudy morning.
The Orthodox Jewish Chabad-Lubavitch movement scheduled live Webcasts from seven locations as the sun moved across the Earth, starting at 8 a.m. local time in Christchurch, New Zealand, followed by events in Brisbane, Australia; Jerusalem; London; New York; Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Honolulu.
An especially colorful ceremony was reported by The New York Times in 1897, when a rabbi was arrested for presiding over the ritual as hundreds of Jews assembled without a permit in a city park. He and another rabbi tried to explain what they were doing to a police officer.
“The attempt of a foreign citizen to explain to an American Irishman an astronomical situation and a tradition of the Talmud was a dismal failure,” the Times reported, adding that the officer, wondering “whether some new infection of lunacy had broken out … seized the rabbi by the neck and took him to Essex Market Police Court.”
Devout Jews emphasize that they are not worshipping the sun, but rather paying homage to God.
“We make a special blessing on this day to remember the day that God created the world and put the sun into orbit. It’s as though he is creating the world anew,” Vogel said.
Modern science may have overtaken the astronomy of the scriptures, but scholars say the blessing still has symbolic value as acknowledgment of the divine role in the universe.
AP writer Verena Dobnik, in New York, contributed to this report.