Sunday, April 19, 2009

Shape of Earth: Views Differ

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

We recently pointed out that Stephen Colbert’s report on birkat hachamah included a strange urban legend that this was only the third time in history that birkat hachamah has taken place on Erev Pesach. Our debunking has made it to the pages of the Forward!

But as [BZ], a comedian and blogger on points out, the last time the event occurred on this date was in 1925, only three cycles ago. The rumor, according to [BZ], has been spreading on the Internet for the past few years. “I read that this [rumor] first appeared in 1925. It wasn’t true then, either!” [BZ] told The Shmooze. Well, Mr. Colbert, sorry to disappoint, but it looks like you’ll just have to keep waiting with the rest of us for an event of truly biblical proportions.

First of all, I must say I’m honored to be promoted to “comedian”. (I’m actually a high school physics teacher, so I guess it’s not so far off.) Second, I’m not entirely sure why this even needs sourcing, since it is an undisputed matter of public record that Wednesday, April 8, 1925 fell on 14 Nisan, but Jewschool is happy to have the publicity.

Some supplemental information on this virulent rumor:

If my calculations are correct, birkat ha-chamah has taken place on 14 Nisan (Erev Pesach) six times since the beginning of the Common Era: in the Julian/Gregorian years 77, 609, 693, 1309, 1925, and 2009. (Going further back than that would be anachronistic; 77 is almost certainly anachronistic itself. Even if you hold that birkat ha-chamah corresponds to an actual astronomical event that has been recurring since creation, all agree that the current mathematical algorithm for determining the start of the Hebrew lunar months only dates back to the late rabbinic period, and months were previously determined by observations of the new moon, so we have no way of determining whether 14 Nisan fell on a Wednesday (etc.) in any given year before the current algorithm started.)

If you look closely at Colbert’s computer screen, he seems to be getting his (mis)information from this site. This and other places trace the rumor to the Ostrovster Admor, aka the Kadosh Elyon. I can’t find much more information on him; most of his Google hits are about this precise topic. Does anyone know anything about him? When did he write this? (Certainly before 1925, it seems.) Or is his whole existence a hoax?

[The same site notes "Another interesting aspect of this date is that the Moshiach ben David will arrive at the end of a 7-year
cycle. The year 5768 is a shmitta (sabattical [sic]) year, and is followed by 5769, the year in which we recite Birkat Hachama.” This isn’t particularly interesting at all — it’s simple math to see that 28 is divisible by 7, and therefore birkat hachamah is always said in the year following the shemitah year.]

For some reason, people have been talking about thes calendar facts as if there is any room whatsoever for differences of opinion. For example, the 5 Towns Jewish Times says:

The Ostrovster Admor, who lived some 200 years ago, reportedly said that this occurred only a few times in history, including immediately before the Exodus from Egypt and before the original miracle of Purim. The Ostrovster apparently predicted that its next occurrence, which is in a few days, would be a prelude to the Final Redemption and the coming of Mashiach ben Dovid. Others say this is not so, and the dates come out wrong. I am not in a position to comment on this, but…

“Others say this is not so”? Birkat ha-chamah has occurred on Erev Pesach multiple times, including twice since “200 years ago”. This is a fact. Why report it as a he-said-she-said controversy? I suppose the 5 Towns Jewish Times is just following the trend of the last decade in political reporting, presenting every issue as “fair and balanced” with two equivalent sides, without reporting on whether one side might have the facts wrong. Paul Krugman has said “if Bush said the Earth was flat, the mainstream media would have stories with the headline: ‘Shape of Earth–Views Differ.’ Then they’d quote some Democrats saying that it was round.”


  1. None other than the Los Angeles Times cited this "twice [before] in modern history" as though it were fact. I should have been more suspicious, as it said only, "according to one expert" with no indication as to who this expert might be.

  2. I guess that's true if they use the convention that "modern history" begins in 1453 when the Turks conquered Constantinople...