Jul 25 2014

Fantastic Fridays: Astronomical calculations of the beginning and end of Ramadan

Source: http://gulfbusiness.com/2014/07/first-day-eid-al-fitr-expected-fall-july-28/

Source: http://gulfbusiness.com/2014/07/first-day-eid-al-fitr-expected-fall-july-28/

The following two linked articles offer glimpses into the relationship between Islamic scholarship and the determination of the precise times of both the beginning of Ramadan and the appearance of the Shawwal crescent moon marking the first day of Eid Al Fitr at the end of the month of Ramadan.

What I find fascinating given my interest in ancient Jewish astronomy are the similar debates among religious scholars in both Islam and Judaism regarding the use of observation vs. astronomical calculation to determine the times of the holy days.

In Judaism, a functioning fixed calendar eventually came to exist by the early medieval period after centuries of debate, calendrical authority struggles, and the evolution of calendrical rules. Prior to these developments in Late Antiquity, the Jewish calendar was based on observations of the first lunar crescent, called the molad. Prior to Late Antiquity, during the Second Temple period and the Persian period, other time-reckoning systems were in use, some solar and some lunar.

In Islam, my understanding (perhaps colleagues in Islamic studies can clarify this further) is that various opinions and practices exist, with some countries relying on the traditional hilal sightings of the new crescent moon (for example, to establish the beginning of Ramadan) with the naked eye, some Muslims relying upon the visual sighting of the lunar crescent in either Saudi Arabia or their own country, and others using astronomical calculations.

(There is much that unites Judaism and Islam.)

A blessed Eid to all who celebrate it!

Apr 10 2009

Fantastic Fridays: Birkat Ha-Hammah (a view from the bonfire)

Category: Events,Fantastic Fridays,Judaismalobel @ 5:27 pm


This is my personal admission: I smell like charred bonfire. But I do have a good reason.

On Wednesday, I woke up early to make it to a local Birkat Ha-Hammah ceremony. It was cloudy and rather cold out, so I wasn’t sure that it was going to be possible to bless the sun. It simply wasn’t visible. My husband and daughter were still sleeping, so I headed out quietly. There had been a snowfall the night before, and I found it rather incongruous to be brushing snow off of the car immediately before heading off to bless the sun and burn leavening (hametz) for Passover.

When I arrived at the first location (there were at least two ceremonies being held nearby) nobody was there, and the sun was still covered with clouds. I looked in the general direction of the east and began to recite the blessing on the sun anyway. But a few words into the blessing, the clouds parted, and I could clearly see the solar disk (which I carefully kept in my peripheral vision).

I then drove to another ceremony site, which was the empty field of a synagogue that is currently under construction. A few women and families were just leaving, so there were only five or six men and me in attendance. The bonfire was in a large rectangular metal bin, and was being stoked by volunteers, with wooden planks being added periodically. People would come by, throw pieces of bread, pita, and even a box filled with croissants into the fire, and recite the Aramaic declaration of nullification of hametz. In turn, I also threw in the pieces of bread and pita that I’d brought with me and recited the declaration on behalf of myself and my family.

Most of the celebrants burned their leavened products and then said the blessing on the sun. I chatted with one of them, telling him that the sun had come out, however briefly, during the blessing. To this, he replied, “Yes, the miracle happened here too!” I smiled, and we wished each other a happy Passover.

After thanking the volunteers, I headed off to do some more Passover shopping. I was still thinking about the blessing of the sun. Miracle? Perhaps not the fact of the emergence of the sun itself, but our very relationship to it on earth is certainly a powerful one (whether one subscribes to the rare earth hypothesis or no). Mostly, I think of such moments as numinous, as per Rudolf Otto (Das Heilige). Whether or not one attributes this feeling of awe to a religious force, it is difficult to deny that the sun, moon, stars, planets and other heavenly bodies hold a certain fascination. Even more so when their observation is underscored by religious ritual.

A happy Passover and Easter to those who celebrate them!

Feb 20 2009

Fantastic Fridays: The Faith of Scientists

Category: Fantastic Fridays,Science and Religionalobel @ 3:50 pm


I’ve always been fascinated about the roles that faith plays — or, as the case may be, does not play — in the lives of great scientists. And now there’s a book out that delves into this very topic. Entitled The Faith of Scientists: In Their Own Words (Ed. Nancy K. Frankenberry), this recent work spans the stated beliefs of luminaries past and present, including Galileo Galilei, J. Kepler, Isaac Newton, Carl Sagan, and Stephen Hawking. You can find more information on the Princeton University Press web site.

Sharing the same title, this series of videos on the interplay between science and religion is definitely worth looking at. In truth, the title should read ‘The Faith of Scientists and Other Thinkers’, but ah, I quibble.