By Margie Pensak
Total solar eclipses don’t happen every day. The last time a solar eclipse brought complete darkness to a swath of locations in the continental United States was 38 years ago, on erev Rosh Chodesh Adar 5739/1979. The next such rare and amazing astronomical event will be visible in the Continental United States this coming erev Rosh Chodesh Elul 5777, Monday, August 21, 2017. At least a million Americans are expected to view it. Some will even travel thousands of miles just to witness the phenomenon in person; they booked their tours, airline seats, and lodging as much as two years ago!
“It is fascinating to see it get totally dark in the middle of the day,” notes Rabbi Dovid Heber, a rav in Baltimore and author and lecturer on astronomy in Jewish law. He is planning to view the total eclipse in St. Joseph, Missouri, along with others on the “Kosher Eclipse” tour, to whom he will lecture on various related Torah topics. “Astronomy is the basis of the Jewish calendar. When such monumental astronomical events occur, it is a great opportunity to review the astronomy guidelines that form our calendar,” says Rabbi Heber. “Since an eclipse occurs around the time of the molad (the exact moment of a new moon), as does Rosh Chodesh, a solar eclipse will only occur on or around Rosh Chodesh.”
The total solar eclipse will first be visible in the United States in Oregon on the Pacific coastline and will then “travel” over a band of land that sweeps across numerous states until it ends in South Carolina on the Atlantic coast. According to Rabbi Heber, this will be the first total solar eclipse visible from coast to coast in over 99 years. The last such event occurred in 5678/1918.
Dr. Yisrael Ury, applied physicist, former high-tech chief technology officer, author of Charting the Sea of Talmud, and amateur astronomer, hopes not to miss the eclipse this time around. On July 11, 1991, when Dr. Ury was attending a conference in Japan, he arranged to stop in Hawaii on his way back to Los Angeles, so he could view the total eclipse that was to pass through Hawaii and Baja California, Mexico. He thoroughly researched the subject of eclipses and prepared himself to view and document the event. He packed a still camera, a video camera, and binoculars, all fitted with special filters that he had created for viewing the partial phases, when the sun is too bright to view with the naked eye. (During totality, no filters are needed as you can look at it with the naked eye.)
“When I landed in Hawaii at 3:00 a.m., it was raining,” recalls Dr. Ury, who has since made aliyah and now learns and applies his knowledge of technology to Torah study. “Naturally, I was concerned that it would be too cloudy when the eclipse was to occur in the morning. I didn’t want to miss it, so I frantically ran around looking for someone familiar with the weather on the island. I managed to locate a meteorologist who told me that the clearest place in the morning hours was the west coast of the island. I was able to find a cab driver who took me and some people who joined me and dropped us off at a beach.”
Dr. Ury davened Shacharis on the beach before setting up his tripods and equipment. The morning began with few clouds and the partial phase of the eclipse began. As totality approached, the sky became cloudier and cloudier. Just as totality was about to occur, the sky closed up, and there was no eclipse to see. It turned very dark, but the eclipsed sun and its spectacular corona could not be viewed, and no stars could be seen.
“Disappointed, we made our way back to the airport,” Dr. Ury explains. “While waiting for the plane, I mentioned to the woman sitting next to me that it was too bad that the sky had been cloudy for the eclipse. ‘What do you mean?’ she replied. I said, ‘You know, at the very last minute it got cloudy and you couldn’t see anything.’ She said, ‘Oh! I stayed here at the airport and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. In fact, it was so beautiful, I just started to cry!’ You can imagine how I felt at that point. However, I comforted myself in the knowledge that 26 years later there would be another total solar eclipse in the U.S., and I was determined not to miss that one.”
Rather than experiencing the upcoming total eclipse by himself, Dr. Ury decided that he wanted to create a program where he could share the incredible experience with others in a Torah-based setting. It would include minyanim, shiurim, and kosher food in a fun learning environment. “After making some inquiries, I was directed to Rabbi Dovid Heber as the most appropriate and knowledgeable person to be our scholar-in-residence for the program,” noted Dr. Ury, whose mechutanim include Rabbi Dovid and Mrs. Ettie Rosenbaum and Dr. Daniel and Mrs. Yehudis Sklare.
“I next approached Mr. Fishel Gross of O’Fishel Kosher Catering. He became so interested in the project that we are now partners in this endeavor (www.koshereclipse.com). Both of us have visited our carefully chosen site and conference center in St. Joseph, Missouri, to make the proper arrangements. We chose St. Joseph because of the expected dry conditions in western Missouri that time of year. Other, much larger, programs will be converging on St. Joseph for the same reason. Of course we can’t promise good weather, but we will be davening for it!”
In St. Joseph, the fifth-largest city along the path, those on the tour will experience just over two minutes and 38.6 seconds of totality, only 1.4 seconds short of the maximum time possible along the path. The eclipse will begin at 11:40 a.m., CDT, with the total eclipse starting at 1:06 p.m. The eclipse will end at 2:34 p.m. For both Missouri and St. Joseph, the last total solar eclipse occurred June 16, 1806, and it won’t happen there again for another 189 years! The totality, then, lasted three minutes and four seconds.
Not everyone who plans to view this historical event will travel all the way to Missouri. Stanley and Renee Fishkind and family will be hopping a direct Southwest flight to Nashville, Tennessee. Nashville is the largest city wholly within the path of totality, and observers will get to see approximately one minute, 55 seconds of totality at 1:27 p.m. CDT! Its location is offset from the centerline of the eclipse’s path by about 20 miles, unlike St. Joseph, which is right on the centerline, and therefore boasts one of the longest durations of any sizable city in the U.S.
While the kosher tourists in St. Joseph are enjoying a Sunday evening glatt kosher barbecue dinner, the Fishkinds will be “roughing” their first-time total-eclipse experience in a non-kosher, three-bedroom, two-bathroom house.
“We rented a house through HomeAway.com about a year ago. It is in the northeast suburbs of Nashville and will cost $175 a night. We will also rent a full-size car for about $150,” shares Mr. Fishkind, a retired NASA engineer and executive who played a leading role in developing and deploying the Hubble space telescope, International Space Station, space shuttles, and unmanned exploratory probes. “Obviously, the house is not kosher, but for an overnight, why not?”
A bunch of the Fishkind children and grandchildren will join the senior Fishkinds on this sure-to-be-memorable trip. “I have been teaching astronomy for the past 40 years, and this is unbelievable!” says Mr. Fishkind. “G-d willing, this will be a once-in-a-lifetime event for me. By the way, once every Jewish month, somewhere in the world, an event like this ‘could’ take place!”
For those who would like to be smack dab in the middle of the eclipse, Mr. Fishkind advises going to a little village about an hour away from Nashville, called White House, Tennessee.
“One last idea,” adds Mr. Fishkind. “How about flying down on Monday [morning] at 9:15 a.m. from BWI to arrive in Nashville at 10:05 a.m. Hang around and watch the eclipse from the airport; and then get on a 4:55 p.m. return flight that same day! No car rental, no hotel rental, just bring your bag lunch!”
Reprinted with permission of Where What When magazine.