The sun will go dark from coast to coast across the United States, and it has captured everyone’s attention. People are taking cross-country road trips to witness what is being called the astronomical event of a lifetime. It is said that when the eclipse reaches totality, the world becomes a strange and surreal place.
We live in tumultuous times. The American president has generated an extraordinary amount of controversy and is often at odds with the news media. Horrendous racism has reared its ugly head; shocking acts of violence have rocked the nation. Acts of terror continue to traumatize the world. And to top it off, the United States appears to be in a nuclear standoff with the totalitarian regime of North Korea. Is this world out of control?
Prophecy fanatics bubble over with prognostications. Are there connections between current world events with the upcoming astronomical spectacle?
A current news story tells a foreboding tale. As reported by Breaking Israel News, Rabbi Yosef Berger cites an “esoteric prophecy”: “The prophecy states that when a solar eclipse occurs exactly as it will next week, in the beginning of the month of Elul, kings of the East will suffer great loss.”
Rabbi Berger offers his interpretation of this passage in the late nineteenth-century Chasidic work Yalkut Moshe. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un will suffer great loss. Also, there will be great storms, and animals will die. Is such a prophecy legitimate?
From a Jewish perspective, it is reasonable to find meaning in unusual astronomical events. After all, the Bible says that God designated the sun, moon, and stars as signs. The prophets make ample use of celestial imagery in prophecy. The Gospels even say that the sky grew dark when Yeshua was crucified. So what do we make of this solar eclipse?
We should note that Yalkut Moshe is a relatively modern and obscure Chasidic source. The Talmud, a foundational Jewish work which is many centuries old, also provides interpretations of events like this.
In b.Sukkah 29a, the sages said that when a solar eclipse occurs, it is a bad sign for idolaters. When a lunar eclipse occurs, it is a bad sign for the Jewish people. This is because the Jewish people use a lunar calendar, but idolaters use a solar calendar.
The sages added,
When the Jewish people are carrying out the will of God, they need not fear any of this. As it is written, “Thus says the LORD: ‘Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them’ (Jeremiah 10:2).” Let the idolaters be dismayed, but Israel should not be dismayed.
So according to the sages, the eclipse is indeed a sign. Yet, its purpose is not to foretell the future, but to provoke Israel to repent and draw near to the will of God. The Gemara elaborates by using details from the eclipse to help identify the sins for which the generation may be guilty. However, it in no way attempts to identify precise future events.
The so-called prophecy in Yalkut Moshe is very different from what appears elsewhere in Jewish sources. Nor is Yalkut Moshe a single, lengthy prophecy specifically about an eclipse in Elul. Rather, the prophecy in question appears in a horoscope-like chart at the end of the book. This chart offers brief and vague predictions for solar eclipses, lunar eclipses, and rainbows for each month of the Jewish year.
The section about Elul literally says, “If there is a solar eclipse in Elul, harm will come to the kings of the east; livestock will die; and a storm wind will come.”
Sound relevant to current affairs? The human brain tends to fill in details where they don’t exist. Pay attention to how ambiguous this prediction is. Harm? What kind of harm? Based on the simplest reading, the harm consists of livestock dying and the storm wind. It says nothing about nuclear war, military or diplomatic interventions, or any other events we dream up.
Why identify “the kings of the east” as the North Korean dictator? There are scores of countries that we could identify as “east.” We have no reason to single out North Korea, especially since the prophecy is plural.
Further calling this so-called prophecy into question, the entry does not specify that the eclipse occurs prior to the month of Elul. It says “a solar eclipse in Elul.” This year’s solar eclipse will occur on August 21, which is Av 29 on the Jewish calendar. The first of Elul occurs two days later, on August 23. This eclipse occurs in Av, not Elul.
What does the Chasidic prophecy say about an eclipse occurring in Av? Yalkut Moshe tells us: “If there is a solar eclipse in Av, there will be bewilderment and altercations.”
Huh. So, fake news and violent protests? That sounds right on the mark!
In conclusion, let’s not be dismayed. Despite my skepticism, I find it significant that this eclipse occurs before the season of repentance. God’s creation and calendar, its patterns and phenomena, should constantly alert us to repent. If we make sure to align our will with the will of our Creator, then the alignment of celestial bodies should not alarm us.