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The third star.

It's dusk on a Saturday in ancient Jerusalem. A man stands outside the temple, anxiously looking upward. He sees a bright star rising in the east and a second one overhead. This man knows the sky well, and, as he turns to the northwest, he glimpses Capella in the gathering darkness. "That's it!" he thinks. Three stars have appeared, signaling the end of a Sabbath more than two millenniums ago.

Although the Jewish tradition of sighting stars is no longer generally practiced, it dates back to the dawn of sky-watching. (On cloudy nights the observer would look at two strings - one blue, one white - and would judge the Sabbath over when he could no longer tell their colors apart.) This sense of space and time, deeply rooted to the observation of the sky, is one of the hallmarks of Judaism.

For many of us, the meaning of the night sky goes beyond mathematical equations; our interest in the heavens has a strong spiritual component. I realized this many years ago during Kol Nidre, a liturgical prayer recited at the beginning of the service on the eve of Yom Kippur, Judaism's holiest day. Kol Nidre evening is known for some of the most soaring music of the Jewish liturgy, but for me its meaning extends literally to the sky. While walking home as a youngster after one of these services, I noticed the bright, 10-day-old gibbous Moon dominating the evening sky. I realized that the Moon displays the same phase every Kol Nidre night, as it has through the ages. That moonlit walk home added a strong spiritual dimension to my developing interest in the sky.

A sense of spirituality runs strong in our family, six generations of which have been with the Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Westmount, Quebec, Canada. The synagogue, whose name means Gates of Heaven, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. My grandfather, William Levy, helped design this house of worship, which was built in 1922. The synagogue is especially known for its exquisite choir, whose renderings of Jewish liturgical music have made Sabbath and holiday services a joy to attend. When I'm hunting for comets late at night, I often think of the choir - its pieces end so beautifully and peacefully that they almost command their listeners to gaze heavenward.

Having a spiritual sense of the sky is not just a feeling. In Judaism the relation is a literal one, since our calendar is based on the orbit of the Moon about the Earth. It's not a coincidence that the Moon is always 10 days old every year after Kol Nidre services, nor is it an accident that the total lunar eclipse of April 3rd this year took place on the first Seder or ceremonial dinner of Passover, which always occurs on the night of full Moon. This spring's eclipse is one of several I have seen during the first night of Passover; in 1968 I rushed away from a Seder early to catch one.

Of all the many hours I worked at Palomar Observatory with Eugene and Carolyn Shoemaker, conducting nightly sky patrols with the 18-inch Schmidt, my favorite ones were when the dome shutters slowly opened to reveal a darkening sky. No matter how busy we got during the next 12 hours of astrophotography, I cherished every minute that the opening shutters cajoled the sky to enter. It is a deeply spiritual feeling that is separate from any religious belief, and I'm sure many skywatchers, regardless of their persuasion, have a similar experience at the start of a beautiful starlit night.

Equations can explain the physics of what we see in the sky, but the wonder goes beyond numbers. Each of us has a personal reason for enjoying the precious beauty of the night sky. For some, the backdrop of a liturgy helps. The ancient nomadic Jews depended on the Moon for a calendar to unify the people. Thus the Sabbath and festivals were proclaimed ended after an official observer noticed that the evening sky was dark enough for three stars to appear.

That man who stood outside the temple in Jerusalem, waiting with anticipation for the sky to darken gradually until three stars appeared, must have felt his role in the cosmos. Sabbath didn't end until the sky presented him with three stars. It must have been a singularly personal way to get acquainted with the sky. Seeing that third star must have felt as wonderful as discovering a comet.

Author David Levy is grateful to Martin M. Roffman and Robert Summerfield for their historical input on the Jewish tradition of sighting three stars.
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Author:Levy, David H.
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Date:Sep 1, 1996
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