The summer solstice is here,* so it is time to continue my occasional forays into the intersection of agronomy, astronomy, and spirituality!
With the sun at its highest angle of the year here in the San Diego area, there is only minimal shadow beneath the hedgerow (or over it, from the tall grapefruit trees at the left/south), in stark contrast to the maximum shadow exactly six months ago, at the winter solstice, or even what we saw three months ago at the vernal equinox.
Today, the sun rose at 5:41 a.m., the earliest it will be all year. The sunset will be at 8:00 p.m., giving us 14 hours, 18 minutes, and 30 seconds of daylight. (The sunset will actually get a bit later–as late as 8:01 from 28 June to 1 July, but by then the sunrises will be creeping later as well.)
The winter solstice this past year occurred very close to the darkest time of year, taking into account the moon cycle as well as the sun. In fact, that is why the winter solstice coincided almost perfectly in the year 2006/5767 with Chanukah, during which we remember the re-dedication of the ancient Temple by kindling candles at sundown during the waning moon closest to the winter solstice (follow the first link above for more).
So, when will we have maximum light? That would be the full moon closest to Tekufah Tammuz (the summer solstice), and in the year 2007/5767 that will be the night of 29-30 June (14 Tammuz, which also happens to be Shabbat). Unfortunately, by then we will have to settle for a mere 14 hours, 16 minutes, and 40 seconds of daylight preceding our full-moon night. (The solstice and a full moon closely coincided last in 2005 and will not again till 2024, in both cases the middle of the month of Sivan, whereas this Gregorian/solar year we are already several days into Tammuz at the solstice; today is 5 Tammuz, 5767, on the lunisolar Jewish calendar and the moon is thus just about to reach its first quarter.)
The summer solstice for many centuries has been marked by various pagan festivals. However, there is no holiday on the Jewish calendar to mark the summer solstice, despite the obvious fact that other holidays like Chanukah and Passover are built on the backs of pre-Jewish pagan celebrations (as are Christmas and Easter, too). Nonetheless, as the OC Register (not my favorite paper, but whatever) article just linked notes:
some modern Judeo-Christian groups are reviving solstice worship. [Let's assume the writer intended that to be taken as not worship of the solstice but worship on it.--MSS]
“Many of those who grew up in Jewish and Christian religion want to see the modern holidays in their agrarian origin,” Lucas said. [Amein--MSS] “These green Jews and green Christians are incorporating the solstice into their current practices.” [Hey, Green Jew, that's me!--MSS]
Some religious groups point to biblical passages that may have occurred on the summer solstice, including the verse in Joshua 10:12 in which Joshua stops the sun in the sky. (The term solstice is actually from two Latin words meaning “sun stands still.”)
“There is also a legend that Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden on the summer solstice,” said Rabbi Jill Hammer, director and cofounder of Tel Shemesh, a Jewish organization focused on the celebration of nature. “In the Jewish tradition, the summer is always about this trade-off: abundance but also danger. The summer is about exile and sorrow and loss.”
Tel Shemesh offers a description of its summer-solstice ritual. As for the Joshua 10 reference above, it refers to the narrative of the battles for the conquest of Canaan (as re-told well after the events). Often ancient battles stopped at nightfall (night-vision technology being rather primitive back then); might the battle have taken place at the summer solstice?
“Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still” by Gustave Dore, (d. 1883) (courtesy Wikipedia.)
Some tradition says the battle was on 3 Tammuz. While we can’t possibly know–and the historicity of the events described in Joshua is dubious in any event–if there was an ancient battle on 3 Tammuz, the impending night after the standing still of the sun indeed would have been very dark (being just days past the new moon).
Of course, as the orchard photo above and its counterparts at the two earlier linked plantings show, each of these solar seasonal transitions (equinoxes and solstices) marks an important transitional point for the grower of deciduous fruit trees in a Mediterranean climate (such as the Land of Israel or southern California). At the winter solstice, the trees are in their deepest dormancy, while at the vernal equinox most of them are blooming or have just set their fruit. Now, at the summer solstice, we are approaching peak season for the fruit of the deciduous trees.
As the photo above shows, the ‘Geo Pride’ pluot has much fruit that is nearly full size, although not yet turning color and ripening (though it will do so very soon!). In the vernal-equinox photo, this tree was days past its peak bloom. As if on queue, the ‘Newcastle’ apricot, which is immediately to my back as I take these photos, dropped its first ripe fruit today!
The “production cycle” for the deciduous fruits and other crops may have much to do with why there is no Jewish holiday tradition at this time of year. Unlike in the winter and spring, there are few natural forces that seem to contend with one another in “battles” the outcome of which will determine the farmer’s bounty for the coming harvest (completed shortly after the autumnal equinox, and celebrated one full moon cycle after that equinox with Sukkot!). In the winter, we worry about warm days preventing good flower-bud set and about not having enough rain. In spring we worry about too much rain, or early heat and drying winds. For an ancient people being slowly weaned off polythesim, each of these battles was a temptation to stray and “bow before other gods” (paying homage to the god of rain or the god of sun, or whoever.)
Here at the summer solstice–the tension between “abundance but also danger” notwithstanding–we have the bounty of sunlight, the warm days and calm nights, almost no threat of major storms (in Mediterranean climates), and thus little to threaten the fruit.
Summer thus offers few temptations by those other gods, but plenty for which to give thanks to the One.
* Unless, you are way down south, of course, in which case it’s the winter solstice.
** Well, other then the squirrels and birds that the Ladera Frutal Dept. of Fruitland Security is always looking for new ways to keep at bay.
Moon and sun data from timeanddate.com.
The connection between agriculture, mono- vs. poly-theism, and the Jewish festivals is developed in a terrific book by Nogah Hareuveni, Nature in our Biblical Heritage (Kiryat Ono, Israel: Neot Kedumim, 1980). There is nothing in that book about the summer solstice, however, because of there being no significant Jewish tradition about this solar event. There is an interesting discussion about Tu B’Av, however, but one thing at at time! That’s not till next month.