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Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Night Sky Over Eretz Yisrael©

By Vardah LIttmann                                  Photos by: Chani Feiger

The are 88 star constellations in the night sky. If you would be standing at the equator, you could view them all, that is, different ones at different times of the year. In Eretz Yisroel which is on latitude 32 North, you can view about 69 of these constellations. Depending on the season of the year, different stars are observable. Roughly 2,500 to 3,000 stars can be seen by the unaided eye in ideal conditions from a single spot on earth at a given time. 

For instance in the January/February Israeli winter night sky, you can discern Orion, The Hunter, called Kisil in Hebrew, which is mentioned in Sefer Iyov. The Hunter has a belt made of  a prominent  line of  three bright stars, from which dips a cluster of three smaller stars (the middle one is in fact not a star, but the Orion Nebula) forming his “Hunter's Sword.”

Once Kisil has been identified, you can find nearby his Small Dog and Large Dog, plus The Hare he is hunting. Drawing an imaginary line from the third right-hand star in the belt of Hunter, you reach a reddish star.  Using your imagination again, this star looks like the left eye in the forefront of an ox and is called, you guessed it – Taurus (The Ox - Shor), the mazel of Iyar.

The reason the twelve signs of the Zodiac were chosen from all the other constellations in the heavens is that their orbits circle in direct line with the sun. When they were directly behind the sun (that is, to those observing from the earth), they were believed by ancient peoples to give power to the sun at that specific time of year and thereby influence events.

That is why you see the Mazlot of the summer in the winter sky of Eretz Yisrael. You’ll find  Aries (The Ram -  Taleh), the mazel of Nissan, Gemini (TheTwins- Teumim), the mazel of Sivan, Leo (The Lion - Aryehof Av, and so on, all  in the winter months. But the winter mazel of Shvat and Adar, The Bucket and The Fish respectively, will not be found since they are located behind the sun at this time of year. 

All the heavenly bodies seem to be in motion moving from east to west. As the night progresses, they appear to be floating across the dark velvet sky. But this is an illusion, as in fact it’s the earth that is moving around it own axis, form west to east. Only the planets (Mercury, Venus, Saturn, etc.) actually move.  

If you are ever lost in the wilderness locating the North Star (Polaris) in the night sky is a basic survival skill. The northern star is always found in the same place, which  is true north. The last star in the handle of the Little Dipper constellation is the North Star. If you have trouble finding the Little Dipper, look for the Big Dipper.  The outermost stars of the cup of the Dipper (the two lowest stars in the Big Dipper) form a straight line that "points" to the North Star. You could also look to find the constellation Cassiopeia, (the big 'W')  which is always opposite the Big Dipper. The North Star is located about midway between the central star of Cassiopeia and the Big Dipper.

Ancient people relied heavily on the stars for navigation and direction both on land and sea. The star bodies would guide them to their destinations.  The approaching weather conditions would also be determined by the heavenly bodies. Stargazing was an ancient science of the highest order. Predictions of future events were based on the movements  of the stars. 

Many of Our Sages knew the in and outs of astrology. The sage Shmuel was said to know the pathways of the heavens  as well as he knew the layout of his home town, Nehardiya. When witnesses came to give testimony about the New Moon (Moalad), the presiding Beit Din already knew the exact moment of the moon's renewal. But since it was a mitzvah to mechadesh the new month “al pie stai edim," it was done so.  The Calendar Council knew how to calculate when to add an additional Adar on the basis of astronomical figures and facts which had been handed down by Moshe Rabeinu from Sinia. This method of observation and intercalation was used till the fourth century C.E. At that time Hillel the Nasi saw that due to persecutions and oppression of the nation, the Sanhedrin would soon cease to exist. He therefore made public the system of calendar calculation which until that point had been a closely guarded secret. Hilel formally sanctified all months in advance and intercalated all future leap years till such a time a new recognized Sanhedrin would be established in Yisroel. The truth of our Jewish tradition can be verified by the preciseness of our calendar. If there would have been even the most minuscule fraction of a mistake, over the years this would have added up and caused havoc in our yearly cycle. But 1600 years have passed since the creation of the permanent calendar and thing are running perfectly.   

To join an in depth tour of the stars of the sky over Eretz Yisrael at any time of year, call Shlomo Buskila at 054-7717989 or 050-6761300.   
Published in the 'English Update' 20 January 2011

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