A Jewish Summer Solstice Ritual

The summer solstice this year falls on June 21 at 7:26 EST. The Hebrew date will be 25 Sivan.

The summer solstice marks the longest day, the moment in the northern hemisphere when the sun's light is at its strongest. Many cultures celebrate the solstice with bonfires, immersions, or fertility rites. Jews have not traditionally had a sumemr solstice ritual per se, but Medieval European Jews marked the summer solstice by not drawing water, because they believed the water might be affected by the eerie power of the day. A number of biblical events are said in Jewish legend to have happened on the summer solstice, including the expulsion from Eden (Book of Jubilees) and the moment when Moses struck the rock to get water for the Jewish people (Machzor Vitry). Miriam's expulsion from the camp and her seven days in the desert also took place around this time.

Where in Jewish tradition might we find a source for a ritual to honor the fire of the sun? Around the summer solstice, Jews read in the Torah the story of the elders. Moses is weary of leading the people by himself, and the Holy One invites him to put his spirit on seventy other people:

“Then the Eternal said to Moses, ‘’Gather for me seventy of Israel’s elders of whom you have experience as elders and officers of the people, and bring them to the Tent of Meeting and let them take their place there with you. I will come down and speak with you there, and I will draw upon the spirit that is on you and put it on them; they shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone.”
Numbers 11:16-17

A midrash suggests that this "passing of the spirit" is like the passing of a flame from one candle to another:

“To what is this similar? To a candle that was burning, and one lit from it many other candles, yet the light of its flame did not diminish. So too, Moses gave of his spirit and lost nothing of his own.”
Numbers Rabbah 15:19

In fact, another midrash suggests that Miriam and Tziporah attend a candle-lighting ceremony to honor the elders:

“When the elders were appointed, all Israel lit candles for them and rejoiced in them. Miriam saw the candles burning and said to Tziporah: ‘What is going on with these candles?’
Yalkut Shimoni 838

What, indeed, is going on with these candles? They seem to represent the celebration of wisdom and the transmission of spirit. What if we were to extend these flames not to seventy chosen elders but to all whose wisdom has guided and shaped us?

Perhaps we might choose to honor the many flames of wisdom, love, and justice in our community with a candlelighting ritual at this time of year. We might gather in a circle, holding candles, and pass the flame from one person to another, sharing our own brightness as we share the light of the sun.

And/or, we might light candles at the center of the circle to honor light-bearers in our tradition: Miriam and Tziporah as well as Moses and Aaron, and other spiritual teachers whom we honor, from the generations and from our own communities.

It might be appropriate to do this ritual at sunset, since, although the sun is in its power, its light will begin to diminish as the solstice passes. We store up the sun's heat within us for the future, and we store up the wisdom and love we receive from others so that we may draw on it and share it in time to come.

As the sun reaches its peak of strength, may we take in its light, and may we strengthen the light within us.

Rabbi Jill Hammer is the director of Tel Shemesh and the author of The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons, as well as Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women.

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