50,000 Participate in Once-in-28-year Prayer Ritual for Sun at Western Wall

More than 50,000 Jews flocked to the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City before dawn Wednesday to recite a prayer said once every 28 years to bless the sun.

For many of the participants, it was their first time reciting the "Birkat Hachama" prayer, which by Jewish tradition marks the sun's return to its starting point at the moment the universe was created, after completing a 28-year cycle known as the "machzor gadol," or "large cycle."

Thousands more took part in prayer sessions around Israel, including on the roofs of Tel Aviv's Azrieli buildings and the ancient desert fortress of Masada.

"God created the world in seven days," said Yona Vogel, who attended the Western Wall prayers. "On the fourth day he put the sun into orbit and every 28 years it returns to the original place where it stood when God created the world."

The Birkat Hachama was marked in many time zones, starting with members of the small Jewish community in New Zealand.

The prayer came on the eve of the weeklong Pesach holiday, commemorating the exodus from slavery in Egypt. The timing was coincidental, but added to the joyous feeling felt by many worshippers.

In New York City, a rabbi was to lead a gathering at 7 A.M. local time near the United Nations. Another group was to pray on the deck of a 17th-story penthouse near ground zero, the site of the demolished World Trade Center.

The Birkat Hachama was last said in 1981. A ceremony was held on the 107th-story observation deck of the World Trade Center's South Tower, and the rabbi on the penthouse dedicated Wednesday's blessing to the memory of those who died in the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Organizers of a ceremony on the boardwalk in Long Beach, New York, on Long Island, said they would distribute sunglasses to worshippers. But they might go unused; the forecast was for a cloudy morning.

An especially colorful ceremony was reported by The New York Times in 1897, when a rabbi was arrested for presiding over the ritual as hundreds of Jews assembled without a permit in a city park. "The attempt of a foreign citizen to explain to an American Irishman [policeman] an astronomical situation and a tradition of the Talmud was a dismal failure," the Times reported.

Devout Jews emphasize that they are not worshipping the sun, but rather paying homage to God.

Modern science may have overtaken the astronomy of the scriptures, but scholars say the blessing still has symbolic value as acknowledgment of the divine role in the universe.