Ask the Rabbi: The sanctification of the moon

Different measures were taken to highlight our belief in God as controller of the cosmos.

moon 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
moon 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Q The ritual of blessing the new moon confuses me. Are we praying to the moon?- Jon L., Toronto A The ritual blessing of the new moon, colloquially known as kiddush levana (although more properly named birkat levana), developed over many centuries, thereby accruing different layers of rituals that embellish its meaning but sometimes confuse its message. The ritual originates in talmudic times, with the sages declaring, "Anyone who blesses the new moon in the proper time, it is as if he greeted the Divine Presence" (Sanhedrin 42a). Far from being moon-worship, the ritual serves as one of the many blessings we recite to acknowledge God's continual control over nature. As the blessing itself extols, "Blessed are You, Lord our God, king of the universe, who by His word created the heavens, and by His breath all their host. He set for them laws and times, so that they should not deviate from their appointed task..." R. Menahem Hameiri (13th century, Provence) explains that the wonders of nature exemplify God's presence in the world and demand from us to praise His greatness. Indeed, the Talmud Yerushalmi (Brachot 9:3), followed by Maimonides (Hilchot Brachot 10:16), codifies kiddush levana with other laudatory blessings recited over natural wonders, such as rainbows. Nonetheless, given the context of moon-worship found in other societies, different measures were taken to highlight (and make unambiguous) our belief in God as controller of the cosmos. Kabbalists added as an introductory hymn Psalm 148, which describes the heavenly bodies' praise of God's rule, a poem immediately follows the blessing that praises God as the moon's creator, and the Aleinu prayer was included as a concluding blessing to proclaim God's kingship over the world (Biur Halacha 426). Some raised concerns that Jews congregating outdoors to recite prayers while staring at the moon might give the wrong impression. They dictated that one should only momentarily stare at the moon before reciting the blessing, but then look away for the rest of the ritual to show that we direct our prayers to God (Magen Avraham 426, quoting Shlah). A major dispute developed regarding the proper date to recite the blessing. Maimonides and other medieval Spanish authorities, following the plain reading of the Talmud, ruled that we recite kiddush levana starting from the first day of the month, when the crescent phase of the moon's cycle begins. Similarly, the Talmud rules that one cannot recite the blessing after the 15th day of the month, when the moon beings to wane. Many authorities, however, contended that one should wait 72 hours into the crescent period, when the moon's rejuvenation becomes more visible (Sefer Eshkol). However, Masechet Sofrim (19:1), one of the Talmud's minor tractates, advocates reciting kiddush levana immediately after Shabbat, when we are still surrounded by the fine aromas and clothing of Shabbat. (Shabbat itself, some scholars speculate, was not chosen since we already acknowledge the divine rulership that day in kiddush). Especially with the potentially larger post-Shabbat participation, this atmosphere, which was first accepted in France and Germany, transformed kiddush levana into a more festive ritual. The historian Yaakov Gratner has also speculated that this embellishment might stem from an attempt to recreate the joyful celebrations of the new month in Jerusalem during talmudic times. Some authorities opposed this custom, especially in rainy climates, when postponing the blessing might close the window of opportunity to see the frequently cloud-covered moon within the crescent period. Nonetheless, the custom to recite the blessing after Shabbat has become widely accepted (Orah Hayim 426:2), and consequently most people today wait until the first Saturday night following three days of the new moon. The festive embellishment of kiddush levana complements the blessing's second and more subtle theme that the moon's constant rejuvenation symbolizes the hope for the Jewish people's coming redemption. As the primary blessing continues, "To the moon He said that it should renew itself as a crown of splendor for those he carried from the womb [Israel], for they are destined to be renewed like it..." Many of the other poems included in the ritual carry this theme, including the famous song, "David, king of Israel, lives and endures... May it be a good sign and a good omen for us and all of Israel." One startling custom along this theme includes rising on one's toes in dance as we recite, "Just as I dance before you but cannot touch you, so may none of my enemies be able to touch me." Besides creating Jewish break-dancing, bopping on one's toes allayed fears that the bodily gestations of actual dancing might be misconstrued as bowing to the moon (Magen Avraham). The writer, editor of TraditionOnline.org, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University. [email protected]