“This month shall be for you the beginning of the months, it shall be for you the first of the months of the year.” (Exodus 12:2)
This is the very first commandment given in bible to the entire nation of Israel and rabbinic tradition understands that it commands us to sanctify each new month, and gives us the authority to declare which is the first day of the month. This declaration was done originally through the examining of witnesses by a Beit Din – rabbinic court – in Jerusalem. Talmud gives very detailed instructions about this activity, not surprising given that this declaration and authority over the calendar by the Rabbis is said even to bind God – the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 8b) declares that the verse in psalms (81:4-5) “Sound the shofar on the new moon for our feast day, for it is a law for Israel, and a ruling of the God of Jacob” (a piece that is central to our Rosh Hashanah liturgy), means that the Court Above does not enter into judgment on Rosh Hashanah until the Court Below has declared the new month of Tishri.
This commandment gives the Jewish people the authority to decide about time. The whole Jewish year, all of Jewish Time, including deciding the date for legal or taxation or deciding ages or festival observance, is dependent on the Court declaring the new month, having listened to and examined all the witnesses who came to speak of having seen the new moon. This control over deciding time is extraordinary, giving the Rabbinic Court a power akin to God’s, Who created time. Being able to control one’s time means being free in a very powerful way – slaves do not manage their own time, and in modern times the balancing of work/life is a critical part of how we experience our lives.
The declaration of the new moon was one of the three activities seen as fundamental to Jewish identity and therefore banned by the Seleucid Empire, against whom the Chanukah revolt took place. The other two were the observance of Brit Milah (circumcision) and Shabbat.
There are two rituals today in which we are able to observe the turning of the month. The first is familiar to many, the Birkat haChodesh read out in synagogue on the Shabbat before the New Moon (except the new moon of Tishri) to remind the community of the fact. Along with the announcement of the date the New Moon would be seen we read: “May it be Your will, our God and the God of our ancestors, that You bring this month to us for goodness and for blessing. May You give us long life – a life of peace, a life of goodness, a life of blessing, a life of sustenance, a life of physical health, a life in which there is fear of heaven and fear of sin, a life in which there is no shame nor humiliation, a life of wealth and honour, a life in which we will have love of Torah and fear of heaven, a life in which our heartfelt requests will be fulfilled for the good. May the Holy One, Blessed is God, renew it for us and for all Your people, the Family of Israel, for life and for peace, for joy and for gladness, for salvation and for consolation, and let us say: Amen.”
But there is another ritual called Birkat haChodesh – and sometimes (wrongly) called Kiddush Levanah – the Sanctification of the Moon, when we bless God as we stand under the night sky in the presence of the new moon. The ritual comes from Talmud, where in Tractate Sanhedrin we find the text of the Blessing: “Praised are you, O Eternal our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who created the skies with Your word, and all heaven’s host with the breath of Your mouth. You gave them appointed times and roles, and they never miss their cues, doing their Creator’s bidding with gladness and joy. God is the true creator who acts faithfully, and who has told the moon to renew itself. It is a beautiful crown for the people carried by God from birth (Israel), who will also be renewed in the future in order to proclaim the beauty of their creator and God’s glorious majesty. Praised are you, O God, who renews new moons.”
Around the Talmudic text we find the idea that the ceremony should take place on a night when the moon is growing (not necessarily the New Moon), preferably on Saturday night when the celebrant will be wearing their best clothes and will be happy. There was a custom of showing one’s joy by dancing and leaping towards the moon, raising the body on tiptoes three times while reciting the formula “As I dance towards you, but cannot touch you, so shall none of my enemies be able to touch me!” and everyone should say to each other “Shalom Aleichem”: “Peace to You”
I have taken part in this ritual within a community exactly five times in my life, but each time have become more aware of the praise of nature and of God’s role as the creator of nature, which is something that we lose often in our liturgical mainstream. Each time the symbolism of the moon, which waxes and wanes, which sometimes hangs low and almost tangible in the night sky and which sometimes is hidden; the moon which influences our world so powerfully but so invisibly – from the flow of the tides to the stable axial tilt; from the comfort of light at darkest night and darkness of a moonless night – the moon symbolises so much more than just a satellite orbiting the earth and lit by the sun. It symbolises continuity, growth and renewal, weakness and ending followed by increase in strength and fulfilment. It is no wonder that Jewish texts liken the people Israel to the moon, with our fluctuating history and our constant return to life – the moon symbolises hope, renewal, constant change within a clear set of parameters. Talmud tells us that Rabbi Yochanan said “reciting the blessing over the moon at the appropriate time is like being in the presence of the Shechinah (Divine Presence).. and the school of Rabbi Ishmael said “if the Children of Israel are privileged to greet their father in heaven once a month, it is enough”. Now while I am not advocating a connection with Jewish ritual only once a month, it is a powerful reminder that our experience of nature reflects and enhances our experience of God. And we can experience nature at any moment – currently the blossom is out on the trees and the spring bulbs are flowering. The encounter with nature only takes for us to open our eyes and see – and from that looking at our world we can feel hope and a sense of the continuity through the changing world. Be it the moon, be it other aspects of creation, be it the Creator, the privilege of perceiving this hope must be enough.
Image by Eric Teske (CC BY-NC 3.0)