Jewish Cycles of the Moon (Jill Hammer)
The Jewish calendar is rooted in the cycles of the moon. Each month of the year is a lunar month, beginning on the new moon and ending when the moon is dark. Jews celebrate the first day of the month, the new moon or Rosh Chodesh, as a minor holiday. Sometime during the first two weeks of the month, often at the end of the Sabbath, Jews recite a blessing over the moon in gratitude for having been given the cycles of time. In the last week of the month, on the morning of the Sabbath, Jews announce the name and date of the coming month both as a welcome and a reminder to the community. This announcement signals that the current month is coming to a close. Some Jewish traditions refer to the last day of the month, the dark of the moon, as Yom Kippur Katan (a little day of atonement), and regard it as a day of fasting and penitence. Then the new moon of the next month begins. When the moon dies we contemplate our own mortality, and at the birth of the moon we celebrate our potential for rebirth.
One of the words for "moon" or “month” is chodesh, renewal. The traditional Jewish blessing over the waxing moon says to the moon: “You are a crown of glory for those who are borne in the womb, for they, like you, are destined to be renewed.” Jewish tradition sees the cycles of the moon as a metaphor for the renewal of life.
The New Moon: Rosh Chodesh
In biblical times, Rosh Chodesh was a festival, and priests offered special celebratory sacrifices (Numbers 29:6). In rabbinic times, when a court of rabbinic judges sat in Jerusalem, witnesses came to the court every month to announce that they had seen the new moon, and Jews lit bonfires on the mountains to announce its arrival (Mishnah Rosh haShanah 1:1-9). Today Rosh Chodesh remains a minor holiday for all traditional Jews, marked by the reciting of special Psalms and sections of the Torah.
According to both the Talmud and mystical tradition, the new moon is a time to celebrate the reappearance of the Shekhinah, the feminine Divine presence (Babylonian talmud, Sanhedrin 42a). This is one reason that, from Talmudic times, Jewish tradition has designated Rosh Chodesh as a special holiday for women. In the Middle Ages, Jewish women did not work on Rosh Chodesh. Instead, they held feasts, charity collections, and even gambling parties with one another (or, sometimes, they saved their laundry to do on Rosh Chodesh!). In recent years, modern women have reclaimed Rosh Chodesh as a special day for women, creating Rosh Chodesh groups for study and creative ritual.
The tradition offers three reasons for this. The one I like best goes as follows: when the Israelites in the wilderness gave their most beautiful materials for the making of the mishkan (the dwelling place of God's presence, coming from the same word as Shekhinah), women donated more than men. The Torah says that “the men gathered upon the women”, implying that the women were more quick to come to give the Shekhinah their treasures. Therefore, women refrain from weaving, spinning, and sewing on Rosh Chodesh in honor of their generosity and zealousness (Rashi on Megillah 22b). In this story, women are the most enthusiastic givers to the mishkan, which represents the indwelling Divine Presence. This parallels women's association with the Shekhinah.
Another midrash credits women with faith in the oneness of God. This legend
comments on the story of the Golden Calf, when the Israelite nation made and
worshipped a golden statue of a calf while Moses was receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai:
The women heard about the making of the Golden Calf and refused to give
their jewelry to their husbands. Instead, they said to them: ‘You want to
construct an idol, a molten form which is an abomination? We won't listen to
you!’ And the Holy One of Blessing rewarded them in this world that they
would observe the new moons more than men, and in the next world they are
destined to be renewed like the moon... (Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer 45)
This midrash suggests when the Israelites are afraid God had abandoned them, the women have faith that God's presence will return. So women are especially associated with the moon, which disappears and returns.
The third story explaining the connection between women and the new moon is
perhaps the most telling. According to the Talmud, the moon starts an
argument because she and the sun are the same size:
The moon said to God: ‘Sovereign of the Universe, can two kings share a
single crown?’ God replied: ‘Go and make yourself smaller.’ ‘Sovereign of
the Universe,’ she said to him, 'because I made a proper claim before you, am
I to make myself smaller?’ He said to her, 'Go, and you will rule over both
the day and the night.' She said 'What good is a lamp in broad daylight?' He
said, 'Go! Israel shall use you to count the days and the years.' (The moon
went on complaining).... On seeing that the moon would not be consoled, the
Holy One of Blessing said 'Bring an atonement for me for making the moon
smaller.' (Hence the sin-offering of the new moon was offered in the Temple.) (Babylonian Talmud, Chullin 60b)
In this story, the moon asks: how can two beings be equally powerful? Instead of answering her, God commands the moon to make herself smaller implying that one luminary does have to be bigger. But the moon finds this unfair, no matter what other gifts God gives her in compensation. God is eventually forced to admit the injustice of this situation, and makes a sin-offering every month on the new moon to atone. So too, though women have been unfairly diminished within the tradition, they have continued to pursue equity and fairness. Just as the moon, according to legend, will be restored to her full size in
the time of the Messiah, so many women hope to achieve full equality when society is transformed.
Rosh haShanah, the new year and festival of the rebirth of the world, falls
on the new moon. Like the new moon itself, Rosh haShanah is a time of celebrating the Shekhinah’s presence among us and of beginning again. The end of Chanukah, which is a time of increasing light, also falls on Rosh Chodesh.
The Waxing Moon: Kiddush Levanah
The waxing moon is marked by the Birkat Levanah or Kiddush Levanah, the blessing over the moon. From three days after the new moon to fourteen days after the new moon, it is permitted to recite the blessing, but only if one can actually see the moon in the sky. Kiddush Levanah is one Jewish ritual that takes Jews outside into nature, and it is often performed Saturday night, at the end of the Sabbath, on the steps of the synagogue.
One must be able to see the moon at the time that one recites the blessing. After reciting the blessing over the moon, it is proper to dance joyfully and to greet three people with the worlds "shalom aleichem." It is also customary to sing the song "David melekh yisrael chai vekayam" (David the king of Israel lives forever)--because the new moon is also associated with eternal life and messianic times of perfect peace.
The blessing is as follows: Blessed are you, God, ruler of the universe,whose word created the heavens and whose breath created the heavenly hosts, who gave them ordinances that they not change their orbits. Joyful and happy are they to do the will of their creator, a worker of truth whose work is truth! To the moon God said; renew yourself, crown of glory for those borne in the womb, for they like you, are destined to renew themselves,and to give glory to their creator for the sake of God's holy honored sovereignty (malkhut/Shekhinah). Blessed are you, God, renewer of months.
The Talmud states: Rabbi Yochanan said: "Those who recite the blessing over the new moon in its time is as if they greeted the presence of the Shekhinah." The new moon, symbol of rebirth, is a messenger of the Shekhinah, reminding us that we hold change within us.
Kiddush Levanah is a protective time: one practice that some people have is to dance toward the moon and recite three times: I dance toward you but cannot touch you! So may my enemies not be able to touch me for evil."
Some men have reclaimed Kiddush Levanah as a time for celebrating and worshipping with one another. In the Zohar, David, the king of Israel, is a male figure representing the Shekhinah. Kiddush Levanah allows men to greet the David—the poet, scholar, dancer, lover, shepherd—in themselves.
Shavuot, the holiday of the revelation of the Torah and a spring harvest festival, falls at the waxing moon, the time of growth and blessing. Yom Kippur, the holiday of personal growth and change, also falls at this time.
The kabbalists believed that the waxing moon was an auspicious time when the Shekhinah's power increased in the world. Oddly enough, Tisha B'Av, the commemoration of the Temple's destruction, falls at this time too—perhaps because even destruction can be a time of growth. A friend once reported to me the Zen saying, “Yesterday my house burned down. Today I have a better view of the rising moon."
The Full Moon: Keseh
The fifteenth of the Hebrew month is the full moon. The Psalms use the word keseh to describe a festive time, and some commentators believe this word refers to the full moon. Keseh is like kos, cup, and the full moon is like a brimming cup of abundance. Many festivals of freedom and abundance, such as Sukkot, Tu B'Shevat, Purim, and Passover, fall on the full moon. Several years running I have had the privilege to dance in the sukkah, the ritual roofless hut of Sukkot, under a full moon. The roundness and brightness of the moon made me feel that the Shekhinah was watching and celebrating my companions and me in our joy.
In the Zohar, the full moon signals the time when the Divine womb creates
pure and blessed souls. It is the time when the moon and sun, which in kabbalists thought represent the feminine and masculine faces of God, are most in contact. The Zohar writes that at the full moon the Shekhinah is called field of apples, while at the dark moon She is called field of Anatot (meaning poverty).
The Waning Moon: Birkat haChodesh
The two weeks of the waning moon are marked in the synagogue by Birkat haChodesh, the prayer for the next new month. This prayer , recited on the Shabbat before the new moon, focuses not on the renewal of time but on the human desire for safety and sustenance. The prayer asks for "a life of peace, a life of goodness, a life of blessing,
a life of honorable work, a life of bodily health, a life of fearing heaven and fearing wrongdoing,. a life that has no shame..." The prayer then announces: “The new month of ___ will be on ___ day of the week. May it come to us and all Israel for goodness.”
The new moon is a symbol of eternal renewal, and the full moon is focused on the present. The last weeks of the month are focused on hopes and fears for the future. The prayer we use is adapted from the prayer the Talmudic sages used to recite at the end of the Amidah prayer —words that acknowledge our need and vulnerability.
Holidays that fall during the waning days include Chanukah (which extends into the new moon), a holiday celebrating victory after near defeat, and Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, a holiday that marks the end of the Torah and its beginning. These are holidays of descent and ascent—of gateways from death into life.
The Dark of the Moon: Yom Kippur Katan
The dark of the moon, in mystical terms, represents the exile or veiling of
the Shekhinah. It is a time of difficult journeys and of longing for
illumination. This time occurs at the end of the Hebrew month, just before Rosh Chodesh.
Moshe Cordovero of Sfat, a Jewish mystic, began the custom of Yom
Kippur Katan, fasting at the dark of the moon in imitation of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, and seeking sanctification before the new moon arrives. This seems a typical purification practice before rebirth, just as some hold vigils or bathe in a ritual bath before times of spiritual transition. Yet the custom is not widely observed today. Even for those of us who dislike fasting, Yom Kippur Katan can be a time of examining our fears and the hard journeys we must make. Shefa Gold has written a song called “The Dark Rays of the Moon” that honors the sanctity of this time.
Though the mystics believe that every dark moon is a time for reflection, Yom Kippur Katan is not observed before the following months: Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, because Yom Kippur has just occurred and we do not need another one; Tevet because it would fall during Chanukah, which is a time of joy; Iyar, because it would fall during Nissan which also is a month of joy and doesn't allow fasting; and Tishrei because it would fall on the day of Erev Rosh Hashanah, when penitential prayers are not said. If Rosh Chodesh falls on Shabbat, we observe Yom Kippur Katan on the preceding Thursday, because
Friday is too close to Shabbat to be a fast day.
No holidays fall on Yom Kippur Katan, though Chanukah spans it. It is a time of solemnity and inner reflection.
In the evening service, in the prayer for the falling of night, we find the
words: "In Your wisdom You change the times and turn about the seasons."
This happens not only throughout the year but throughout the month. A month is a complete cycle of life, and the five phases of the moon bring us from spring to winter, from youth to old age, and from innocence to experience. When the new moon's sliver of light appears, we begin, once again, to change the times.
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