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August 3, 2015 / 18 Av, 5775
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Q & A: Kiddush Levana (Part I)


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QUESTION: Why do we say Shalom Aleichem at Kiddush Levana, when we bless the new moon, and why do we do so three times? Is it because we have not seen a new moon for a whole month? Can you explain a little more about this mitzva?
Ira Warshansky
Philadelphia, PA
ANSWER: Indeed you are correct in your assumption that we are pleased to see the moon return, and for good reason, as it is the moon which forms the basis for the Jewish year.In the very first Rashi commentary on the Bible we find the statement that the Torah should have begun from the verse in Parashat Bo (Exodus 12:1), “Vayomer Hashem el Moshe ve’el Aharon be’eretz Mitzrayim lemor, Hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chodashim, rishon hu lachem lechodshei hashana – Hashem said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying: This month is to be for you the beginning of months, it shall be for you the first of the months of the year”. This is the first mitzva that the Jewish people were commanded as a people. And since the main purpose of the Torah consists of its commandments, beginning the Torah with a mitzva would seem to make sense. (We do find a few commands in the Book of Genesis, such as the command to be fruitful and multiply [peru u’revu], circumcision on the eighth day, and gid ha’nasheh [the prohibition of eating the sinew of the thigh], which could have been included along with the other commandments had G-d so intended.)

Siftei Chachamim explains Rashi’s statement to mean that the Torah did not have to include all the incidents and historical accounts of our forefathers, as these could have been included separately in another volume, just as we have the Book of Joshua and others.

“Hachodesh hazeh” includes the first mitzva (rosh chodesh), a most important one. As we see in both the first and second chapter of Tractate Rosh Hashana, extreme care was given to the proper timing and proclamation of rosh chodesh. Based on witnesses’ testimony, the precise timing of rosh chodesh was crucial for the proper functioning of the Jewish calendar, which is based on the monthly cycle of the moon. Our calendar incorporates another requirement: All the festivals must occur during their proper seasons.

Yet our sages understood that if one were to strictly follow a single set of rules, it would be impossible to satisfy the other requirement. Therefore, a whole formula of calculation was instituted to synchronize the requirements. Ibn Ezra (Shemot 12:1) explains this in great detail.

We know that our festivals are very dependent on the lunar cycle since all biblical references to their yearly arrival is based on the timing of the months. Passover arrives on the 15th of Nissan (the first month), and Shavuot follows 49 days later. Rosh Hashana is referred to as the first day of the seventh month (Tishrei), Yom Hakippurim as the tenth day of that month, and Sukkot comes on the 15th.

Rashi (ad loc.) explains, quoting the Mechilta (Shemot Rabbah), that G-d actually showed Moses the exact shape of the moon that one must see to determine that a specific viewing constitutes a new moon.

The Gemara (Menachot 29a) explains that a Tanna of the school of R. Yishmael taught that three matters remained difficult for Moses until G-d specifically showed them to him with His finger. All three include the word zeh (this): the menorah in the Holy Temple, as it says (Numbers 8:4), “And this is the workmanship of the candelabra”; rosh chodesh, as it says (supra), “This month is to be for you …”; and sheratzim, creeping creatures, as it says (Leviticus 11:29), “And this shall be for you unclean…” Others add even a fourth, the laws of ritual slaughtering, as it says (Exodus 29:38), “And this is what you shall offer upon the altar.” Rashi (Menachot 29a) explains that in all these cases Moses was not able to discern on his own precisely how it had to be done.

The mishna (Rosh Hashana 24a) tells us that based on what Moses saw, and what was subsequently handed down from generation to generation, R. Gamaliel fashioned a picture of the moon in its various phases and would ask the witnesses to a new moon, “Did you see such or did you see such?” as a means of ascertaining whether it was indeed a new moon.

Thus we see that the mitzva of the sanctification of the month is one of such exacting specifications that only after it was shown to Moses by G-d did Moses fully understand it.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 42a) teaches us another mitzva associated with the new moon – Kiddush Levana. The Gemara quotes R. Acha b. Chanina who said in the name of R. Asi in R. Yochanan’s name: “He who blesses the new moon in its due time welcomes, as it were, the Holy Presence, for it states in our verse (supra), ‘This month is to you …’ and it says in yet another verse (Shirat HaYam, Exodus 15:2), ‘… This is my G-d, I shall glorify Him….'”

It was taught in the school of R. Yishmael that had Israel merited only to greet the Presence of their Father in Heaven but once every month, that would have been sufficient. Rashi explains this to mean that even if this had been their only mitzva, in and of itself it would suffice to sustain us. Abaye says that therefore we must recite that prayer while standing.

The Gemara then quotes R. Yehuda, who would bless the new moon with the text that we recite today, as quoted both by Rambam (Hilchot Berachot 16) and by the Tur and R. Yosef Caro (Orach Chayyim 426, Hilchot Rosh Chodesh). The Tur and the Mechaber add extra verses quoted from Tractate Soferim (20:2), which also quotes the Gemara in Sanhedrin: “Siman tov etc.,” three times, “Baruch yotzrech etc.” three times while “dancing” (rising on our toes), “Keshem she’ani ro’ked etc.” three times, “Tippol aleihem etc.” (May Your fear and dread fall upon them etc.) stepping three times forwards and three times backwards,
and “Shalom aleichem” three times.

Our present text includes some variations of extra prayers that we have added over time.

But why are these various pesukim said three times? The Perisha (O.C. 426) explains that we say Shalom alecha (actually we say Shalom aleichem) three times because we previously cursed our enemies with “Tippol aleihem.” Thus we are assuring our friends that we do not wish this upon them, but rather peace (shalom).

One may find it rather odd that the Perisha does not explain why the other verses are said three times, including “Tippol aleihem,” which is the reason for saying “Shalom aleichem” three times.

(To be continued)

About the Author: Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at yklass@jewishpress.com.


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