Question: I have numerous questions about Kiddush Levanah. First, why is this prayer called Kiddush Levanah? Shouldn’t it be called Chiddush Levanah considering that the prayer concerns the renewal – not the sanctification – of the moon? Second, why do we greet each other with the words Shalom Aleichem at Kiddush Levanah and why do we repeat the greeting three times? Is it because we have not seen a new moon for a whole month? Third, why does Kiddush Levanah – and other prayers – contain verses (aside from the Shalom Aleichem greeting) that we are supposed to say three times? Please elaborate on this mitzvah.
Answer: Your point about the name of the prayer is well taken. I assume you took your cue from the conclusion of the blessing that serves as the core of Kiddush Levanah: “Baruch Ata…mechadesh chadashim – Blessed are You Hashem who renews the new moons.” If we were reciting a prayer about sanctifying the new moon, the blessing would have read “mekadesh chadashim – who sanctifies the new moons.”
Why, then, is the prayer called Kiddush Levanah? Rabbi Yosef Grossman, zt”l (Otzar Erchei HaYahadut, p. 421), explains that it is “called [Kiddush Levanah] because of Kiddush Hachodesh (the sanctification of the new moon), which would come about through the testimony of witnesses who would attest before beit din to seeing [the new moon].”
You are also correct in assuming that we are pleased to see the return of a new moon since the moon forms the basis for the Jewish year. The renewal of the moon is so important that, in his very first comment on the Bible, Rashi asks why the Torah does not begin with Kiddush Hachodesh, which was the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people. The Torah should have started with Exodus 12:1-2: “Vayomer Hashem el Moshe ve’el Aharon be’eretz Mitzrayim lemor, Hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chodashim, rishon hu lachem lechodshei hashanah – 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.”
Since the essence of the Torah is the commandments, beginning the Torah with a mitzvah would seem to make sense. It’s true that Genesis contains several mitzvot – such as the command to be fruitful and multiply, to circumcise one’s son on the eighth day after his birth, and to refrain from eating the sinew of an animal’s thigh – but Hashem could have moved these mitzvot to Sefer Shemot along with the other commandments and started the Torah with Kiddush Hachodesh.
Siftei Chachamim explains that Rashi means to say that the Torah did not have to include all the historical accounts of our forefathers. They could have appeared in a separate historical volume similar to the historical books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, etc. (In truth, the history of the world from creation already appears in Divrei HaYamim which could have sufficed.)
Kiddush Hachodesh is a most important mitzvah. As we see in both the first and second chapter of Tractate Rosh Hashanah, extreme care was given to the proper timing and proclamation of rosh chodesh. Based on witnesses’ testimony, the declaration of the new month was crucial for the proper functioning of the Jewish calendar, which is based on the monthly lunar cycle.
All biblical references to the festivals are based on the timing of the months. Pesach arrives on the 15th of Nissan (the first month), and Shavuot follows 49 days later. Rosh Hashanah arrives on the first day of the seventh month (Tishrei), Yom Hakippurim on the tenth day of that same month, and Sukkot on the 15th.
All the festivals, however, must also occur during their proper seasons. Pesach, for example, must be observed in the spring. Since the seasons follow the solar cycle of 365 days while the Jewish year follows the lunar cycle of 354 days, a formula was instituted to synchronize the solar and lunar years. Ibn Ezra (Exodus 12:1) explains this in great detail.
Rashi (ad loc.) quotes the Mechilta (Shemot Rabbah) which states that G-d actually showed Moses the exact shape of the moon that one must see to declare 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 (Exodus 12:2), “This month is to be for you”; and sheratzim as it says (Leviticus 11:29), “And this shall be for you unclean.”