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 mitzvah?
Answer: You are correct in your assumption that we are pleased to see the moon return, and for good reason, as it is the moon that 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), “Hashem said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying: This month [hachodesh hazeh] 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 mitzvah 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 mitzvah would seem to make sense.
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 mitzvah, Rosh Chodesh, a most important one. As we see in both the first and second chapters of Tractate Rosh Hashanah, extreme care was given to the proper timing and proclamation of Rosh Chodesh. Based on witnesses’s 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 Hashanah 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), “V’zeh ma’aseh ha’menorah… – And this is the workmanship of the candelabra…”; Rosh Chodesh, as it says (supra, Exodus12: 2), “Hachodesh hazeh lachem… –This month is to be for you …”; and sheratzim, creeping creatures, as it says (Leviticus 11:29), “V’zeh lachem ha’tamei… –And this shall be for you unclean…” Others add even a fourth, the laws of ritual slaughtering, as it says (Exodus 29:38), “V’zeh asher ta’aseh al ha’mizbe’ach… – 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 Hashanah 24a) tells us that based on what Moses saw, and what was subsequently handed down from generation to generation, R. Gamliel 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 mitzvah of Kiddush Levana, the sanctification of the new moon, is 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 important aspect of this mitzvah associated with 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.
It was taught in the school of R. Yishmael that had Israel only merited greeting 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 mitzvah, in and of itself it would suffice to sustain us. Abaye says that therefore we must recite that prayer while standing.
(To be continued)