At the beginning of the lunar month, the moon is positioned between the earth and the sun, causing the illuminated side of the moon to face away from the earth and leaving the moon looking dark in the sky. A few days into the new month, the moon appears progressively until it reaches its fullness, and then it wanes until, again, it cannot be seen, and the cycle begins anew. Our Sages instituted a ritual pursuant to which one recites Kiddush Levana, or the “Sanctification of the Moon,” upon seeing the moon at the first stage of its renewal.
The origins of the term are lost to antiquity. Its original name was most likely Birkat HaLevana (the “Blessing of the New Moon”), which is the title used by the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 26) and by which it is known by Sefardim to this day, though some renowned Ashkenazic leaders, including the Rema (426:2), use that name as well.
Kiddush Levana is actually as much mystical as it is ritual. The commentators explain that by reciting this blessing one essentially acknowledges that it is G-d who has created the universe.
The details of the ceremony have evolved over many centuries, but what has remained constant is that each month, shortly after the appearance of the new moon, Jews gather outdoors, usually after Maariv, to recite the blessing and a series of prayers in praise of the moon’s cycle of renewal. Contrary to the erroneous belief of many, the rite is the antithesis of “moon worship;” rather, it is an unambiguous affirmation of, and gratitude for, G-d’s continuing mastery over nature.
The first known source for this rite is the Talmud in Sanhedrin 42a, which teaches in the name of Rav Yochanan that “anyone who blesses the new moon is as if he has greeted the Shechina (the Divine Presence),” and codifies the basic blessing recited to this day:
Praised are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who created the skies with His word, and all heaven’s host with the breath of His mouth. He gave them appointed times and roles, and they never miss their cues, doing their Creator’s bidding with gladness and joy. He is the true Creator who acts faithfully, and He has told the moon to renew itself. It is a beautiful crown for the people carried by G-d from birth [i.e., Israel], who will likewise be renewed in the future in order to proclaim the beauty of their Creator for His glorious majesty. Praised are you Hashem, who renews new moons.
Kabbalists later added Psalm 148, which famously praises G-d and proclaims that “sun and moon praise Him . . for He commanded and they were created and He established them forever . . .” The Aleinu prayer was added as an expression of G-d’s infinite kingship over the entire world, and other changes were effected over time.
The Talmud Yerushalmi in Brachot codifies Kiddush Levana with other blessings of praise recited over natural wonders, such as mountains, oceans and rainbows, any time a person is emotionally moved by G-d’s incredible natural creations. Interestingly, many synagogues would post the text of the prayer in large type outside the building, which is why the term “kiddush levana letters” has come to mean any text written in unusually large letters.
There are several interpretations of the ritual. One is that Kiddush Levana is an act that symbolizes an important way for Jews to come closer to their Creator, and to understand Him and appreciate Him through His astonishing creations. In that sense, the moon is particularly connected with this purpose because the Jewish people are often compared to it; just as G-d created the moon to reflect the light of the sun through dark nights, so He has charged the Jewish people to reflect holiness in a spiritually dark world.
A second interpretation proposes that G-d, as Creator, fashioned the moon to appear in a constant cycle of increasing and decreasing size so that we may internalize an important lesson with respect to His manifestation as the G-d of Jewish history. This idea was beautifully captured by Rav Sholom Noach Berezovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe, who wrote in his Sefer Netivot Shalom:
One could say that the idea of Israel counting [its months] according to the moon is that the moon has time when it is at the peak of its darkness and you don’t even see a glimmer of light, but even at that peak of darkness you know that it will start to give light again and even return to its fullness. So, too, with the life of the Jewish people, which follows the example of the moon; the order of life for the Jewish people is that it has consecutive periods of darkness, and so many of its days are in exile where they suffer many evil challenges. However, Israel counts according to the moon so that even at the peak of their darkness, they know that they will return to give much light as they once did.
Kiddush Levana is thus a ritual of both faith and hope for the entire Jewish nation, providing a visceral way for us to contemplate the long arc of Jewish history.
Moreover, the phases of the moon are a metaphor for the Davidic dynasty, and Kiddush Levana is an expression of our belief that there will come a time – with the coming of the Messiah, a scion of the House of David – when the light of the Jewish nation will no longer be diminished and will eternally retain its illuminating power. It is for that reason that the custom is to sing David melech Yisrael chai v’kayam (“David, King of Israel, is alive and enduring”) during the rite.
A third explanation focuses on the tradition to turn to at least three people – representing the three names for the moon in Hebrew, levana, yareach, and sahar – after the recitation of the prayer to wish them a hearty shalom aleichem (may peace be upon you). This is to demonstrate to G-d that just as we have now greeted Him to thank Him for the moon, his creation, so too do we immediately turn to His most beloved creation, the Jewish people, to greet and bless them.
A fascinating fourth etiological explanation has its origins in the Midrash, Babylonian Talmud, Hullin 60b. As unambiguously laid out by the creation verses of Genesis, the sun and the moon were originally created as equal in power until the moon, seeking greater power for itself and citing the unavoidable conflict arising out of the existence of the two equal rulers, approached G-d and pointedly asked: “Is it possible for two kings to wear one crown?”
According to another Medrash, the moon spoke metaphorically: “Blessed Holy One, Sovereign of the Universe, why have you created two worlds, this world and the world to come, one small and one great?” In both versions, the Creator’s response is harsh and punitive: “Go then and diminish yourself.”
However, while making clear that the sun will always retain its supremacy, G-d makes a series of gestures designed to placate the moon, which the moon rejects. Finally, G-d assures the moon that, although small, it will nonetheless be beloved to the Jewish people, who themselves are “small among the nations.” Thus, we recite Kiddush Levana each month to mark G-d’s promise to the moon. [It is interesting to note that there is a “Blessing of the Sun” but, recited only once every 28 years, it is the rarest prayer in Jewish liturgy.]
The ceremony is one of great joy, which some commentators explain is designed to recreate the joyful celebrations of the new month in Jerusalem during talmudic times. This is why the tradition is to recite it immediately after Shabbat on Saturday night – provided that the moon is visible and not totally covered by clouds – when the residue of the joy of Shabbat remains.
Moreover, the time immediately following Shabbat is a particularly auspicious time to recite Kiddush Levana for two additional reasons: First, because the people coming out of shul are dressed in their Shabbat finery, which is a most appropriate way to greet the Divine Presence and, second, because the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed on Saturday night and we pray for the Messiah to come and rebuild it speedily, in our day.
After the first moon landing on July 20, 1969, then-Tzahal Chief Chaplain (and later Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi) Shlomo Goren issued instructions about a change in Kiddush Levana: since the italicized portion of “As I dance before you and cannot touch you, so my enemies will not be able to touch me” is no longer true, Rav Goren replaced it with “As I dance toward you and do not touch you . . .”
Shown on these pages are a variety of items from my collection of Kiddush Levana materials. I am particularly drawn to the turn of the 19th century postcards exhibited here, particularly the beauty of their illuminative quality and the feelings they evoke with respect to the devout Jews who went out into the cold European night to perform this ancient rite of their ancestors.
It is interesting to note that many of the cards include wishes for a Happy New Year and, in fact, many Rosh Hashana greeting cards at the time featured a Kiddush Levana theme. This is not only because the birth of the new moon represents the birth of a new year, but also because of the custom in the month of Tishrei to hold off reciting Kiddush Levana until the night that Yom Kippur ends. As we leave our synagogues after Yom Kippur, we have been forgiven for all our sins and therefore emerge in a particular state of purity fit to receive the Divine Presence, which is the essence of Kiddush Levana.
Shown here is a beautiful handwritten Blessing of the Month written in Rotterdam in 1813 by Israel or Shmuel Katz (the first name is torn off at the bottom right). As early as 1610, the Rotterdam city fathers guaranteed freedom of worship to Jews and the right to build a synagogue and, by the end of the eighteenth century, 2,500 Jews lived in Rotterdam, the largest Jewish population in the Netherlands outside of Amsterdam.
Under the reign of King Willem I of the Netherlands, in 1814 – the year after this document was written – the Rotterdam Jewish community established its regional importance by being named the seat of the provincial chief rabbinate, and the Jewish population of the city went on to grow fourfold over the course of the nineteenth century.
Shown below is Welcoming the New Moon, an original etching drawn and signed by Joseph Budko.
Budko created a whole new Jewish iconography ranging from Zionist symbols to representations of the world of the shtetl of his youth. Developing a unique style which combined personal attitude with Jewish mentality and which synthesized Jewish tradition with a modern artistic approach, he was among an influential group of graphic Jewish artists who embraced the revival of the woodcut, a medium which lent itself perfectly to express the views of Israel and Jewish culture in various lands. He used the expressive form of the printing methods – etchings, woodcuts, and lithographs – to revive the use of graphic and book illustration in the Jewish art world.
Exhibited here is a Birkat Halevana (note the use of the Sephardi name) cardboard document issued by the Keren Ha-Torah of Agudat Yisrael in Germany (1940) containing the full text of the prayer on the verso (not shown here):
The Blessing of the New Moon is a welcome occasion to ask you the following questions: Have you paid your monthly fee? . . . Did your friends do the same? . . . Will you help Keren Ha-Torah to maintain 8 schools with 13 teachers and 370 children . . . It is so easy to be counted among those who demand and strengthen Torah in Germany ….
A document announcing the Blessing of the New Month in the Ukraine on Shabbat Mevarchim HaChodesh, Adar Rishon, Parshat Mishpatim (Odessa, 1908). The molad (in general, the precise moment when the new moon is “born”) is announced s taking place 49 minutes and 12 chlakim after 12.