Monthly Encounter With the Divine

The ritual of blessing the moon is not widely practiced--but carries deep spiritual meaning.

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The Blessing

In fact, it is not the moon that is blessed or sanctified in birkat hachodesh or birkat halevanah, but God who is praised for renewing the moon, with the following blessing (Sanhedrin 42a):

"Praised are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who created (bara’) 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 (konam) bidding with gladness and joy. He is the true creator (po’el) who acts faithfully, and he has told the moon to renew itself. It is a beautiful crown for the people carried by God from birth (Israel), who will likewise be renewed in the future in order to proclaim the beauty of their creator (yotsram) for his glorious majesty. Praised are you, O Lord, who renews new moons."

Halakhah seldom provides this kind of opportunity to praise God so explicitly for creation outdoors, in the presence of nature itself, and rarely do we find a prayer so overflowing with poetry, joy and beauty. We call God borei, koneh, poel, and yotser--four synonyms for “creator.” The celestial bodies are joyous and happy, the moon is beautiful, and God is proclaimed beautiful, glorious, and majestic. Contrast this with the daily blessing for the rising sun, usually recited indoors, which is filled with talk of the splendor of angels, the magnitude of creation, and the awe of God, but says little about beauty, joy, or happiness.

The Moon & Israel

Aside from the natural beauty of the moon and the night sky, there is another reason that abundant joy and beauty are associated with the moon, a reason alluded to in the blessing itself: The moon is our crown, our alter ego. The people of Israel identify with the moon. Its constant change is reminiscent of our destiny, and its renewal symbolizes our hope. As the moon reappears to face its creator monthly, so Israel renews itself spiritually in greeting the Shekhinah [the presence of God]. These ideas are made explicit in rabbinic statements about the ritual, cited in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 42b):

"Said Rabbi Aha bar Hanina in the name of Rabbi Asi in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: Reciting the blessing over the moon at the proper time is like greeting the Shekhinah personally… It was taught in the school of Rabbi Ishmael: If the Israelites were privileged to greet their father in heaven once a month, that would be enough for them. Said Abaye: Therefore we should say the blessing standing up (as though greeting God). Meremar and Mar Zutra went so far as to climb up on one another’s shoulders while saying the blessing."

Praising God While Experiencing Creation

What is religion in general about, if not feeling God’s presence while experiencing his creation? And what additional components are more crucial in Jewish religion than symbolic identification with the vicissitudes of Jewish history, and our individual and collective hopes for renewal? The requirement to bless the moon upon sighting it early in the month combines all of these ideas and emotions, and one would think that it would be one of the most widely observed Jewish rituals. How then did it fall into disuse?

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Moshe Benovitz is a lecturer in Talmud and Jewish law at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.