The ritual known today as birkat hahodesh, “the blessing of the new moon”, is widely observed in synagogues throughout the world. On the last Shabbat of the Hebrew month, the cantor stands with the Torah scroll in his arms, and announces the day of the coming week on which the New Moon, Rosh Hodesh, will fall. The announcement is preceded and followed by particularly melodious prayers for a blessed month.
This ritual is a post-Talmudic custom with little halakhic significance. Its purpose is to make sure that those members of the congregation who attended synagogue services on Shabbat only would know when this minor festival falls, so that they could add the appropriate supplements in their home prayers (Shibbolei Haleqet 170). A similar announcement is made in Sephardic synagogues on the Shabbat before a minor fast, out of concern that otherwise the congregants will not remember to fast (Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 550:4). The announcement of the New Moon, far from signifying the importance of the Rosh Hodesh festival, in effect reflects a fear that the festival is not significant enough to be remembered and observed.
However, the very same term, birkat hohodesh, is used in the Talmud to designate a very different ritual – a blessing praising God for the new moon, recited outdoors while gazing at the waxing moon at the beginning of the month (Sanhedrin 41b). This ritual, with which many Jews, even those who attend synagogue services regularly, are unfamiliar, is an actual rabbinic commandment, required by the Talmud. The Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 426) and other post-Talmudic authorities refer to this ritual as birkat halevanah, “the blessing of the moon”, but today it is often designated by the misnomer qiddush levanah, “the sanctification of the moon”, a term that sounds almost pagan. (This phrase is apparently a conflation of the term birkat halevanah with the talmudic term qiddush hahodesh, “the sanctification of the new moon”, which referred to yet a third concept, the proclamation of the New Moon by the authorities on the day of its sighting, an act by which Israel did in fact sanctify the dates of the holidays that are dependent upon the lunar month.) In fact, it is not the moon that is blessed or sanctified in birkat hahodesh 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 (qonam) 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, qoneh, 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.
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. 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.
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?
The blessing may be recited either by an individual or in a communal setting, any time that the moon is visible and waxing, in other words, until the middle of the month (some say the blessing should not be recited before the third or seventh day of the month; see Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 426:4 and commentaries ad loc.). However, by custom, the blessing is recited publicly after synagogue services and havdalah on the first Saturday night of the Hebrew month (except in Tishrei and Av, when the communal recitation of the blessing takes place immediately following the fasts of Yom Kippur and Tisha Be’av, respectively). The members of the community go outside, recite the blessing cited above from the Talmud and some additional verses, and greet one another with the phrases Shalom Aleikhem and David Melekh Yisrael Hai Veqayam. Tractate Soferim, an extra-canonical post-Talmudic work, explains that the blessing ought to be recited on Saturday night, when we are still finely dressed and perfumed from Shabbat (Soferim 19:10).
It seems that recitation specifically on Saturday night is an example of a custom originally designed to encourage the fulfillment of a commandment, which has become a hindrance. Saturday night services were once well attended, and thus the community as a whole performed the ritual on that occasion, lest individuals forget to recite the blessing alone on another night. The problem is that once Saturday night recitation became standard, those who did not attend Saturday night services did recite the blessing at all. In places where Saturday night services are sparsely attended or non-existent, the people “carried by God from birth” do not even have the privilege of greeting their heavenly parent once a month.
That is unfortunate. Not all contemporary Jews find sufficient religious inspiration in the cantor’s birkat hahodesh or other synagogue rituals, but it may very well be that the original birkat hahodesh – a monthly encounter with the divine presence – would in fact “be enough for them”, as was taught in the school of Rabbi Ishmael. They can renew their spirit each month outdoors – alone, or riding on a friend’s shoulder, or with a minyan; on Saturday night or any other night in the first half of the month – and commune with God and nature, or contemplate the vicissitudes of life or the destiny of Israel, while gazing at the moon and praising God for its renewal.
Moshe Benovitz is professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He is the author of Kol Nidre: Studies in the Development of Rabbinic Votive Institutions (Atlanta 1998) and several volumes of comprehensive critical commentary on sections of the Talmud, as well as numerous scholarly articles on various aspects of Talmudic scholarship and rabbinic history, including oaths and vows, liturgy, and Jewish festivals.
Photo Credit: Beth Woodrum