Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 12 January 2013 / 29 Tevet 5773

Lunar Liturgy Literacy

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Simeon

Dear Rabbi,

I came across your response Lunar Liturgy on the meaning behind the practice of sanctifying the new moon, which I found very interesting. I was wondering if you could elaborate on the details of the service regarding how and when it's done. Thanks.

Dear Simeon,

Kiddush Levanah, the Hebrew term for Sanctification of the Moon, is a series of prayers recited shortly after Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of Hebrew months which occurs on the new moon. According to some, it may be performed from three days after the first appearance of the new moon, called the molad; others wait a full seven days. The latest time for Kiddush Levanah is mid-month, i.e., fourteen days, eighteen hours and twenty-two minutes (some authorities extend this limit to fifteen full days) after the molad.

The ritual is done at night when the moon is shining. The moon must be clearly visible and not covered by clouds and the ceremony is normally performed outside. In places where cloudy or rainy weather is very common such that the moon may not be visible, many people will recite the blessing as soon as they see the moon for the first time after the "three days".

It is customary to say Kiddush Levanah at the conclusion of Shabbat if possible. While it is customary to say the prayer after the Saturday evening services and with a minyan, it can be also said in the middle of the week without a minyan. In such cases, effort is made to recite it with at least three people if possible.

In the month of Tishrei, it is usually delayed until after the conclusion of Yom Kippur since the prayer should be said in a spirit of joy; others have a custom to say it specifically before Yom Kippur in order to increase one's merit before Judgment. In the month of Av, it is traditionally postponed until after the fast of Tisha B'Av, since the beginning of the month is a time of mourning. If a holiday falls on Sunday, Kiddush Levanah is delayed until after that day.

The source of the Kiddush Levana is in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 42a), where Rabbi Yochanan taught that one who blesses the new moon in its proper time is regarded like one who greets the Shechinah (Divine Presence), as it is written in Exodus 12:2:, "This month is to be for you the beginning of months…"

This verse in Exodus 12:2 is the source of what is considered to be the first commandment in the Torah, which is to sanctify the new month, and is the basis for our lunar calendar. Although Kiddush Levana is not the Torah-prescribed method of establishing the new month (which is not practiced today), we may still apply Rabbi Yochanan's opinion to our Kiddush Levana as showing respect to the first commandment in the Torah, and therefore it is like greeting the Shechinah (Divine Presence).

This is one of the reasons that it is customarily recited at times when we are happy, so that it can be said with great joy. It is told of the holy Baal Shem Tov that one year after Yom Kippur when the community desired to recite Kiddush Levana it was very overcast and the moon could not be seen. The Baal Shem Tov, concerned that the atonement of Yom Kippur might not be complete without the joyous celebration of the rejuvenation of the moon, corresponding to the "re-Jew-vination" of Yom Kippur, secluded himself in his study to pray for that the clouds disperse. In the meantime, anticipating the great mitzvah of Kiddush Levana which is compared to the greeting of the Shechina, the congregants broke out in fervent song and dance which spilled into the Rabbi's study and carried on into the street. At that moment the clouds dispersed, the moon shined onto the community who then burst into an exalted sanctification of the new month. Afterward, the holy Baal Shem Tov remarked, "Your joyous song and dance did more to 'dispel the clouds' than did my fervent prayer…"

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