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The Mysterious Origin of the Monthly “Sanctification of the Moon” | Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin

When a person examines the history of a religious practice, or any practice for that matter, he or she must be careful not to insist that the original motivation of the ritual is the same as the reason for the observance’s continued practice in the present. Many originally pagan-like rites have been given new meaning and elevated over time so that their pagan origin is forgotten and they now have positive religious significance in their present forms of observance. The ceremony called Kiddush Levanah, the “sanctification of the moon,” and also called Birkhat Levanah, the “blessing over the moon,” is a good example because, unlike the rites of tashlich and kapporot that Maimonides totally rejected and did not include in his Mishneh Torah, Code of Jewish law, Maimonides did accept the “sanctification of the moon” ceremony in its modified non-superstitious form.

During the first half of every lunar month, many Jews stand outside their synagogues or homes in small groups, in the open air, look upward toward the moon, and recite prayers called Kiddush Levanah, the “sanctification of the moon.”

The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 42a, quotes the third-century Rabbi Yochanan of the land of Israel who explains that the prayers are recited much in the way that one greets the shekhinah, “the divine presence.” Presumably, Rabbi Yochanan was stating that when Jews view the birth and growth of the moon and recite a series of blessings that mention God, they are actively recognizing and praising the ever-present miracles of the divine creation. Rabbi Yochanan may have meant that Jews recognize that God created a perfect world that requires no change, as taught some nine centuries after his death by Maimonides. Alternatively, he may have thought of the creation of the world as a continuous ongoing project, renewed at every moment by God, reflecting the opinion of Nachmanides and the statement in the siddur that God is “renewing His goodness every day by works of creation.”

Midrash Exodus Rabbah 15 offers an altogether different reason for the ritual: it gives Jews a sense of permanence. When Jews observe the new moon, they realize that they may, as individuals and as a nation, wax and wane like the moon, having periods of bright success and dark failure; nevertheless, they will endure, just like the moon.

These explanations are obviously late rationalizations designed to hide the true origin of the ancient rite and to rationalize and elevate its purpose.[1] This essay gives some details of these fears and how Jews acted upon these fears. Neither Rabbi Yochanan’s nor the Midrash’s reason is expressly stated in the recitation of the service. Indeed, a radically dissimilar concern is expressed in ArtScroll’s version of the service.

Questions

  1. What are the petitions, prayers and other parts of the “sanctification of the moon” ceremony?
  2. When and how is it recited?
  3. What is the purpose of the ceremony?
  4. What magical, non-rational elements are in the “sanctification of the moon”?
  5. What do the words of the ritual reveal about its purpose?
  6. What fear provoked the Jews to initiate the rite?

The Ancient Mindset of the Israelites

Historians, social scientists and thinkers have recognized that the early Israelites suffered prolonged periods of educational neglect because of centuries of enslavement, desert wanderings and constant battles after they entered and conquered Canaan. Maimonides, for example, in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:32, writes that the Israelites accepted “the customs which existed in those days generally among all men, and the mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up.” The Torah recognized, Maimonides says, that it was impossible to wean the people suddenly from ancient heathen notions. “It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God … that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service, for to obey such a commandment would have been contrary to the nature of man who generally cleaves to that to which he is accustomed.” Thus, it should come as no surprise that there are remnants of many pagan practices in Jewish observances and that the rabbis attempted to elevate, sublimate, rationalize, spiritualize and change them, as they did with the Kiddush Levanah service.

The Nine Parts of the “Sanctification of the Moon”

The “sanctification” ceremony, as recorded in the ArtScroll siddur, is composed of nine paragraphs. Six are quotes from ancient sources. Four of these six paragraphs are psalms, one is a quotation from the biblical book Songs of Songs, and the sixth is a passage from the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 42a. None of these six paragraphs addresses the purpose of the rite. Two of the psalms were probably chosen simply because they mention the moon explicitly and the other two psalms because they mention the moon indirectly: “firmament” and “illuminate.” The quote from Song of Songs, according to the Midrash Yalkut Shemoni, is a reference to the messiah, who has just been mentioned in the prior paragraph of the “sanctification,” which I will discuss below. The section from the Talmud is part of a longer talmudic discussion of the “sanctification.” It does not record Rabbi Yochanan’s rationale explicitly, and only states that “Israel [is] privileged to greet the countenance of their father in heaven once a month.” Thus, it is necessary to turn to the three middle paragraphs of the “sanctification” prayer to discover its origin and purpose. As we will see, the three middle paragraphs show that the ceremony is filled with magical rites prompted by a fear that the moon, which is at its smallest both in size and luminosity, will not return to its former fullness.

The Three Middle Prayers

The first of the middle prayers, the three parts that are unique to the “sanctification,” is a series of statements in which God is praised for renewing the moon to “a crown of splendor.” It includes the statement that the moon should be renewed like “those who are destined to renew themselves like it.” This thought hints at the rationalization contained in the Midrash that Jews are reminded that they wax and wane like the moon. However, the words also reflect the people’s frightful dread that the moon may not grow to its former “splendor.”

The Key Central Paragraph: A Series of Incantations and Sympathetic Magic Designed to Restore the Full Moon

Many Jews and people of other cultures feared that the moon would be unable to return to its prior fullness because of the interference of demons who were given the task of harming humanity. The ancients attempted to prevent the demons’ interference through incantations and sympathetic magic.[2] The Jewish attempt to do so can be seen in the key paragraph of the “sanctification” ceremony. This section is composed of seven sentences, each of which is repeated three times.

The numbers seven and three appear frequently in magical incantations and these numbers are the first of seven indications of the true magical intent of the “sanctification” rite.

A Description of the “Sanctification of the Moon” Ceremony

The description of the “sanctification” that is given here, as I stated previously, is taken from the ArtScroll siddur, which has become quite popular in many Orthodox synagogues in recent years. The ceremony also appears in the Authorized Daily Prayer Book of Rabbi Dr. Joseph H. Hertz, late Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, but all superstitious elements are expunged from his version. It consists only of an introductory psalm from the biblical book of Psalms, followed by a blessing, which is in turn followed by two additional biblical psalms. Maimonides includes the “sanctification of the moon” rite in his code of Jewish law, but, like the later version in the Hertz Authorized Daily Prayer Book, he also does not include the superstitious parts of the middle sections. The middle section, in which each of the seven sentences is repeated three times, which appears in the ArtScroll siddur but not the Hertz prayer book or Maimonides’ code, reads in the ArtScroll translation as follows:

Blessed is your Molder; blessed is your Maker; blessed is your Owner; blessed is your Creator.

Just as I dance toward you but cannot touch you, so may none of my enemies be able to touch me for evil.

Let fall upon them fear and terror; at the greatness of Your arm, let them be still as stone.

As stone let them be still, at Your arm’s greatness; terror and fear, upon them fall[3]

David, King of Israel, is alive and enduring.

Shalom aleichem [Peace upon you] – Aleikhem shalom [Upon you peace].

May there be a sign and a good fortune for us and for all Israel. Amen.

The Middle Part of the “Sanctification” Ceremony: An Analysis

The first of the seven sentences, like the morning Shacharit service, begins with four two-word Hebrew statements that bless God, such as “blessed is your Maker.” Thus, before approaching God with a request, the petitioner greets or summons God with a blessing. However, the opening four letters of the “sanctification’s” four blessings were purposely composed to spell the name of the patriarch Jacob, in Hebrew Yaakov. Genesis Rabbah to Genesis 28:12 states that Jacob resembled God and that God placed a likeness of Jacob on His heavenly throne. Thus, because of his perceived proximity to God, Jacob was undoubtedly chosen in the “sanctification” as an intercessor to God, a magical means of affording quick and easy access to the divine counsel. This, after the use of three and seven, is the second noteworthy magical element.

The second sentence is remarkable and contains a third even more unusual and conspicuous magical act. It reads: “Just as I dance toward you but cannot touch you, so may none of my enemies touch me for evil.”

The current custom is that this sentence is recited while rising on one’s toes in a kind of dance that is sympathetic magic. Dance per se in most cultures is not an irrational ceremony designed to cause God or nature to perform the desire of the dancer; it is a pleasant social activity with no magical purpose. However, it is used for magic in some cultures and here the context of the ceremony reveals its magical intent. The petitioner is told to dance in the middle of other magical acts. Thus, it is similar to the Native American dancing up and down and waving his arms to cause the heavens to release their rain. The Jewish petitioner hopes through his[4] words and dance to ward off the harm he anticipates from evil demons by magically causing God to grasp the evil one and step away or dance, carrying the malefactor far from the Jews and disposing of him.

Who Are the Enemies That the Petitioner Fears?

The third sentence is a fourth magical act, a prayer that the enemies “stand still as stone.” Thus, while the petitioners’ words plead with God to come forward against their enemies and dance away with them, the enemies are induced to stand still, be mesmerized, and await the onslaught set against them. Who are these enemies? Although unstated, perhaps to disguise the supernatural purpose of the ritual, it is most likely that the enemies are Satan and his malevolent entourage of demons.

The ancient pagans and Jews blew a shofar or trumpet at the time of the new moon to frighten Satan and his band away from the moon and to stop them from restraining the growth of this heavenly body. Indeed, one of the reasons that the rabbis gave for the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, which is also a new moon, is to stop Satan from performing his usual mischief.

Strikingly, the fourth sentence is exactly the same as the third except that the words are read in reverse order. This reverse order has no meaning and is enacted in this fashion as an obvious fifth incantation, a magical reinforcement of the dance. For it is well known that one frequently performs magic by reciting nonsense words, such as the famous abracadabra.

The Sixth and Seventh Enchantments: A Surprising, Seemingly Irrelevant Invocation for the Messiah

This pivotal middle section concludes with two invocations for the coming of the messiah and a prayer for good fortune. Each of these elements, as the others in this section, is repeated the magical three times. As the worshipper recites the greeting shalom aleichem, “welcome,” he turns to a person near him and acts out the greeting. What do these words and actions mean?

The invocation for the speedy arrival of the messiah seems irrelevant to the ceremony about a new moon; however, it is the sixth magical part of the “sanctification.” It can be easily explained. Since the prior, somewhat negative, recitations petition the removal of the destructive satanic forces, they are followed by a positive request for a peaceful and harmonious time, exemplified in Jewish tradition by the coming of the messiah.

The sixth segment, the seventh magical act, is, as I mentioned, a greeting and response: shalom aleichem and aleichem shalom. Various reasons have been offered to explain the greeting and response. For instance, one explanation is that after cursing one’s enemies, the petitioner must make clear that he has no desire to harm his Jewish brethren. This is certainly not the true reason. There are many similar incidences, such as the cursing of Israel’s enemies when the door is opened during the Passover Seder, and none of these curses is followed by a greeting and response.

However, once we recall the prior magical incantations and enactments in the ceremony, including the sympathetic magic of the dance, we can readily realize that the petitioner is acting out this rite to cause the appearance of the messiah by sympathetic magic. The petitioner is not speaking to a fellow Jew, but magically addressing the messiah, whom he hopes he is producing with his magic; the response he receives is the response of the messiah that he has conjured.

Support for the View That Fear Underlies the Ceremony

My friend, Professor Shamma Friedman of Bar Ilan University, winner of the Israel Prize, suggested to me several sources that support this understanding of the unusual history of the “sanctification” ceremony.

While the current text of the rite states, “Just as I dance toward you but cannot touch you, so may none of my enemies be able to touch me for evil,” the ancient text is in Megillat Soferim 20:1, “A person should dance three steps toward it [the moon] and say, ‘Just as I dance toward you and do not touch you, so if people dance against me, they should not touch me.’” This early version shows that (1) the rite required an actual dance, (2) the dance is the magical number of three steps, and (3) the dance was a sympathetic magical act. In the dance, the individual did what he wanted the supernatural forces to do: not damage him by restraining the moon from developing to its full roundness.

Rabbi Friedman pointed me to Rabbi C.L. Ehrenreich’s work called Otzar hachayim.[5] Ehrenreich mentions his surprise that a Jewish practice requires a dance. He cites the opinion of Rabbi Moses Isserles, relating that people were bowing during the dance and Rabbi Isserles told them to stop bowing because their behavior made it clear that the practice was “idol worship.” Ehrenreich recognizes that many ancients used dance as a magical act. Without specifying the harm, he writes that the magical dance of the “sanctification” rite was necessary to overcome the magical acts that were directed against the people. He concludes that it is obvious that the rabbis wanted to stop the practice but were unable to do so.

Dr. Friedman also reminded me of the following remarkable story of Adam’s fear recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 8a, which is a near parallel to the fear expressed in the sanctification of the moon. According to one tradition, Adam was created during the Hebrew month of Tishrei that occurs during the fall of the year. The translation in the Soncino edition reads.

Our rabbis taught:

When primitive Adam saw the day getting gradually shorter, he said, “Woe is me, perhaps I have sinned, the world around me is being darkened and returning to its state in chaos and confusion; this then is the kind of death to which I have been sentenced from heaven!” So he began keeping an eight days’ fast. But after he observed the winter equinox and noted the day getting increasingly longer, he said, “This is the world’s course,” and he set forth to keep an eight days’ festivity. In the following year he appointed both [the eight days before and the eight days after the equinox] as festivals. Now, he fixed them for the sake of heaven, but the [heathens] appointed them for the sake of idolatry.

The Talmud recognizes that the festival that Adam initiated was based on an irrational fear, which was transformed or rationalized or elevated to be “for the sake of heaven.”[6]

The Talmud continues by reporting another very similar tale about Adam. This time it states: “When Adam on the day of his creation saw the setting of the sun” he was frightened and thought that the world was ending. He fasted that entire night. “When dawn broke, he said, ‘This is the usual course of the world’ and he offered a bullock as a sacrifice. Rab Judah [in the third century offered the Talmud’s view when he] said in the name of Samuel: ‘The bullock which Adam offered had only one horn on its forehead.’” This one-horned beast is reminiscent of the fabulous animal with a single long horn, which was believed to have had the ability to elude every captor save a virgin and was seldom caught.

This story seems to be another example of the use of magic. The mythical one-horned animal is mentioned in the story because of its alleged power of endurance. The Talmud says that it was used in a magical rite (sympathetic magic) to assure that the sun would continue to rise each day without interference. Thus, this talmudic ceremony of the sun parallels the sanctification of the moon: both were prompted by the fear that the heavenly body would not reappear and magic was used to assure its return.

In short, these sources support the conclusions described above, that the “sanctification of the moon” ceremony originated as a ritual based on fear.

Mishnah berurah’s Comment on the Sanctification

The rabbis recognized the origin of the “sanctification,” some openly and others more discreetly. The Chafetz Chaim (I. M. Kagan, 1838–1933) has a comment on the “sanctification” in his Mishnah berurah (Biur Halakhah, Laws of the “Sanctification,” 426) that suggests that he was sensitive to its origin. He asks why some Jews[7] say the prayer Aleinu at the conclusion of the “sanctification” rite.[8] He states: “I heard from a person who is divrei taam [a wise man]” that the reason why Aleinu is recited is “that people should not err, God forbid … that we are notnin kavod l’levanah [giving honor to the moon] … therefore we say Aleinu that ends with [the words] for he is the God in the heaven above.”

It seems clear that Rabbi Kagan’s real concern is not the appearance of worshipping the moon, since there are many blessings said in Judaism praising works of nature without the fear that the person is worshipping the item. Rather, it appears obvious that he is hinting at the origin discussed above. He probably ascribed the view to an unknown person because he wanted to distance himself from even suggesting that the rite began because of the fear of demonic activity. He knew of the way many Jews viewed the rite; he quotes I. Horowitz, which follows. He was suggesting that the recitation of Aleinu elevates the rite to a ceremony recognizing the majesty of God.

Why Do Women Not Say the “Sanctification”?

  1. Horowitz asks why women do not say the “sanctification” in his Shela.[9] He states: “We have never seen women observing the Kiddush Levanah, even though they are [generally] very careful about all prayers, because the first woman caused the moon’s pegam [defect; that is, the possibility that the moon would not return to its fullness], [through] the sin of Eve; and therefore they avoid [the rite] out of embarrassment. Even though they found a way to fix the matter later [that is, to remove the embarrassment for the female sex]: they fixed it [in the episode of the golden] calf when they did not sin and did not listen to the primeval serpent, which is Satan.” In other words, Rabbi Horowitz is saying that the first woman opened the door that made it possible for Satan and the demons to function in this world by allowing Satan to seduce her to do his will. These unleashed demons now threaten the moon, which may not resume its prior fullness. The men perform the “sanctification” to prevent this disaster. Women do not participate, he claims, because, had it not been for their sex, there would not have been a problem.

Summary

The “sanctification of the moon” ceremony is quite old. The Talmud and Midrash offer explanations for the practice, but their reasons are not at all apparent in the wording of the petition. Their explanations are obviously later rationalizations of an ancient superstitious fear that the new moon might not return to its original fullness due to satanic interference.

A close evaluation of the three central prayers, the parts that were uniquely composed for this ceremony, reveals this irrational concern. The central paragraph is formed with the magical numbers seven and three and is composed of seven magical rites. An entire sentence is read backward as a nonsense conjuring trick of enchantment to save the endangered moon. A dance is performed as a sympathetic supernatural ritual to stop the “enemies” from committing “evil.” A prayer is made to conjure the arrival of the messiah who will assure the moon’s future safety by establishing world harmony. A second action performed the magical three times, a greeting and response, summons and welcomes the messiah. The identity of the “enemy” is not explicit in the ceremony but is obviously satanic forces.

Despite its apparent origin in superstition, in a blind belief entertained without regard for reason or scientific knowledge, in a belief prompted by an ominous fear for the safety of the moon, the rabbis elevated the spirituality of the ceremony and explained it around the third century as an opportunity (1) to pause, think and recognize the miracle of God’s creation and (2) to see Jewish life as the moon cycle, waxing and waning, but always surviving and returning to its bright glory. The rabbis altered the ancient text contained in Megillat Soferim slightly to weaken the magical element. The superstitious magical elements are still found in the ArtScroll siddur and many Jews recite the prayer as recorded in this prayer book. However, Maimonides and the Hertz Authorized Daily Prayer Book deleted the superstitious components.

 

Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of thirty-three books. His website is www.booksnthoughts.com.

 

[1] Ben Zion Wacholder and David B. Weisberg, in “Visibility of the new moon in cuneiform and rabbinic sources,” recognized, without any elaboration, that among the ancients “at least at the beginning, a magical element” was associated with the appearance of a new moon. The apprehension “concerning the disappearance of the moon and its reappearance reveals the anxiety that ancient man felt at this ominous period.”

[2] Sympathetic magic is activities performed by people which are similar to what they want a god to perform, such as the up and down dance of American Indians to cause god to produce rain.

[3] This fourth sentence makes no sense, since it is simply a repetition of the former one read backwards, a frequent occurrence in magical incantations. Nevertheless, ArtScroll translates it.

 

[4] Women generally do not practice this rite. See below for a detailed discussion.

[5] Book 7, 43–45.

[6] A second, very interesting point – though not relevant to our discussion – is Rabbi Dr. Shamma Friedman’s observation that the descending eight days and the ascending eight days are reflected in the practices of Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel regarding the candle-lighting during this time of the year during the eight days of Chanukah.

[7] Aleinu is part of the ArtScroll version of the “sanctification” but not the Hertz version.

[8] I want to thank Rabbi Dr. Zvi Yehuda for informing me about the Mishnah berurah comment.

[9] Shaar Ha’otiot, Kedushah 28.