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 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 [the prayer to conclude Shabbat] 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 B’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" [Peace unto you] and David Melekh Yisrael Hai Vekayam [David, King of Israel, lives forever]. 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 hachodesh or other synagogue rituals, but it may very well be that the original birkat hachodesh--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 [prayer quorum]; 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.

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