Abarbanel on the Parsha

For the week ending 22 June 2024 / 16 Sivan 5784

Kiddush Levanah: Under the Light of the Silvery Moon (Part 2)

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
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“My walk on the moon lasted three days. My walk with G-d will last forever.”

Charles Duke – Lunar Module Pilot, Apollo 16

Each month, normally on Motzei Shabbat, the congregation goes outside and recites Kiddush Levanah together. Why on Motzei Shabbat? Tractate Sofrim (20:1) teaches that Kiddush Levanah should be recited in a state of joy and while wearing nice clothing in respect for the Shechinah. One reason why Kiddush Levanah needs to be said with joy is that is a reminder of the intense joy of the celebrations that would take place monthly in the Holy Temple. Tractate Sofrim suggests that Motzei Shabbat is the optimal time to recite Kiddush Levanah because we are still basking in the delights of Shabbat and dressed in our Shabbat clothing.

There is another reason given by the Rabbis for why Motzei Shabbat is considered to be the most auspicious time to recite Kiddush Levanah. Our Sages teach that the Holy Temple was destroyed on Motzei Shabbat. Within Kiddush Levanah we pray for the Mashiach to come and that the Holy Temple be rebuilt speedily, in our day. Therefore, it is apt to beseech Hashem to rebuild the Temple at the very time of the week when it was destroyed.

However, the Vilna Gaon (Maaseh Rav 159) felt that Kiddush Levanah should be recited at the first opportunity available, and that one should not wait until Motzei Shabbat. This is because of the principle of not passing up the opportunity to do a Mitzvah (Yevamot 39a). Therefore, the practice of those who follow the Vilna Gaon’s ruling is to recite Kiddush Levanah as soon as it is permissible to do so. According to all opinions, Kiddush Levanah can be recited up to the fifteenth day of the month.

When is the first possible opportunity? The Shulchan Aruch rules (Orach Chaim 426:4) that Kiddush Levanah should be recited only after seven days from what is called the molad. The molad is the approximate time when the moon is closest to the sun in the sky and cannot be seen. The Sephardim follow the Shulchan Aruch’s ruling.

The Ashkenazic authorities rule that Kiddush Levanah can be recited as soon as three days after the molad (Rema, ibid.) Many years ago, I heard an interesting explanation for the difference between these two approaches. Historically, the Ashkenazic communities were established in Central and Northern Europe. For much of the year, weather conditions were uncertain, and due to an abundance of cloud cover it was often difficult to see the moon clearly enough to recite Kiddush Levanah. Subsequently, the Halachic authorities ruled that once the new moon was big enough to be clearly visible, it was permissible to recite Kiddush Levanah. In that way, extra, vital days are added to the time period for the blessing, so that the opportunity to recite Kiddush Levanah is not lost.

The Sephardic communities, on the other hand, were mostly based around the Middle East, where clear skies are the norm for most of the year. Since there was no real concern that the moon may not be seen if there were only a week to recite Kiddush Levanah, the Sephardic authorities ruled that it is better to wait until the moon is fuller. Interestingly enough, despite being located in northern Europe, the Chassidim also follow the opinion of the Shulchan Aruch and normally wait until seven days have passed before reciting Kiddush Levanah. One of the reasons offered for the Chassidic custom, despite often inclement weather conditions, is that the Shulchan Aruch’s ruling is based on Kabbalistic sources (Beit Yosef ibid.), which fits in with the general approach of the Chassidim in their Avodat Hashem.

In the Polish town of Piotrkow on Yom Kippur of 1941 all the shuls had been declared illegal by the Germans. But, to whatever extent possible, the Jews attempted to come together and to create a semblance of the mood of Yom Kippur. Without warning, however, before the conclusion of the holy day, German soldiers appeared out of nowhere and ordered several dozen Jews to assemble. They were ordered to board a truck and were driven to a clearing in a nearby forest. They were made to wait there for hours, cruelly extending their Yom Kippur fast. Finally, they were ordered to disembark and to run in a single file through a gauntlet of SS guards armed with clubs, whips, and rifles. These Jews were then subjected to horrible and lengthy beatings. Bloodied and broken, many barely clinging to life, they were told to climb back onto the truck, which would take them back to Piotrkow.

On their way back, an otherworldly thing happened. One of the physically broken Jews looked up into the nighttime sky and shouted, “Yidden [Jews]! Kiddush Levanah!” Overcoming pain, hunger, and thirst, the Jews aboard the truck began to recite Kiddush Levanah, the customary conclusion of Yom Kippur, with intensity and, perhaps, true joy. That night, under a canopy of shimmering stars, it was so much more than Kiddush Levanah – sanctifying the new moon. It was Kiddush LeShem Shamayim – a sanctification of Hashem’s Name.

Regardless of whether one waits until after three days or seven days, it is clear that Kiddush Levanah is an awesome moment of ethereal connection. Each month we focus on an essential message of Kiddush Levanah, which is the inalienable fact that the world was created and is constantly sustained by Hashem.

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