The Moon in Jewish Tradition

Not Your Grandparents' Shtel: Exploring Jewish Culture in Western Mass by Amy Meltzer

A Marvelous Night for a Moondance

January full moon over the trees at dusk in Goshen, MA. (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

Have you ever wondered why the Jewish holidays seem to wander all over the calendar? By way of example – this year, Hanukkah coincided with Christmas, while in 2013 we’ll be lighting candles on the menorah the week after Thanksgiving. There’s a reason for this seemingly random placement of the major festivals. Most of the world follows the Gregorian solar calendar. The Jewish, or Hebrew, calendar, in contrast, is primarily lunar (with a little bit of solar tossed in for good measure.)

What does this mean? Each month of the Hebrew calendar represents one full cycle of the moon; the new month begins when the crescent moon is visible in the sky and ends when the moon wanes and seems to disappear. In ancient times, the new month was declared by the high court in Jerusalem after two reliable witnesses testified to having seen the moon. Then, and only then, would the court send out word (through a series of hilltop fires) that the month had begun.

So, that’s the lunar part of the calendar. Where does the solar calendar fit in? A lunar year is about 11 days shorter than a solar year. In a strictly lunar calendar, holidays would fall 11 days earlier each year, until eventually we would find ourselves lighting the menorah in July. Because the Jewish holidays are connected to the seasons of the year  (many holidays were originally agriculturally based), the rabbis added a leap month, an entire extra month that falls seven times in a nineteen year cycle. This additional month readjusts the calendar so that the festivals fall during their appointed season.

While the placement of the Jewish holidays may seem random, in fact, every ancient Jewish holiday is linked to a particular phase of the moon. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, always falls on the crescent moon. Sukkot and Passover, harvest festivals, always begin on the full moon. Hanukkah always falls on the 25th day of the cycle. Additionally, the first day of each month is a minor holiday, known as Rosh Chodesh, or the “head of the month.” In Jewish tradition, Rosh Chodesh is considered a women’s holiday, honoring women’s relationship to the moon. Some women refrain from work, and some gather together in Rosh Chodesh groups, where they might sing, study, chant, share or simply celebrate the new month. (There’s a Rosh Chodesh group for middle school girls that meets in Northampton.)

One of my favorite Jewish moon traditions is Kiddush Levana, the sanctification of the moon. In this ritual, we go outside at night when the moon is waxing (between day 3 and day 14 of the moon’s cycle). After looking at the moon, we recite a blessing, and jump up and leap or dance towards the moon. If we’re in a group, we greet others with the words “Shalom Aleichem”, peace be with you. I’ve only done this ritual once with my own daughters, but one of my new year’s resolutions is to take them outside to bask in the moonlight just a little more often. Maybe one of these months I’ll even be able to invite you to a Kiddush Levana ceremony in my own synagogue’s beautiful garden. Stay tuned….

In the meantime, here’s what the new (Gregorian) month has to offer to anyone interested in learning more about Jewish culture: 

Friday, January 6th at 5:30pm –Tot Shabbat. Parents and grandparents with children 5 years old and younger gather for songs, storytime and Shabbat followed by a vegetarian potluck dinner. Hosted by Havurah Ketanah/Little Friends Circle. Contact Jody Rosenbloom, Director of Lifelong Learning 413-256-0160 or eddir@j-c-a.org www.j-c-a.org Jewish Community of Amherst 742 Main Street Amherst, MA (FREE)

Saturday, January 7th at 11am – Family Minyan with Anna Sobel. Creative interactive service for families with children grades 1- 6 and their parents. Congregation Bnai Israel, 253 Prospect St., Northampton, MA (FREE)

Also on Saturday, January 7th from 4- 5:30pm –  PJ Havdallah Program. Cozy story time for families with children ages 8 and younger (siblings, guests, and other family members are always welcome). Stories, crafts, Havdallah ceremony, and snacks   Everyone is welcome to come in pajamas, and bring a cuddly toy to enjoy the stories, too.  Open free to all children and their families! Information Paula Hellman. 413-528-6378 Hevreh of Southern Berkshire, 270 State Road, Great Barrington, MA (FREE)

Monday, January 9th from 9-10:30am – LGA Prospective Parent Open House: “Get to Know Our Teachers & Parents: Find out why teachers and parents choose LGA for their children, work, and community, and learn how it comes together in our academic and social curriculum. Panel Q&A followed by tours of the school. For questions or RSVP, contact Marla Shelasky, mshelasky@lgaschechter.org, 413-584-6622, x117, www.LGASchechter.org. 257 Prospect Street Northampton, MA (FREE)

Saturday, January 14th at 11am – Shabbat Sing. A celebration of Shabbat through song. Adults and children are welcome to sing a wide array of Jewish songs, from child-friendly melodies to complicated rounds. Know nothing or everything upon arrival —we all learn as we go.  Congregation Bnai Israel, 253 Prospect St., Northampton, MA (FREE)

Sunday, January 15th at 10am – Camp Shemesh Day. Want to sample Jewish summer camp in the middle of winter? Then come to the Jewish Community of Amherst for a fun-filled day of camp games, activities and slideshow from 10am-4pm (for children aged 6-14 years old).  Option to follow with a SLEEPOVER at the JCA (for grades 5+) with pick up at 9 am Monday, January 16.  Registration required by Sunday, January 8 by emailing shemeshdirector@gmail.com for registration forms.  Jewish Community of Amherst 742 Main Street. Amherst, MA ($$)

Friday, January 20th from 1-2:30pm – PJ Pals. Help your community with a story, and craft! Make a unique bag to deliver food donations to the Northampton Survivial Center. Then, stay after for a special Kabbalat Shabbat with Lander Grinspoon Academy teachers and students. For questions or RSVP, contact Marla Shelasky, mshelasky@lgaschechter.org, 413-584-6622, x117, www.LGASchechter.org. LGA 257 Prospect Street.  Northampton, MA (FREE. Please bring a non-perishable food item to donate)

Saturday, January 21st at 11am – Tot Shabbat: Shabbat celebration through song, stories, and dance for families with children 3-5 years old. Call 413-584-6622 for more information. Congregation Bnai Israel, 253 Prospect St., Northampton, MA (FREE)

Sunday, January 22nd from 10:15 – 11:30am – B’Tzelem Elohim/In God’s Image. A parent education and support group for raising Jewish children with special needs.  New members welcome.  Contact Jody Rosenbloom, Director of Lifelong Learning 413-256-0160 Jewish Community of Amherst 742 Main Street. Amherst, MA (FREE)

Saturday, January 28th at 4pm – Havdalah and Children’s Book Event. Join Amy Meltzer educator, author and blogger (that’s me!), to hear her new book, The Shabbat Princess and share an evening Havdallah activity and craft  as Shabbat comes to an end.  Members of the Havurah Ketanah or folks with children under 4 years old, interested in learning more about it are welcome to gather from 4-4:45. Amy will begin her program, open to the community at 4:45, especially for parents and grandparents with children 7 years old and younger. Contact Jody Rosenbloom, Director of Lifelong Learning 413-256-0160 Jewish Community of Amherst. 742 Main Street. Amherst, MA (FREE)

Saturday, February 4th from 4- 5:30pm –  PJ Havdallah Program. Cozy story time for families with children ages 8 and younger (siblings, guests, and other family members are always welcome). Stories, crafts, Havdallah ceremony, and snacks   Everyone is welcome to come in pajamas, and bring a cuddly toy to enjoy the stories, too.  Open free to all children and their families! Information Paula Hellman (413) 528-6378 Hevreh of Southern Berkshire, 270 State Road, Great Barrington, MA (FREE)

Monday, February 6th from 10:30 – 11:30am – Trees and Treats for Tu B’Shevat. Celebrate the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat (The New Year of the Trees) with a reading of Apple Tree’s Discovery by Peninnah Schram and Rachayl Eckstein Davis.  Learn new songs, participate in “tree-mendous” craft projects, and sample tasty fruit snacks at this fun-filled Tu B’Shevat Party.  For further information please contact Susan Frisch Lehrer, The PJ Library Coordinator at the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires at (413) 442-4360 X 14 or jfb. volunteer@verizon.net.  Church On The Hill Chapel, 55 Main St., Lenox, MA (FREE)


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Amy Meltzer

Amy is a Kindergarten teacher at Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton, MA, and the author of two children’s books, A Mezuzah on the Door, and The Shabbat Princess. She writes the blog Homeshuling for Beliefnet, and a monthly column for the Jewish parenting site Kveller.com. Amy lives in Northampton, MA with her husband and two daughters.

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