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:  Read the rest of this entry »

The Lunar Year: Names of the Full Moon

Can a Full Moon Have More Than One Name?

When the Moon is Full by Penny PollackIn many cultures a folklore name is associated with each full moon of the year. January’s full moon was called the Wolf Moon by some Native Americans, as noted in Penny Pollock’s book, When the Moon is Full: A Lunar Year.

The Farmer’s Almanac describes January’s moon lore, “Amid the cold and deep snows of midwinter, the wolf packs howled hungrily outside Indian villages. Thus, the name for January’s full Moon. Sometimes it was also referred to as the Old Moon, or the Moon After Yule. Some called it the Full Snow Moon, but most tribes applied that name to the next Moon.”

Both Pollock and the Farmer’s Almanac acknowledge February’s full moon as the Snow Moon since this was the month the heaviest snows fell. According to the Farmer’s Almanac, “Some [Native American] tribes also referred to [the Feb.] Moon as the Full Hunger Moon, since harsh weather conditions in their areas made hunting very difficult.”

Pollock writes a simple children’s books that offers an elementary look at moon lore. It’s beautifully illustrated with woodcuts that have been hand colored by Mary Azarian, a Caldecott Award winning illustrator. Using lyrical poetry, the author takes the reader through a journey of twelve months by sharing Native American folklore that is associated with each month’s moon.

Pollack’s account of the full moons includes the January full moon as the Wolf Moon, a time when Native Americans observed wolves becoming restless. February is the Snow Moon due to heavy snows that used to happen in our area in years past. The Sap Moon is in March when the Maples come alive, and April is the Frog Moon as our little amphibian friends pop out on the spring scene. The Flower Moon is in May and the Strawberry Moon is in June. July hosts the Buck Moon when deer sprout their antlers, and August is the Green Corn Moon. The Harvest Moon happens in September, and due to the moon’s early rise October is the Hunter’s Moon because of the extra light added to the setting sun. The Beaver Moon is November’s moon and December is known for the Long Night Moon corresponding with the Winter Solstice.

Pollock has a couple of pages in the back of her book with questions and answers about the moon. One question is “Can a full moon have more than one name?” And her answer is yes! Many.

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Maple Sugar Moon & Sugar Shacking

Thirteen Moons on Turtle’s Back:
A Native American Year of Moons

By J. Bruchac & J. London
Illustrated by Thomas Locker

“In many Native American cultures each of the thirteen moons of the year is said to hold its own story, and each is powered by the turtle who is believed to contain the mystery of the moon in the shell of its back.”

Legend has it that North America is the back of a turtle and it’s eye is here in New England. If you take a close look at the shell of a turtle you can count out thirteen different plates on its carapace. And every year has thirteen moon cycles that complete the year.

According to Anishinabe legend, this month’s full moon, the 3rd moon, is called the Maple Sugar Moon, the only time of the year sap flows from the maple trees. In the hilltowns of Western Mass it’s the month steam pours out of our area sugar shacks and fresh maple sap is boiled down to make maple syrup. Many sugar shacks invite families to their annual pancake breakfasts during these weeks to enjoy fresh maple syrup and share in the process of making syrup.

There will be a maple sugaring showcase presented by Storrowton Village Museum in West Springfield, MA this weekend. Click here for details.
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