From month to month
"And God said: Let there be luminaries in the firmament of the heavens to distinguish between the day and the night, and they will be for signs and for seasons, for days and years" (Genesis 1:14).
"So long as the earth endures, seed-time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease" (ibid. 8:22).
One of the best ways of maintaining one's connection with God through nature is by keeping aware of the changing times and seasons through the year.
The seasons are governed by the circuiting of the heavenly luminaries around the earth, especially the sun. The eccentricities of the sun's annual journeyings around our skies cause the days to lengthen or shorten according to the time of year, resulting in spring, summer, autumn and winter.
Each night the sun drops below the horizon, leaving the world to darkness. Without the sun to outshine it, the heavenly canopy of stars now comes into view. In fact the stars were there the whole time, but they simply were not visible to us because of the brightness of the sun-lit daytime skies.
If you watch the night sky carefully through the course of the year, you notice that while the stars and constellations always remain in the same positions relative to one another, they all rise and set a little earlier every night, until after three hundred and sixty-five days they rise and set at exactly the same times as they did a year before.
According to post-Copernican astronomy, this is because the earth is in orbit around the sun. The sun and the stars are relatively fixed in space, whereas the earth not only spins on its axis once every twenty four hours, causing day and night, but also makes a complete orbit around the sun every three hundred and sixty-five and a quarter days. Day by day we are moving forward in our orbit, which means that as each day gives way to night, the stars towards which the earth is traveling come into view slightly earlier than the preceding night. At the end of one complete orbit of the sun, we are back in the position where we started a year earlier, and as a result our view of the stars and the times at which they rise and set are exactly the same again.
Each morning, therefore, as the sun comes up above our horizon, it does so against a slightly different backdrop of stars from that of the previous day. Of course the stars themselves become invisible to us as the day dawns and the sun rises, but they are all still there. If we were somehow still able to see the stars despite the brightness of day, we would see that with each successive day the sun appears to have advanced slightly against the backdrop of the stars.
Einsteinian relativity shows that it is actually impossible to determine if it is the earth that is moving around the sun or vice versa. Either way, it makes no difference to what is actually visible in our skies from here on earth. (See also Love and Kindness.) Pre-Copernican astronomy held that the sun moves around the earth, while post-Copernican astronomy holds the opposite. Both are models attempting to explain one and the same fact: that from our point of view on earth, as the year progresses, the sun appears to move through a succession of different constellations -- if only they were visible to us behind the glare of the sun itself.
This fact was well-known to sky-watchers thousands of years ago. In the days before electric lighting and night-time urban glow, it was unnecessary to go to desert mountain observatories in order to see the stars in all their glory. The ancient sages knew the paths of the stars and planets as well as they knew the streets of their own towns and villages.
They realized that these august luminaries and their fascinating and evocative configurations are more than a massive accident. Observing how the movements of the sun and the stars through the year correlate with the changing seasons and other conditions on earth, they understood that the orbiting heavenly luminaries actually influence what happens on earth, thereby laying the foundations of astrology.
Observing that the sun in its annual journey through the heavens moves against a backdrop of twelve successive constellations of stars, the ancient sages discerned twelve forms suggested by these constellations, the Ram, Ox, Twins, Crab, Lion, Virgin, Scales, Scorpion, Bow, Goat, Bucket and Fish, the twelve "Signs of the Zodiac". To these they ascribed special significance.
So impressed were they with the power and influence of the stars and planets that most of the ancients actually worshipped them, none more so than the Egyptians, who excelled in every form of idolatry. They especially worshipped Aries, the Ram, first of the twelve signs of the Zodiac, coinciding with spring, time of rebirth and regeneration.
Abraham with his holistic Chokhmah-vision grasped that the entire system of stars and planets is itself part of a far greater unified spiritual/physical system that is infinitely vast, unfathomable in its wisdom and intelligence, and all under the complete control of a single, perfect Creator: HaVaYaH. Abraham handed on his wisdom to Isaac, and Isaac to Jacob. But in Egypt Jacob's descendants, the Children of Israel, fell prey to the sophistication of Egyptian astro-theology and mostly forgot about their heritage.
When the time came for the Children of Israel to be freed from their slavery in Egypt, God overturned the entire system of celestial government through stars and planets, intervening to bring about a series of catastrophic ecological disasters that hit Egypt in a totally supernatural way. The Egyptians' water-supply turned into blood, after which they suffered horrendous infestations of frogs, lice and wild animals, plague, boils, hail, locusts and darkness, all of which flew in the face of the entire system of ancient idol-worship. Finally in one night all the Egyptian first-born -- the priests of the system -- died. The dramatic departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt showed that the stars and planets have no power or influence whatsoever except if HaVaYaH wills it.
The Exodus from Egypt took place under the spring-time astrological sign of Aries, the Ram. In flagrant defiance of Egyptian worship of the Ram, the Children of Israel took their paschal lambs and slaughtered them as a sacrifice to HaVaYaH, showing that God alone rules in heaven and on earth.
While the Egyptians and all the other ancient idolaters gave pride of place to the Sun in their astrological systems, God revealed to the Children of Israel that the key to understanding the mysteries of the heavens lies with another astrological phenomenon: the phases of the moon (see Jacob's Ladder). The moon is the archetype of humility. She has no light of her own. All her light is "borrowed", reflected from the sun. Only with humility is it possible to know anything of God and to shine His light into the world. Acknowledging that nothing we have is our own and that all we have comes only from God is the key to true power, strength and regeneration. The monthly renewal of the moon is a sign of life and rebirth.
Just prior to the Exodus from Egypt God commanded the Children of Israel to count time according to the phases of moon (Exodus 12:2). Sighting of the "New Moon", the slender crescent of the moon visible briefly on the western horizon just after sunset at the very start of a new waxing phase, would inaugurate a new month. The Hebrew word for month, Chodesh, means "renewal". The beginning of the month is called Rosh Chodesh, the "Head of the Renewal".
In the course of three hundred and fifty-four days the moon waxes and wanes twelve times. These twelve lunar cycles or "months" correspond to the twelve signs of the Zodiac, (though not exactly, because of the eleven day discrepancy between the 354-day lunar year and the 365-day solar year. To keep the lunar and solar years in sync, the Jewish calendar adds an extra "leap month" seven years out of every nineteen. Discussion of the mysteries of Sod Ha-Ibbur, the "Secret of Intercalation", is beyond the scope of the present work.)
To attribute to the moon a power of its own over the world would be to exchange one idolatry for another. While the astrological influences in each lunar month depend on the changing positions of the stars and planets, the ultimate source of all these influences is HaVaYaH alone. The four Hebrew letters of HaVaYaH have twelve possible permutations. It is through these twelve different permutations that God creates time -- for changes and differences are what time is all about: "The times they are a-changing!" This is why the root meaning of the kabbalistic expression for time, Shanah (usually translated as "a year") is change.
The twelve permutations of HaVaYaH send correspondingly different kinds of influence and blessing into the creation at different times of the year via the angels, stars and planets making up the divine system of providence. Each permutation is ascendant in one of the twelve months of the year. The special qualities of the corresponding sign of the Zodiac are an expression of the power of the ruling permutation. Thus it is not the astrological sign that rules but HaVaYaH.
The renewal of the moon is a sign. It signifies that a new permutation is "taking over" from the permutation ascendant in the previous month. Rosh Chodesh, marking the renewal of the moon and the celestial "change of guards", is a Moed, an "appointed time" of special closeness between God and the Children of Israel -- a festival (Leviticus 23:4 and Rashi ad loc.; Numbers 10:10).
Since Rosh Chodesh is a time of renewal of creation, one of the main devotional themes of the day is Maaseh Bereishit, the "Work of Creation". This is present in the Hallel (Psalms 113-118) sung communally in the Synagogue in the Rosh Chodesh morning service. "From the rising of the sun until its going down, praised is the name of HaVaYaH" (Psalms 113:3) .... "The sea saw and fled, the Jordan turned backwards. the mountains danced like rams and the hills like the young of the flock" (ibid. 114:3-4). The theme of nature is especially prominent in Psalm 104, which forms part of the Rosh Chodesh service and is all about the wonders of creation, as discussed in Shabbat.
In Temple times, after the ceremony of Sanctifying the Month by the Beit Din (rabbinical court, see Jacob's Ladder), Rosh Chodesh was marked with the offering of additional sacrifices of two oxen, a ram, seven lambs and their respective libations of wine, flour and oil (Numbers 28:11-15). These sacrifices help rectify creation through sending influences from below upwards as commanded by God so as to elicit positive, benign influences from above to below (see The Dark Side of Nature and Jacob's Ladder).
In the absence of the Temple, this fixing is accomplished through the recital of the corresponding Rosh Chodesh Mussaf or "Additional" Prayer, which includes an account of the Rosh Chodesh Temple sacrifices. At the climax of the central blessing of this prayer, "blessed are You, HaVaYaH, Who sanctifies Israel and the heads of the months", those familiar with the kabbalistic intentions of the prayers focus on the permutation of HaVaYaH ascendant in the month now beginning.
The Rosh Chodesh liturgy thus affords opportunities for deep connection with God through Maaseh Bereishit, the "Work of Creation". The connection is one that can be made both by the individual in his/her own personal devotions and jointly with other dear ones, friends and fellow seekers. From Biblical times onwards it has been customary to celebrate Rosh Chodesh with a special festive meal (Samuel 1, 20:24) and by visiting spiritual guides and teachers (Kings II, 4:23).
With the scattering of the Jewish population across the sprawling conurbations of the contemporary world, the kind of close-knit spiritual community that assembles three times daily, on Shabbat and festivals for joyous prayer and mutual support is not feasible for the great majority of people. This leaves many spiritual seekers feeling isolated and lonely. It is hard to travel long distances daily in order to join with like-minded others for prayer and support, and on Shabbat traveling is actually forbidden.
This gives the Rosh Chodesh gathering a special significance in our times, as it provides an excellent opportunity for friends and dear ones to gather together for prayer, study, meditation, song, socializing etc. Today's phone, internet and satellite technology makes it possible for like-minded people in far-flung places all over the world to join in international hook-ups so as to experience a sense of togetherness in their spiritual quest.
One of the most beautiful occasions for connecting with God through the wonders of nature is at the ceremony of Kiddush Levanah, "Sanctification of the Moon", held each month a few days after Rosh Chodesh, or at the latest at some point before the full moon in the middle of the month. Where possible it is recited at the conclusion of Shabbat after the Saturday night Maariv service when we are dressed in our fine Shabbat clothes and are in a mood of great joy.
The custom is to go outside under the open skies at night, look up at the moon and then face the place of the Temple while reciting a blessing of praise and thanks to God:
"Blessed are you HaShem our God, King of the Universe, Who with His utterance created the heavens and with the breath of His mouth all their hosts. He gave them a decree and a time so that they should not alter their assigned task. They are joyous and glad to perform the will of their Owner -- the Worker of truth, Whose work is truth. To the moon He said that she should renew herself as a crown of splendor for those borne [by Him] from the womb, those who are destined to renew themselves like it and to glorify their Creator for the name of His glorious kingdom. Blessed are you HaShem, Who renews the months".
Recital of the blessing is accompanied by psalms and other passages. See the Siddur for the full text and further details about when and how Kiddush Levanah is recited.
Following Kiddush Levanah it is customary for the participants to join together in a dance-circle (alluding to the circle of the twelve constellations of the Zodiac) and dance while singing the words from El Adon in the Shabbat morning liturgy:
"Good are the luminaries that our God has created, He has fashioned them with knowledge, with insight and discernment. Strength and power has He granted them to be dominant within the world. Filled with luster and radiating brightness, their luster is beautiful throughout the world. Glad as they go forth and exultant as they return, they do with awe their Creator's will. Splendor and glory they bestow upon His Name, jubilation and glad song upon the mention of His reign. He called out to the sun and it glowed with light, He saw and fashioned the form of the moon. All the host above bestows praise on Him, splendor and greatness -- the Seraphim, Chayot and holy Ophanim."
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