I have always been drawn to the teaching of the Rebbe of Kotzk. His approach was predicated upon uncompromising truth and intellectual independence.This allowed him to be fearless and never to succumb to societal pressures.
He knew that Judaism was so much deeper and more profound than the way it was perceived by the masses and bent by religious populism.
These essays, although not necessarily Kotzker in essence, are certainly Kotzk inspired.
Kiddush Levana,- painting by Waclaw Koniuszko in the National Museum in Warsaw
The blessing for the New Moon is recited anytime between the third (or seventh) day of the month until the fifteenth of the month. This is known as Kiddush Levana or Sanctification of the Moon. No one is quite sure how it got the name ‘Kiddush’ Levana, and Sefardim refer to it instead as Birchat haLevana.
MISHNAIC TIMES (0-180CE):
The blessing of Kiddush Levana was first established in Mishnaic times around the first Century:
“...R. Yochanan (a Tanna) said: Up to when (in the month) do we say the blessing over the new month? – Up to the time, the flaw of the moon is filled (i.e the moon is no longer a slither). Up to when is that? -R. Yehuda says up to seven days. (The Sages of) Nehardea say up to sixteen days.”
R. Yochanan also said that whoever sanctifies the news moon is likened to one who greets the Divine Presence.
GEMARA PERIOD (180-500CE):
About two hundred years later during the Gemara period, Abaye (278-338) introduced the custom of standing, as a sign of respect, while reciting this blessing.
During this time there was also some debate as to the actual wording of the blessing to be recited, and even as to whether or not a blessing should be recited in the first instance:
Rav Acha suggested one recites haTov ve’haMeitiv (on seeing the emergence of the new moon, as one does for all good events). Ravina asks whether we therefore also recite Dayan haEmet (as we do for a death) when the moon is waning, and Rav Acha agrees with him that we alternate with both blessings. But Ravina challenges that assertion and concludes that no blessings at all should be recited on either the waxing or waning of the moon as it is a repeated and common occurrence.
Then the Gemara quotes a more elaborate and fuller version of the blessing of Kiddush Levana as per R. Yehudah:
“Blessed are You...who by His word created the heavens..and all their host. He gave them (the celestial bodies) a law and a time and they do not divert from their task. They (the heavenly bodies) are happy to perform the will of their master and they work truthfully (and accurately). And to the moon, He said that it should renew itself as a crown of beauty for those he carried from the womb (i.e. the Jewish nation) as they are destined to be renewed like it (the moon). Blessed are You who renews the months.”
-This version became a primary text which is still found in our siddurim today.
MASECHET SOFRIM (700’s):
A few hundred years later, Masechet Sofrim added to the text and the ritual of Kiddush Levana was more formalised.
Masechet Sofrim belongs to a collection of about fifteen rabbinical works of ‘Mishnaic nature’ but which were actually written in post-Talmudic times. These texts are called ‘masechtot’ or treatises but they are more concise and practical than classical Talmudic literature, and often served almost like instructive manuals:
Masechet Sofrim carries a similar text as R. Yehuda, as quoted in above-mentioned Gemara, but adds that we should say Siman Tov and Shalom Aleichem three times and dance or jump three times while reciting; “Just as I jump (dance) towards you (the moon) but cannot reach you, so too should others (my enemies) not be able to harm me.”
16th CENTURY KABBALISTS:
In the 16th Century, the ritual was even more expanded upon and Kiddush Levana took on the form we generally have today.
Pri Eitz Chaim of R. Chaim Vital 1542-1620
R. Chaim Vital writes, for example, that his teacher the Ari Zal used to shake the corners of his garment (talit katan) to cause the chitzonim (external energies) which were formed by the shrinking of the moon, to scatter.
According to R. Ehrenreich in his Otzar haChaim, R. Moshe Isserless (also known as the Ramo), noticed that people started bowing during the ‘dance’ – and he had to request that they refrain from such practices because it resembled an idolatrous ritual.
R. Ehrenreich writes that; “In our siddurim, it states ‘so too should my enemies not affect me for evil’ without any (reference to a) dance.”
He continues that the jumping or dancing ritual is something foreign to Judaism and unparalleled in any of our other prayer services. Simply put, it resembles idolatry. He asks; “What made them keep this practice? –It is just an extremely old (dubious) custom which the people didn't want to nor were they able to desist from.”
He concludes that some heathen nations use the medium of dance as a form of magic to dispell demonic forces. This is why some texts read that; “(We jump and dance to symbolise that) our enemies cannot harm us (lehazikeini – an allusion to mazikin or evil spirits).”
So the dance becomes a form of magic and this custom is just a hametza’a - a fabrication or a figment of the imagination as Judaism does not subscribe to magic.
It’s interesting to see that in Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed, he acknowledges that even the Torah was prepared to, in his view, temporarily incorporate pagan practices (such as the sacrifices) until such time as the nation would become more elevated and be weaned off such rituals.
Rambam wrote; “It was in accordance with the wisdom and the plan of G-d... that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service, for to obey such a commandment (to reject superstition) would have been contrary to the nature of man who generally cleaves to that to which he is accustomed.” See KOTZK BLOG 68.
This may be the case too with some of the additions to the Kiddush Levana ceremony which the Otzar haChaim says the people just could not let go of. It also appears to be rooted in the ancient notion that the moon may disappear, due to satanic interference, never to return again.
SHALOM ALEICHEM AND MASHIACH?
TWO VERY DIFFERENT AND EXTREME VIEWS:
Taking this one step further, R. Israel Drazin writes concerning another section of the ceremony where Shalom Aleichem is also repeated three times:
“However, once we recall the prior magical incantations and enactments in the ceremony (of Kiddush Levana), including the sympathetic magic of the dance, we can readily realize that the practitioner is acting out this rite to cause the appearance of the messiah (which is alluded to by reciting three times David Melech Yisrael followed by Shalom Aleichem) by sympathetic magic.
The petitioner is not speaking to a fellow Jew (by saying Shalom Aleichem to him) but magically addressing the messiah, whom he hopes he is producing with his magic; the response he receives (Aleichem Shalom) is the response of the messiah that he has conjured.”
A more mundane explanation is offered by the Mateh Moshe who simply explains that after cursing our enemies, we wish to make it clear that we mean no harm to our fellows and therefore we turn to them and say, Shalom Aleichem!
Also, some offer a benign explanation for repeating the phrases three times, suggesting that the moon is known by three names - yareach, levana and sahar – and counter that it has nothing to do with any kind of magic.
GAZING AT THE MOON:
According to the instructions in some siddurim, it says that that one should glance at the moon before reciting the blessing.
According to Baal haChareidim, a Kabbalist from the time of the Ari Zal; “it is forbidden to gaze at a rainbow and similarly it is forbidden to gaze at the moon.”
Sefer Ta’amei haMinhagim quoting Shevet haMusar, mentions that according to Kabbalah, gazing at the moon is just as bad as gazing at a rainbow.
And according to R. Avraham the father of the Shla haKadosh, gazing at the moon is sin which requires teshuvah, or repentance.
These show how some Kabbalists have always had a fascinating relationship with the moon.
Let us be very clear: The objections we quoted were against certain later insertions in the Kiddush Levana ceremony, and not to the institution as a whole. No one can argue that the essence of the original ceremony has the authority of the Tanaim from the Mishnaic period.
Most people do not have any issues whatsoever with Kiddush Levana in its present format, and they clearly have a strong tradition on which to rely. There is no reason, therefore, for anyone to change their customs.
However, academically speaking, it is interesting to note, that for some of the reasons we have outlined - Rambam (and even the relatively contemporary Hertz Authorised Daily Prayer Book) have no references to what they consider to be superstitious and magical allusions inserted within the Kiddush Levana ceremony!
I gave the essence of this article over as a shiur in my shul and an esteemed colleague from a well-known rabbinical family who are direct descendants of the Shla haKadosh mentioned to me that their ancestor must have been aware of these suggestions of idolatry and magic.
This is because they have an oral tradition to just glance fleetingly at the moon and then turn aside while performing the rest of the ceremony so that it is clear that there is no insinuation of any nefarious moon practices.
In a similar vein, while researching this article, I came across an explanation as to why we conclude the Kiddush Levana by reciting Aleinu. This is because the Aleinu prayer emphasises that we submit only to G-d and not to meaningless entities. Again this must have been a reaction to an apparent attempt at subverting the original intent of the Kiddush Levana ceremony.
 According to Peninei Halacha, by R. Eliezer Melamed (Zemanim 1:8):
“The custom of Chassidim and Sefardim is not to recite the blessing before seven days in the month. The custom of Ashkenaz is to recite the blessing after three days. But in practice, we recite Kiddush Levana on Saturday night in order to say it with smart clothes. So, in practice, according to the custom of Ashkenaz and Morocco, we recite Kiddush Levana on the Saturday night after three full days from the time of the Molad (new moon). According to the custom of Sefardim and Chassidim, we recite Kiddush Levana on the Saturday night after the seventh of the month.”
 Sanhedrin 41b. The Gemara quotes R. Yochanan who was a Tanna of the Mishnaic period.
 This may be because the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people was the commandment to sanctify the new moon. Although Kiddush Levana is not the official sanctification ceremony for Rosh Chodesh (-that was performed by the Sanhedrin), it clearly shows respect to that institution. And in a sense, it is greeting the Divine Presence as we collectively did when we fulfilled that first mitzvah as a nation. Another possible explanation is that since the Second Temple had been destroyed at the beginning of the Mishnaic period, a new opportunity to ‘welcome the Divine Presence’ would have been very appropriate.
 Furthermore, some texts add Kol Dodi (The voice of my beloved), which according to the Yalkut is an allusion to the Messiah. When the Messiah announces the month of the redemption, the people will respond with disbelief as they will say that there are too many hurdles in the way. To which the Messiah will respond that even so, he will arrive like a gazelle leaping over the mountains.