One of my favorite Jewish rituals is Kiddush Levana, the blessing or sanctifying of the newly visible moon. This is just such a friendly prayer. Everyone wishes one another SHALOM ALEICHEM and gets the response ALEICHEM SHALOM. On another occasion, we’ll more deeply explore that phenomenon. But my main affection for this blessing is the little dance we do at the end. Before Covid this was the only prayer service we regularly did outside, and at the end of that modest song and dance, we would then point at the sliver of moon with solemn joy. This connection between liturgy and nature was and remains cool. It’s that poem which was poached for that ritual which I’d like to discuss.
The lyrics, of course, come from the Shabbat morning PIYUT (liturgical poem) E-L ADON (God, Master). This beautiful poem was written around the end of the Talmudic Period and beginning of the Geonic Period, maybe the 6th or 7th centuries of the Common Era. But it’s the style which is significant. The prayer includes elements known as MERKAVA Kabbalah. The term MERKAVA is included in the text, but there is also the continued use of the number four, which is characteristic of this format because the source of this mystical thinking, the first chapter of Yechezkel, constantly cites variations of the number four. This style may also have influenced the format of the Haggadah and Pesach Seder where the number four is prominent.
In our poem, lines 3 through 20 all have four words, and, until the last two lines, the poem groups the lines in sections of four. It is probable that the number four relates to the four corners of the world or points of the compass. Therefore, four implies universal realities.
Our prayer begins by declaring that God, Master of all creation is praised by everything in existence. In this first part, the universe is amazed by the sheer enormity of the knowledge required to create. These first two lines have five words each. That is, perhaps, a reference to the Ten Commandments, which is the distillation of God’s gift of Torah and Divine wisdom to humanity.
The two terms used for intelligence are DA’AT and TEVUNA. They are usually rendered ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’. The Vilna Gaon makes an astute observation. He claims that DA’AT means the ability to use knowledge and apply it for useful ends. However, TEVUNA is even greater. This term implies not only the brainpower to use this knowledge, but, also, the clarity to teach it and pass the capacity on to others. The ability to teach a skill is the true sign of mastery of that knowledge.
Now, we begin a top to bottom survey of the creations who venerate God. The highest angels are called CHAYOT. They are only encountered at the apex of the four-sided MERKAVA or mobile Throne upon which God sits to supervise the Cosmos. To reach this level where CHESED (lovingkindness) and RACHAMIM (compassion, empathy) reign, high above God’s Throne of DIN (justice), the petitioner must embody Z’CHUT (merit for Torah performance) and MISHOR (upright, moral acts).
Now, we begin the three four-verse stanzas which many of us sing after KIDDUSH LEVANA, accompanied by our little circle dance. This material describes the praise for God by the celestial bodies. It has long been claimed, by Pythagoras to Keppler, that the movement of the stars, planets, comets, etc. is accompanied by sublime music. This music of the spheres assumes an intertwined relationship between music and the movement of the denizens of the night sky.
These ME’OROT (light giving bodies) are TOVIM (good), because they provide light. The first KI TOV in Breishit was for the creation of light. Their light giving course through the heavens seems to designate them as rulers over all they transverse.
We say that they are filled with ZIV (splendor?) and radiate NOGA (glow?). Again, the Vilna Gaon comes to our rescue to help us fathom these mysterious terms. He explains that a simple flame on a candle has three parts: the closest to the wick is called CHASHMAL (again, a term from the first chapter of YECHEZKEL, which was borrowed to give us the modern Hebrew word for electricity), the next section our is called ZIV, and the outermost shell, which is usually yellow, is called NOGA. All of these phenomena are swirling around in the heavens above us.
These heavenly bodies go about their assignments with great joy. They emerge from their hiding places on the other side of planet earth with SIMCHA. This joy is increased as they traverse the sky above and they are even happier (SASIM) as they complete the journey. They do all this with great awe for the Creator and Cosmic Director.
In the penultimate stanza, we eventually focus on the lowest or closest of the heavenly wanderers, the Moon. The Sun was called upon to shine with great light. Then the Moon was carefully fashioned to reflect that light in a complicated series of shifting shapes, which still fascinate observers of the night sky; crescent, gibbous, full and then back to absence. We Jews identify with this pattern of growth and loss. We set our calendar upon those movements. It should be no surprise that our most joyous occasions coincide with the full moon (Pesach, Purim, Sukkot, Tu B’Av, Tu B’Shvat).
It’s this line ‘God looked and fashioned the form of the Moon’, which is the crescendo of our little ceremony upon blessing the reappearance of the moon. Many of us point our fingers towards our trusty companion in space when we recite the final words: TZURAT HALAVANA.
We end this PIYUT with two lines of six words each. Why the switch? I would guess that these twelve words represent the 12 months or 12 constellations. It’s still a surprise when entering certain ancient synagogues in Israel to see the mosaic floor depicting the Zodiak signs, but our ancestors followed the seasons by following those symbols. These ideas still resonate in much Kabbalistic thought. This beautiful poem is sung joyously in most synagogues. However, Rav Soloveitchik said that it is a greater praise for God to recite it responsively with the CHAZAN. What can you do? Most of his students sing it anyway, and we did at YU.
This work truly represents the greatest effort of Shabbat: ZECHER L’MA’ASE BREISHIT (a reminder of the awesome act of Creation). Next time we’ll continue that thought with the following prayer: L’E-L ASHER SHAVAT.