Moon Exploration: From the Torah to NASA

The world is fighting a deadly virus that travels at the speed of light causing death, havoc, lockdowns, curfews, and political quarrels. Yet, nothing stops mankind’s ambitions to “go boldly where no man has gone before.” This Star Trek slogan — a TV show aired for the first time in 1966 — became a premonition of the first landing of man on the Moon on July 20, 1960, when Neil Armstrong took a “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” At the time, the US government’s launch of Apollo 11 symbolized the pinnacle of human achievement in science and technology and its hegemony in space exploration. Sixty years later, here we go again! Last May, SpaceX — founded in 2002 by Elon Musk —, became the first private company to launch a spacecraft into orbit with commercial plans for space tourism and business, while the current US administration has created Space Force to propel their moon travel program in the next few years.

Without getting too philosophical, but just out of curiosity, where does this need to go to the Moon or Mars come from? Why launch rockets to outer space for hegemony, business, or recreation? Why are billionaires signing up for the outer-space experience? What is so unbearable about life on this planet that we rather escape than invest and develop, both, nature and humanity on this amazing planet? Does Moon travel improve our physical and spiritual lives? Does it unite us as a one human race? Does it heal our differences and harmonize us into one people? Does it provide the solace and spirituality we need amidst a pandemic, rioting, protests, health crisis, and economic downturn? The space exploration conundrum cannot possible provide us with existential answers during these challenging times, nor did it unite us during the landing of the Moon in 1960 at a time of division about the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement and the assassination of a US president, his brother, and a Civil Rights leader. Yet, it is undeniable that Earthlings are inspired by the launching of rockets to the Moon and humanity’s power to take on challenging projects, but, do we really appreciate the Moon’s benefits and value here on Earth?

Before the Moon was discovered by NASA, The Torah already mentioned it over three thousand years ago when G-d issued the first commandment to the Israelites after He liberated them from Egyptian bondage:

“Hashem said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying, This month shall be for you the beginning of the months, it shall be for you the first of the months of the year.” Exodus 12:1.

Hashem’s mention of Moses and Aaron who are Levites — descendants from Jacob’s son Levi—teaches us that two ordained witnesses are needed to declare the appearance of the New Moon —Rosh Chodesh in Hebrew— every month starting with the month of Nissan. How do we know Hashem refers to Nissan when He says: “This month shall be the beginning of the months”? It is implied by the way this commandment is sandwiched between the tenth plague —the killing of the first born of Egypt, Exodus 11:1— and the commandment of remembering the Passover Festival (Exodus 12:14). Both events happened during Nissan, the month in which Hashem liberated the Hebrew slaves from Egyptian bondage. With their newfound freedom, slaves could choose to accept G-d’s commandment of the New Moon without Divine coercion as it is said in the Talmud: ”All is in the hands of Heaven, except the fear of Heaven,” (Tractate Niddah 16b).

Why is it so important to look at the Moon to know when a new month begins or ends?

In the Torah, the Moon, the Sun, and Earth were created by Hashem during the first five days of Creation for the benefit of humanity. Adam and Eve were formed on the sixth day, after G-d had created a world with all the natural resources needed for their sustenance. The seventh day He created the Sabbath which is not a physical creation as the prior six days, but a spiritual time that brings blessings to whomever observes it. In Hebrew, the word “to create” by G-d is “Barah,” which is Creation of the Universe out of nothing or ex-nihilo according to Moshe ben Maimonides in The Guide of the Perplexed. “Barah” is used in the first three words of the Torah: Bereishit Barah Elohim —In the beginning, G-d created— (Genesis 1:1). “Barah” is also the root word for “Bracha” or blessing. A blessing in Judaism is G-d’s emanation of goodness for our benefit. When G-d created the Heavens and the Earth, he did it with the word “Barah,” Creation with a blessing for us. The deep meaning of the Hebrew words for the account of Creation provides a model of a Universe with meaning and purpose. This principle is more evident in the creation of the “luminaries” —the Sun and the Moon—:

“G-d said, Let there be luminaries in the firmament of the heaven to separate between the day and the night, and they shall serve as signs, and for festivals, and for days and years. And G-d made the two great luminaries, the greater luminary to dominate the day and the lesser luminary to dominate the night.” (Genesis 1:14-16)

In the first sentence, G-d creates the luminaries —The Sun— to separate day and night. It means that the Sun’s light will hit the Earth during day and will hide during the night as the Earth rotates in its own axis. In the next sentence, G-d gives the luminaries a mission: “to serve as signs, and for Festivals, and for days and years.” In this fourth day of Creation, G-d is predicting something that has not happened yet. He is foretelling the after liberation from Egyptian bondage, the Israelites will keep the first commandment of Rosh Chodesh and they will accept the Torah at Sinai which will announce the Festivals. To observe Rosh Chodesh, the Israelites had to look up to the Heavens and find the sign of the Molad (literally “birth” of the Moon). The Molad is a cosmic alignment of the Sun, the Moon, and the Earth that uniquely happens once a month. In this line up, the Earth has been casting a shadow on the Moon for 29 days and as it moves out of the way between the Sun and the Moon, the Sun casts its first rays of light on a tiny edge of the Moon: the Molad, as “signs, for your Festivals, for days and years.”

When exactly does Rosh Chodesh start? It starts in the evening and it ends in the evening of the next day based on Genesis 1:5.

“And there was evening and there was morning, one day.”

This Torah’s sentence starts with the evening, signifying that a day in the Jewish calendar starts in the evening, it continues with the morning, and it will end in the evening of the next day, after the rotation of the Earth on its own axis has completed its daily cycle. Evening and morning are a function of the relationship of the Sun and the Earth. The rotation of the Moon around the Earth will take 29 days and 12 hours —a Lunar month— The Moon will rotate 12 times —12 months— around the Earth during its 365 days orbit around the Sun. This means, the Jewish people will announce 12 Rosh Chodesh each 29 days and 12 hours which will render approximately 354 days a year. Compared with the 365 days of the Solar Calendar —introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582— the Lunar Calendar is short 11 days. How does the Lunar Calendar catches up with the Solar Calendar so the four seasons and the Jewish Festivals always fall on the same months? Scholar Joseph Tabory answers this question in Jewish Festivals in Late Antiquity, (The Cambridge History of Judaism, 2006): “Since 12 lunar months are 354 days, while the solar year is 365 days approximately, it was necessary to find a way to synchronize these two cycles. This was done by intercalation, inserting an extra month once every two or three years, thus creating a lunar-solar calendar.”

The insertion of a month every two or three years to the Lunar calendar to match the Sun calendar is called a “Leap Year” in Judaism and it is a rabbinic court decision of the second century Common Era (C.E.). A month is added between Adar and Nissan and it is called Adar II. Why? Our Sages were concerned with matching Passover with Springtime to coincide with the agricultural offerings in the ancient Temple. Without adding a month, Passover would be pushed to the Summer months.

Up until the second century C.E., the notification of Rosh Chodesh required two witnesses to light bonfires in a town so all the people would know the New Moon had arrived. However, the tradition was abandoned when the Roman conquerors that had destroyed the Temple in 70 C.E. were also forbidding the practice of Rosh Chodesh and the ordination of Sanhedrin members, two of which were needed as witnesses of the first sighting and the announcement of the Molad —the New Moon—. Eliyahu Kitov, in The Book of Our Heritage (1968), —one of the most comprehensive books on Jewish Holidays and a great read— credits Hillel Ha-Nasi, a direct descendant of Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi, compiler of the Mishna in 200 C.E., with the compilation of the methods of the Jewish Calendar calculations. Eliyahu Kitov clarifies that Hillel did not innovate a method, but only compiled it from the oral transmission passed down from generation to generation since Moses received the Oral Law at Sinai —Halacha Le Moshe Mi Sinai—. The compilation of this method ensured that Jews will know exactly when Rosh Chodesh will begin for centuries to come, thus eliminating the need for two ordained witnesses.

As a Torah commandment, Rosh Chodesh is considered a holy day and as such, our Sages innovated rabbinic enactments to sanctify it. To celebrate Rosh Chodesh, the first step is its announcement at synagogues around the world which is done on the Sabbath prior to Rosh Chodesh. For example, if the Molad —the first sighting of the New Moon— is going to be on a Wednesday, its announcement will be done during the prior Sabbath morning services at synagogue where the community is gathered, happy, well-dressed, and praying to G-d. The “Blessing of the New Month” —p. 453 in the Artscroll Siddur— is read out loud by our leaders after the Torah’s portion (Parsha) of the week and before the Torah is returned to the Ark. In addition, Psalms are also read from the Siddur section (p. 633) called Hallel to praise G-d; and after the Sabbath is over, we go outside the synagogue in the sidewalk to say the prayer Kiddush Levana (p. 613) —Sanctification of the Moon— in which we give thanks to G-d for the benefits we derive from the Moon.

As mentioned before, G-d gave the “luminaries” the mission to serve as signs for Festivals which are directly related to agricultural cycles and the four seasons. None of these could happen without the gravitational weight of the moon over the waters in this planet. Oceans, lakes, rivers would be stagnant and lifeless without the moon’s causation of tides, waves, and internal currents which help the transportation and production of sea life and oxygen. There is tremendous science that cannot be discussed here about the Moon which creates and sustains life in this planet. Jews have known the Moon’s cause-effect on Earth since Sinai, but the Moon’s benefits are not the reason why we celebrate Rosh Chodesh every month. We do it to enhance our relationship with our Creator. Rosh Chodesh is our heritage, our first holy commandment from G-d at Sinai which united us as an emerging nation. It is the experience of two million Israelites whom G-d Himself liberated from slavery in Egypt. It is the oral chain of transmission that has linked generation to generation for three thousand years and has kept the Jewish people alive where other nations have disappeared. In Judaism, Rosh Chodesh a way to make time and space on this Earth sacred. It is also a new month of opportunities to connect to G-d and our fellow humans via his commandments or mitzvoth which are different every month. For example, in the month of Nissan (March-April), Hashem commands us to proclaim liberty throughout all lands and to remember the story of Passover. On the month of Tishrei (September-October) we celebrate the Creation of humankind on Rosh Hashana; and on Yom Kippur, we atone for our transgressions of commandments so we can go back to our closeness with G-d. During Sukkoth we are even commanded to have joy in our lives!

Every month, Jews around the world are united around Rosh Chodesh, ready to live a lifestyle of mitzvoth that will take us to our final destination: Olam Ha-Ba. Can you say the same thing about launching rockets to the Moon?

About the Author
Hadassah Levinson is a Judaic Studies teacher at Jewish Day Schools and instructor for young adults at Jewish centers in Manhattan. She is a recent graduate of Yeshiva University's M.A. in Modern Jewish History and she is currently enrolled in graduate studies in American Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Touro College. She is an iFellows at the iCenter for Israel Education. She has prior graduate degrees in Communications (NYU '95); and Journalism and International Affairs (Columbia University 2000).
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