Bless the moon? The case for Yom Kippur’s hardest mitzvah
Yeah, fasting for 25 hours is hard, but the hardest mitzvah of the year doesn’t come until after Yom Kippur is over.
For those of us who have made it through several hours of prayer services, stood for all of ne’ilah, and even stayed past the holiday’s final shofar blast, all we want is to inhale some carbohydrates and return home to our precious lives of sin. But then, as soon as the havdalah candle is extinguished, someone cries out the two most dreaded words of the calendar year:
Kiddush levana, the blessing over the moon, is recited every month, customarily the first Saturday night more than three days after the new moon, weather conditions permitting. But in the month of Tishrei, we wait until Yom Kippur — and according to most custom, until the excruciating, hunger-crazed moment following Yom Kippur — to say it.
No, we’re not worshipping the moon or praying to it, but kiddush levana is an unusual ceremony — fulfilling a rabbinic, rather than Biblical, mitzvah — and an evocative one. It is one of the few prayers that has to be said outdoors — you have to be able to see the moon clearly. Where other prayers begin or end with a blessing, the blessing comes in the middle of the kiddush levana service — surrounded by oddball aphorisms and excerpts from the Old Testament and the Talmud.
In kiddush levana, we bless God for creating the universe, awesome and cold and infinitely expanding, and yet containing, amid its exceptional peril, a solar system and a planet in which humanity can survive. It’s a profound recognition of divine genius, and of our fortune. The short service (it’s never longer than five minutes) is considered a joyous one; it includes the words “mazal tov” at least three times.
I want to be clear that I have no beef with the moon; though I’ve never been, I’m sure it’s very nice. But after weeks spent exploring universal themes — atonement, forgiveness, humility, resolve — kiddush levana, in this moment, feels almost appallingly nonsequitur. And joyous could hardly describe the atmosphere when I haven’t had a drink of water, let alone a meal, in 25 hours and counting. The person who does the honor of shouting “kiddush levana!” after Yom Kippur knows they’re eliciting groans. Ecclesiastes tells us “Be not overly righteous; why bring desolation upon yourself?”
So why don’t we do it the week before, or the week after?
The reason we wait until after Yom Kippur to say kiddush levana is because the first ten days of Tishrei are the so-called Days of Awe, when our fate hangs in the balance. The chumminess of kiddush levana would therefore be inappropriate. (For the same reason, we wait until after the mournful observance of Tisha B’Av to say kiddush levana during the month of Av.) And when Yom Kippur is over, with our sins forgiven, our souls renewed, we’re (I’m sorry) over the moon! Technically, it’s perfect timing.
Of course, that doesn’t make the medicine go down any easier. So let me pitch you the dreaded post-Y.K. kiddush levana by way of a story.
A few summers ago, I flew to Israel for a friend’s wedding. Of course, you don’t fly halfway around the world for a weekend trip, so I stayed in the country for a while. I vowed to skip the tourist sites, but I went to Yad Vashem, hiked Masada at dawn, and scalded my feet on the sand of the Dead Sea. And you don’t fly from Tel Aviv to Los Angeles without laying over somewhere — not in your 20s, anyway — so I spent 36 hours in Prague, where I said ma’ariv at one of the oldest synagogues in the world, on the way back.
At baggage claim, people crowded around the rubber waterfall that would deliver their belongings, eager to dash on to their next adventure at the earliest possible moment. This is typically my habit, too. But my adventure was just ending, and feeling the onset of melancholy, I was in no rush to grab and go. The conveyor belt brought my spinner suitcase, and I let it pass. My 10-day trip lasted one more lap.
That’s kiddush levana. It’s the liminal moment — a partly uncomfortable one, yes — that extends the holiday just a little bit more. It’s the chance to reflect on the catharsis we just emerged from, to dwell in its afterglow by drawing it out.
“Chok u’zman natan lahem,” says the blessing of kiddush levana — God gave law and time to the cosmos, set the orbits whose consistency makes possible our waking life and our calendar, who make our fasts last 25 hours and then some. Keeping time is for the planets. The ability to slow it down is ours alone.