Symbol of the Moon in Judaism


הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם, רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים: רִאשׁוֹן הוּא לָכֶם, לְחָדְשֵׁי הַשָּׁנָה

This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you. (Exodus 12:2)

I learned this week that the Chinese calendar is like the Jewish calendar, as it follows the moon, but it has a correction, a leap year of some sort so the holidays stay in the right seasons. So some bloggers this week were wishing me Happy Chinese New Year while others were wishing me a good month (it was the beginning of the Hebrew month of Shevat). It occurred on the same day because of the moon.

In this week’s parsha, the moon first becomes a symbol of hope and renewal for the Jewish people. There are many Jewish laws (halachot) regarding the sighting of a new moon. In the days of old, witnesses who saw the new moon would set fires on a string of hilltops to let neighboring and far communities know of the new month. Now we follow a calendar.

In his book Ancient Secrets: Using the Stories of the Bible to Improve Our Everyday Lives Rabbi Levi Meier talks about the moon:

Note that God’s symbols, as presented in the Bible, are generally elements of nature: a tree, a rainbow, a rock. The Bible imbues these natural elements with meaning, and each symbol is intended to give us strength to face the challenges that arise.

So when the pharaoh’s rage is unleashed as he is threatened with the last of the ten plagues—the death of all firstborn Egyptian males—the Israelites are told to look to the new moon.

It does seem strange, that amidst these plagues, the concept of Rosh Chodesh, the new month, is introduced.

Rabbi Meier continues:

The new moon silently speaks to them of renewal, of a new beginning. The moon returns each night to light the darkness, changing its shape, waxing and waning, only to rise afresh after a cycle of twenty-eight days. It speaks to them of the cyclical nature of life.

Just as the Israelites are getting ready to leave Egypt, they are given not only a symbol of hope but also a reminder that life is like the moon. It, too, moves in cycles. In the worst of times, it is important to remember that there will always be renewal.

The cycles of waxing and waning, of trust and mistrust, of intimacy and distance, of joy and despair, are all normal. A great deal of unhappiness in this world comes from our refusing to acknowledge this simple fact. When things are going well, we want to hold on to those feelings of happiness and bliss. But happiness gives way to sadness, as it surely must. And we suffer needlessly, agonizing over the realization that happiness, once achieved, cannot last forever. In the midst of our disappointment, we forget the moon will rise again, bringing joy once more.

The great figures of the Bible understood that we need “down” cycles in order to have “up” cycles. Thus, even in the worst of times, they were never immobilized by despair. They used the dark moments to change, to grow, and to move forward.

What do you think of when you see the moon?

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13 thoughts on “Symbol of the Moon in Judaism

  • Thanks for that link. I see that he says “Hodesh” can be translated not just as month but also as renewal, similar to the Hebrew word Hadash, meaning “new”.

  • Thanks for reading, EG.

    I’m going to add this joke in a comment:
    Mr. X: Did you know that the only calendar older than the Chinese calendar is the Jewish calendar?
    Mr. Y: Really? How did the Jews survive all those years without Chinese food?

  • JewWishes,

    I’m curious that you didn’t mention women’s cycles (or maybe that was in the so much more). That was the next paragraph in his book, but it felt a little too over-romanticized, like when a man says nice things about a woman in a way that’s a bit too flattering.

  • Quietpaths, thanks for reading. I’m trying to write about Jewish topics so anyone can understand them, not just those with a Jewish education (not always an easy thing to do; we tend to talk with certain understood lingo).

  • The moon makes me happy. It’s beauty in any phase is incredible to me. (Though my very favorite is the tiniest sliver or a crescent as it sets.)

    If times were always good, we would not appreciate them. I do not relish the bad times, but because of them I am so much more grateful for the good ones.

  • I had a discussion yesterday with my psychiatrist about this post. I used to experience much greater ups and downs, especially downs, before I went on medication. So I wasn’t happy about Rabbi Meier suggesting “But happiness gives way to sadness, as it surely must” because now I sometimes feel a little eh, but never that plunging, horrible feeling down. So we agreed he is talking about events out there; but one does not necessarily have to experience the horrible down inside oneself. My life has been a lot more ups or evens recently.

    Louise, when you say “If times were always good, we would not appreciate them.” I had a roommate who used to say that to me (she saw me very down at one point). You and she are probably right, though I felt horrible back then.

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