The first mitzvah given to the Jewish People upon their redemption from Egypt was the mitzvah of sanctifying the new month: “This month shall be for you the first of months” (Shemos 12:2). Today there is no Beis Din that can sanctify each month, and the Jewish calendar is based on calculations. However there is a mitzvah of Kiddush Levana—whose name recalls the original task of Beis Din.
Other than the name of Kiddush Levana, however, there is no connection between the blessing we recite and the mitzvah to sanctify the months that was incumbent on a qualified Beis Din. Rather, Kiddush Levana refers to the providence of Hashem that is always with us, to the celestial bodies that He placed in the skies to order time, and to our constant hope for redemption and for our relationship to be renewed, as the moon is each month.
The Gemara teaches that reciting birkas halevana is akin to greeting the Shechina (Sanhedrin 42a), which is why we recite it standing (as ruled by the Rema, Orach Chaim 426:1). Recalling this, we say in Kiddush Levana: Ilmolei lo zochu Yisroel… The Biur Halacha (426:2) explains that the regularity of the function of the moon inspires us to recognize Hashem’s absolute control over nature. The Aruch Hashulchan (426:2) adds that the Jewish People are compared to the moon: Just as the moon has no light of its own, so the Jewish People are only sustained through Hashem and his Torah, and we are renewed like the moon. We say this as well: Atteres tifferes la’amusei botten sheheim asidim lehischadesh kemosoh…
We can add that just as the role of the moon is to channel the sun and thereby light up the darkness of the night, so the purpose of the Jewish People is to channel the light of Hashem, bringing it into the world and lighting up its inherent darkness (Bava Metzia 83b). “This nation I created for Myself; they shall tell My glory” (Yeshayahu 43:21).
In the present article we will discuss and analyze the basic elements of this mitzvah. Is there an obligation to recite birkas halevana, the blessing over the new moon, or is this a non-obligatory optional blessing in praise of Hashem, like some birkos hashevach? When and where should the blessing be recited? Should one gaze at the moon while reciting the beracha, or should one refrain from doing so? And are women included in the mitzvah?
These questions, among others, are discussed below.
An Obligatory Beracha?
The Yerushalmi (Berachos 9, 2: 65A) mentions the monthly blessing of the moon among other berachos that we recite upon seeing or witnessing earthly phenomena, such as seeing great mountains, the sea, lightning, and so on. This seems to indicate that, like these blessings, Kiddush Levana is not an independent obligation, but rather a dependent one that is said only upon witnessing something. Based on this understanding, there is no obligation to seek the moon in order to recite the monthly blessing that we say upon seeing it.
The Noda Biyhuda (Kamo Orach Chaim 41) clearly understood that Kiddush Levana is an independent obligation and is not like other berachos we recite on seeing earthly phenomena, since he rules that one may interrupt kriyas shema in order to say Kiddush Levana. This understanding also emerges from the ruling of the Maharshal (Shut Maharshal 77), which is accepted also by the Magen Avraham (426:1), that even a blind person recites the blessing over the moon. (The Biur Halacha 426 rules that since this matter involves a dispute among Poskim, it is better if a blind person hears the blessing from others.)
This seems to indicate that the obligation of the blessing does not depend on witnessing the physical event but rather falls upon everyone, even upon a person who has not yet seen the new moon.
Moreover, unlike other berachos on specific phenomena, in the case of Kiddush Levana one need not recite the beracha the first time one sees the new moon, and it is permitted to recite the beracha later. Indeed, the Rema (Orach Chaim 426) rules that it is correct to wait for Motzei Shabbos and to recite the beracha while dressed in Shabbos attire. This indicates also that Kiddush Levana is a blessing on the physical fact of the renewal of the moon—though a condition to reciting the beracha is actually seeing the renewed moon.
Another indication that the beracha is an independent obligation is the comment of the Gra (426:2), who writes concerning Kiddush Levana that one should perform the mitzvah as early as possible, in order to refrain from delaying the performance of a mitzvah. Likewise, the discussion of women’s reciting the blessing, as noted below, implies that this is an unconditional mitzvah.
There is an interesting dispute between the Noda Beyehuda (ibid) and Rav Shlomo Kluger (Shenos Chaim 131). The Noda Beyehuda ruled that one should recite Kiddush Levana before Megillas Esther because it is more frequent. Rav Shlomoh Kluger disagrees, arguing that in order to say Kiddush Levana one goes outside whereas Megillas Esther is read inside. Therefore, he says, going out to recite Kiddush Levana constitutes passing over the mitzvah of reading the Megillah and unless there is a danger that they will miss Kiddush Levana, Megillas Esther should be heard first.
When to Recite the Beracha
The Gemara is not clear about when the beracha over the new moon is recited.
The Rema (426:1) notes that the beracha can only be recited at night, at a time when the moon is shining and one benefits from its light.
When there is some cloud cover, the guiding principle is one’s ability to benefit from the moonlight (Shut Radvaz 1:341, as cited by the Mishnah Berurah 426:3), so that if the cloud cover is light, one can still recite the beracha. Some Poskim are stringent in this matter, ruling that one should not recite the beracha even if clouds are light (see Chida, Moreh Be’Etzba 184). The custom is to rely in this matter on the lenient opinions.
If the moon becomes covered by clouds halfway through the beracha, one may complete the beracha even though the moon is now covered. However, if a cloud is approaching and one can see in advance that the moon will be covered before he completes the beracha, one should not start Kiddush Levana (Mishnah Berurah 426:3 and Biur Halacha).
Concerning which days of the month one may recite the beracha, the Shulchan Aruch (426:4) rules that the earliest one may recite Kiddush Levana is seven days after the molad—the exact time when the new month begins. This ruling is based on the kabblistic work Shaarei Orah, and is disputed by the Bach, who rules that the beracha can be recited three days after the molad (based on Rabbeinu Yona, Berachos 21a). Other Ashkenazi Poskim (Taz 426:3, Magen Avraham 426:13, Aruch Hashulchan 426:13, Mishnah Berurah 426:20) concur with this ruling.
The Shulchan Aruch (426:2) adds that one should preferably recite Kiddush Levana on Motzei Shabbos, a ruling based on Maseches Sofrim (19:10). Rabbeinu Yona (ibid) disputes this and concludes that one may recite Kiddush Levana any time after three days. The Gra (426:2) adds (as noted above), that it is preferable to recite Kiddush Levana as early as possible, since we do not delay the performance of mitzvos.
The Mishnah Berurah (426:20) rules that it is proper to wait until Motzei Shabbos for Kiddush Levana but adds that one who does so earlier has someone to rely upon. In the winter months, moreover, he writes that it is praiseworthy to recite Kiddush Levana early. This extends the ruling of the Rema (426:2), who writes that if Motzei Shabbos is the 11th night from the molad or later, one should not wait until Motzei Shabbos, due to the chance that the following four nights will be cloudy.
Concerning the latest time for Kiddush Levana, the basic halacha (as ruled by the Shulchan Aruch 426:3) is that one may recite the blessing until the night of the 15th of the Jewish month. However, the Rema notes a more complex calculation that usually brings the time slightly earlier, while some Poskim write that one may recite the beracha even on the 16th night of the month. (Biur Halacha rules that one should do so without mentioning the Name of Hashem.) We will not elaborate on these calculations here.
Where to Recite Kiddush Levana
Kiddush Levana should preferably be said outside, following the ruling of the Rema (426:4), who writes that “we do not sanctify the moon under a roof.” The Mishnah Berurah (426:21) explains that sanctifying the moon is like greeting the Shechinah, and we therefore go out to the street, as we would to greet an earthly king.
The principle is to leave one’s home, but there is no problem in reciting Kiddush Levana under a tree (Chazon Ish, cited in Orchos Rabbeinu Vol. 1, p. 178) provided of course that one can see the moon. Nonetheless, many are particular to refrain from being under any kind of cover when reciting Kiddush Levana (based on the Maharil, Hilchos Rosh Chodesh).
In extenuating circumstances—such as if one is unwell, or if it is dirty or extremely cold outside—one may recite the beracha indoors, seeing the moon through the door or window. When reciting Kiddush Levana indoors it is best to open the window or door, but when even this is not possible, one may leave it closed, while making sure that one can see light from the moon (Shaar Hatzion 426:25).
Looking at the Moon
The Shulchan Aruch (426:2) rules that one should look at the moon prior to making the Beracha. For kabbalistic reasons, the Magen Avraham (426:8) cites the Shelah who writes that one should only look once, following which it is forbidden to look again at the moon. Some are concerned that extended gazing at the moon could be construed as praying to the moon rather than to Hashem.
However, the Sheyurei Knesset HaGedolah (426:5) writes that the custom is to look at the moon during the entire recital of Kiddush Levana. A third opinion (from the Charedim) is that one may gaze at the moon only while reciting the blessing itself, but after this, while reciting the order of Kiddush Levana, it is not permitted to gaze at the moon.
The Mishnah Berurah (426:13) quotes all three opinions without issuing a ruling. The Aruch HaShulchan (426:5) writes that the custom follows the Shelah, so that one should refrain from gazing at the moon, other than looking at it once before reciting the blessing. Many other authorities agree (see Ben Ish Chai, Vayikra 2, 23; Kaf HaChaim 426:34, Mekor Chaim 426:2; and others).
Women and Kiddush Levana
The Magen Avraham (426:1) writes initially that women are not obligated to recite Kiddush Levana, since this is a time-bound mitzvah from which women are exempt, but, like other time-bound obligations, the Ashkenazi custom is that it is permitted for them to perform the mitzvah and to recite the blessing. However, he cites the Shelah who says that women do not recite Kiddush Levana at all, because of their involvement in the sin that caused the diminishing of the moon.
This ruling seems to contradict an explicit Gemara (Sanhedrin 42a) which mentions women’s recitation of Kiddush Levana, the discussion focusing on the wording of the beracha rather than on the question of whether women recite the blessing or not. The Magen Avraham relates to this Gemara, writing that perhaps the Gemara does not mean to imply that women actually recite the beracha, and only mentions women as a general reference to amei ha’aretz (those who will not know the regular beracha).
Rav Moshe Feinstein (Shut Iggros Moshe, Choshen Mishpat 2:47, section 2) writes that the full beracha of Kiddush Levana is time-bound, and women are therefore exempt from reciting it. Concerning the above Gemara, he resolves the matter by explaining that aside from the mitzvah of Kiddush Levana, there is an additional possibility of reciting a shorter beracha on the renewal of the moon, similar to other berachos on physical phenomena. This applies to women just as to men. The minhag is that woman do not say any brocho.
By contrast, Rav Shlomo Kluger (Chochmas Shlomo to Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 426) writes that Kiddush Levana is not a time-bound mitzvah. This is because the time limit on the blessing is not inherent in the mitzvah but only derives from the fact that that the physical reality we say the blessing about (the renewal of the month) is only present during this time, and not because a special time was ordained for the mitzvah.
May we see the fulfillment of the prayer of Kiddush Levana: “…that they are destined to be renewed just as it [the moon], and to glorify the One who formed them, in the name of the glory of God’s kingdom.”