The Dark Rays of the Moon: Yom Kippur Katan as Preparation for Rosh Chodesh

Rabbi Shefa Gold

The Dark Rays of the Moon: Yom Kippur Katan as Preparation for Rosh Chodesh

By Shefa Gold

In any spiritual practice, preparation and intention make all the difference. When the preparation for Rosh Chodesh can occur in all four realms of my being — physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual — then my receptivity to its transformative effects is maximized. The Kabbalists of 16th century S'fat understood this essential truth, and they had the creativity and the courage (some might say audacity) to respond by developing a holy-day that would address the spiritual challenges of renewal that Rosh Chodesh brings. That holy-day came each month on the day preceding Rosh Chodesh and was called Yom Kippur Katan. The custom was to fast from sunrise to sunset and to recite certain prayers which had the flavor of Yom Kippur and would facilitate the process of self-examination and purificatiion and preparation for receiving the new moon.1

Those kabbalists were moon watchers. The lenses through which they gazed were intensely focused on issues of exile and redemption. And so as the moon waned, the exile of the Shechina (the divine presence), was noted and mourned. With the moon's return came the celebration of the miracle of redemption, a redemption which could be tasted and known but briefly before the cycle of exile continued. They based their custom on a legend that was recorded in the Babylonian Talmud in which God Says to Israel, "Bring atonement upon me for making the moon smaller."2

They understood "making the moon smaller" as referring to a contraction of divine essence, which in human terms could be experienced as exile. There is another legend that at the time of Messiah, the moon will again be as bright as the sun.3 The moon's return to glory will mark our redemption. The Kabbalists based their reading of these myths on a Lurianic Kabbalistic conception of Creation, which says that it was the divine act of tzimtzum (God's self-contraction) which made room for the existence of our world. Yet it was this very act of tzimtzum which set into play the dramatic cycle of exile and redemption which has become the vehicle for the the soul's evolution and the self-realization of every aspect of Creation.

As Gershom Scholem explains it, "..the act of tzimtzum itself, in which God limits Himself, requires the establishment of the power of Din (judgment), which is a force of limitation and restriction. Thus the root of evil ultimately lies in the very nature of Creation itself, in which the harmony of the Infinite cannot, by definition persist; because of its nature as Creation — i.e., as other than Godhead — an element of imbalance, defectiveness, and darkness must enter into every restricted existence, however sublime it may be."4

With the exile of the Shechina, darkness enters into our existence and with that darkness comes a longing for her return. Yom Kippur Katan comes at a point in the cycle when that longing is at its peak. Inner reality reflects the absence of moon and manifests as a longing for fullness that claws at the dark empty pause. It is a call to re-create ourselves in God's image.

At the same time, it feels as if God might be doing t'shuvah (turning, repentance), taking another look at us and reconsidering the relationship. On Yom Kippur Katan we feel those all-seeing eyes on us and we do what must be done to make ourselves beautiful to God. The dark moon night allows for the visibility of stars and planets that would ordinarily go unnoticed. On Yom Kippur Katan we do an examination of the inward skies as well — the constellations of our being that in the busy light of our lives might remain hidden from view. It is the time for correcting our aim, seeing the ways that we have been pulled off course. It is the time for paying attention to the subtle details, a time to feel the internal striving after righteousness, that is born of love.

The symbol of the moon and its cycles representing our experience of God's presence is significant because it is multi-layered. As the moon waxes and wanes, there is a part of me that experiences the shrinking and swelling of light in the night sky. There is another part of me that knows and experiences the moon as a whole sphere which happens to reflect different amounts of the sun's light. I can often even see the dark part of the moon when there is only a sliver of light. It is the same with the experience of exile. There are times when I feel so very far from God, and yet another part of me knows that it is only a "seeming" distance. God has never left my orbit. Yet I live my life in the drama of these cycles — the waxing and waning of God's presence in my life. Another part of me stands back and understands these cycles as the contractions of labor that birth the soul into wholeness. Though all these layers exist simultaneously, I know that I must give myself fully to the experience of this drama, even to the pain of it.

The challenge of renewal requires us to look hard and honestly at the aspects of our personalities, habits, beliefs and patterns that need renewing — whatever it is that we have outgrown, whatever it is that holds us back, distorts our vision, prevents our love from flowing freely. If we do this work of examination, purification and realignment each month, then on Rosh Chodesh we will indeed have something to celebrate.

In a class with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in which we studied the liturgy of Yom Kippur Katan, he said that to really know and celebrate the essence of lunar energy, we must experience the "dark rays of the moon."5 When we notice and pay attention to the particular power of this time, those "dark rays" will aid us as we meet the challenge of renewal.

As our celebrations of Rosh Chodesh evolve in ways that express our deepest joys and concerns, so must our preparations, both inner and outer, effectively address our present needs. Although I can appreciate the beauty of the liturgy of those 16th century kabbalists, I have also felt a need to express the process of Yom Kippur Katan in a more personal way. And so I offer the following song. The chorus is in Aramaic and comes from the traditional liturgy of Yom Kippur Katan. It says, "Compassionate One, who answers broken hearts, answer us, answer us."

May we all have the courage and strength to let our hearts break, and may the light of renewal, healing and wisdom stream in to those broken places so that in our wholeness we may shine.

The Dark Rays of the Moon6

My flaws are showing all too clear, In the dark rays of the moon, All my certainties will disappear, In the dark rays of the moon, I surrender to the shadow's glare, In the dark rays of the moon, I am strengthened by the truth I bare, In the dark rays of the moon, Rachamana d'oney litvirey liba, aneyna, aneyna. (Compassionate One who answers broken hearts, answer us, answer us.)

When the tide is low I search the beach, In the dark rays of the moon, Broken dreams wash up within my reach, In the dark rays of the moon, I will hold the shell up to my ear, In the dark rays of the moon, Till the voice of God is all I hear, In the dark rays of the moon, Rachamana d'oney litvirey liba, aneyna, aneyna.

In exile I am forced to roam, In the dark rays of the moon, Till my prayerful longing brings me home, In the dark rays of the moon, Though I see my life in shades of dark, In the dark rays of the moon, In the deepest depths there glows a spark, In the dark rays of the moon, Rachamana d'oney litvirey liba, aneyna, aneyna.

l. Yom Kippur Katan is not observed for the following months' Rosh Chodesh: Cheshvan, because Yom Kippur has just passed; Tevet because it would fall during Chanukah when fasting and penitential prayers are not permitted; Iyar, because it would fall during Nissan which doesn't allow fasting; and Tishrei because it would fall on the day of Erev Rosh Hashanah which doesn't permit penitential prayers. If Rosh Chodesh falls on Shabbat, Yom Kippur Katan is observed on the preceding Thursday. (Klein, Isaac. A Guide to Tewish Religious Practice.New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1979 pages 262-3.)

2. Hullin 60b

3. Based on Isaiah 30:26

4. Scholem, Gershom. On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead. New York: Shocken Books, 1991. p. 83.

5. The phrase "Dark Rays of the Moon" appears to have been coined during a conversation between Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Eric Neumann in Jerusalem. Discussing whether the moon gives off its own light or only reflects the sun's light, Eric Neumann said, the moon has its own rays, they are the dark rays of the moon.

6. Copyright (c) Shefa Gold. 1989. Available on the audio-cassette "Abundance" P.O. Box 355 Las Vegas, New Mexico 87701.

Gold is a rabbi, a graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College who also received smikha from Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi; a Pathfinder of ALEPH; creator of a new approach to chanting as a form of Jewish prayer; and a composer and singer of Jewish songs and chants. She lives in New Mexico.


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