Sharp Increase In Jerusalem Lunatics

by K.B. Shawnee

This article is reprinted from the April, 1999 edition of Your Jerusalem.

According to late-breaking reports, Jews across Jerusalem are becoming lunatics. Is there a strange disease going around? Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Not exactly. Across Jerusalem, there has been a recent and spontaneous resurfacing of interest in observing the cycles of the moon and understanding the relevance of their observation to Jewish observance. Is this just coincidence or is there a reason behind all this sudden lunacy (perhaps a full moon)?

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Says Jerusalemite Bruce Brill, who has been recording his own personal new moon sightings in Jerusalem for the past 5 years, “I meet more and more lunatics every day.” While others may concur with this statement, Bruce is not referring to teenagers with spiked clubs embedded in their tongues and glow-in-the-dark orange Ronald McDonald haircuts. Rather, he is referring to the increasing number of people he has met who seem to have been struck with a sudden and inexplicable madness for learning about the moon and its cycles, for observing the New Moon, and even for working towards restoring the declaration of Rosh Hodesh (the New Month) and the Jewish Holidays by new moon sightings rather than by the fixed calendar. Bruce, a self-admitted “lunatic”, has even written and performed a song about the subject. The song, called “The Maiden Moon”, declares in its chorus:

What sign should I put in the sky,
Perhaps a crescent jewel?
My word is out, so none can doubt,
My promise of renewal.

Bruce explains that these lines refer to a promise in Yermiyahu (Jeremiah) 31 that the Nation of Israel will cease to exist as a nation when the new moon stops renewing itself (i.e. never).

Other groups have taken actual first steps in what they hope will be the eventual restoration of the sanctification of Rosh Hodesh and the setting of Jewish Holidays by observation of the new moon rather than by the fixed calendar.

A group founded by Jerusalem lawyer Baruch Ben Yosef and led by activist Yehuda Etsion formally declares Rosh Hodesh each month. The group meets every Rosh Hodesh at Sha’arei Hulda, just outside the main entrance to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, where they convene a beit din (Jewish court of law) and officially declare the precise time of the New Month. After the declaration, ancient Israelite poetry concerning the New Moon is read, celebratory music is played, and the shofar is blown, heralding the coming of the New Moon.

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Says group founder Baruch Ben Yosef, “This is the first step towards ultimately changing the whole process back [to being based on observance.] It shows that we control time — time does not control us.” Ben Yosef and his group base their actions on a statement in the Rambam (medieval Torah scholar) that in order for the New Month to be officially binding upon the Nation, there must be a beit din in the Land of Israel which declares it [Hilchot Qidush HaHodesh 5:13]. “If there is no beit din in Israel that declares the New Month,” says Ben Yosef, “then according to the Rambam, it is as if there are no New Months or Festivals.”

Ben Yosef is careful to point out that the Rosh Hodesh which the group declares is the one stated in the fixed Jewish calendar currently in use, and is not obtained by observation. “We are not talking about sighting the moon and then declaring it at its proper time, because for that, you need semuchim (properly ordained judges). We are talking about formally declaring that which is written in the calendar. After this concept is recognized, then it will be easier to move to the next step.”

Baruch points out that anyone who wishes to take part in the declaration of the month of Iyar 5759 should meet at the entrance to the Temple Mount on Friday 16 April at 12 noon, or call (02) xxx-4833 for further information.

Another group, based out of Ma’alei Adumim and called the Israel New Moon Society, is taking a slightly different approach towards restoration of New Moon sightings. Founded by Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitz, head of the Hesder Yeshiva there, this group of approximately 30 rabbis, scientists and lay people collects monthly data on the visibility of the lunar crescent. Says current head, Dr. Roy Hoffman, “We are trying to get people to look at the moon and to collect data so that when there is another Sanhedrin, the data can be used to decide when the new moon will or will not be visible.”

Members of the group fill out a detailed form describing the exact time, place and appearance of the new moon. In addition, similar forms are passed out in shuls, so that people who see the new moon may report their own sightings. The forms are pooled together and analyzed in order to gather data on trends in lunar visibility, such as the locations of the best and worst places in Israel. According to Dr. Hoffman, it is not enough to know empirically when and where the new moon will appear: “Sighting is an unreliable science. Many factors can vary, such as clarity of the atmosphere, how the human eye reacts to what it sees, how the moon reflects light, etc.” The hope of the group is that we will learn enough about the criteria for effective new moon sightings by the time the Nation of Israel returns to sanctification by this ancient method.” To contact the Israel New Moon Society, call (02) 535-3551 or write to 56/7 Mitspe Nevo, Ma’ale Adumim 98410. [Editors note: contact information updated and valid as of February, 2010]

Besides those mentioned above, there are other groups and individuals who have been recording new moon sightings. Tuvia Katz of Ramat Gan, Shai Walter of Yavne, Yaakov Levinger of Tel Aviv and Karaite Rabbi Magdi Shmuel are some of the better known ones. And, in Jerusalem, the trend is clearly catching on fast. Who knows, perhaps within a couple of years, Jerusalem will be completely filled with “lunatics.”

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