Join The Conversation With Mishpacha's Weekly Newsletter

To the Light of the Moon

Rabbi Naftali Flintenstein

On the night of Hoshana Rabba, people would go out into the moonlight and look at their shadows. If a person’s shadow was whole, it was taken as a good omen; if not, it was taken as a sign that a difficult decree had been issued against him. Why is this custom, which is discussed by the Zohar and many Rishonim, no longer in practice?

Monday, September 20, 2010

There is an ancient custom, apparently dating back to the times of the Talmud, that has been all but forgotten. On the night of Hoshana Rabbah, people would go out into the moonlight and look at their shadows. If a person’s shadow was whole, it was taken as a good omen; if not, it was taken as a sign that a difficult decree had been issued against him.

The first allusion to shadows acting as harbingers of future events is in the Talmud (Horayos 12a): “One who wants to set out on a journey and wants to know whether he will return home or not should stand in a darkened room. If he sees a shadow of his shadow, he will know that he will return home. It is improper to do so, however, lest his courage fail him and cause him to meet with misfortune.”

A more direct source for this custom is found in the writings of an early Rishon, the Rokeiach (221): “That which is decreed on Rosh HaShanah and sealed on Yom Kippur is visible in a shadow on Hoshana Rabbah.”

He explains the reason for this esoteric omen: The night of Hoshana Rabbah is the time when the allotment of water and livelihood for the year is decreed. The angels look at people’s shadows and say, “So-and-so will not live, so he doesn’t need water for livelihood.”

The Rokeiach also finds an allusion to this concept in the Torah. The verse, “Sar tzilam mei’aleihem — Their [protective] shadow is removed from over them” (Bamidbar 14:9) has the same numerical value as “Sar shanah,” signifying that that when one’s shadow is removed, he will not live out that year.

In commenting on the aforementioned verse, the Ramban, too, mentions this custom: “It is possible that this verse alludes to the known [rule], that on the night [when the decrees are] sealed, there will be no shadow of the head of a person who will die during that year.”

Rabbeinu Bechaye elaborates on Ramban’s words, explaining that in truth, the overpowering light of the sun should shine over the entire earth, but Hashem miraculously ordained that all the creatures in This World — whether human, animal, fowl, tree, stone, or grass — should cast a shadow and block the light of the sun.

The reason Hashem did so was that This World belongs to the creatures that inhabit it, and He did not want the sun, a heavenly body, to infringe upon the space of the lower beings. When a person is destined no longer to be in This World, however, Hashem allows the light to overpower the shadow of his head. One performs this test by the light of the moon, concludes Rabbeinu Bechaye, because Hashem appointed it as the conduit through which He controls creatures on earth.

The Rakanti, among the leading kabbalists in Germany and a Rishon who had access to the writings of the holy Zohar, explains the custom according to its kabbalistic meaning. Kol Bo (52) also records the custom, quoting an aggadah as a source for the allusion from the verse, “Sar tzilam mei’aleihem.”

This custom was apparently in widespread use in the days of these Rishonim, judging by the many mentions it receives.


To read the rest of this story, please buy this issue of Mishpacha or sign up for a weekly subscription.

Share this page with a friend. Fill in the information below, and we'll email your friend a link to this page on your behalf.

Your name
Your email address
You friend's name
Your friend's email address
Please type the characters you see in the image into the box provided.

Evolution vs. Revolution
Shoshana Friedman I call it the “what happened to my magazine?” response
Up, Up, and Away
Rabbi Moshe Grylak What a fraught subject Eretz Yisrael is, to this day
Where Do You Come From?
Yonoson Rosenblum Could they be IDF officers with no Jewish knowledge?
Heaven Help Us
Eytan Kobre Writing about anti-Semitism should rouse, not soothe
Work/Life Solutions with Chedva Kleinhandler
Moe Mernick “Failures are our compass to success”
An Un-Scientific Survey
Rabbi Emanuel Feldman Are Jerusalemites unfriendly? Not necessarily
Out of Anger
Jacob L. Freedman How Angry Lawyer was finally able to calm down
5 Things You Didn’t Know about…Yitzy Bald
Riki Goldstein He composed his first melody at eight years old
When the Floodgates of Song Open, You’re Never Too Old
Riki Goldstein Chazzan Pinchas Wolf was unknown until three years ago
Who Helped Advance These Popular Entertainers?
Riki Goldstein Unsung deeds that boosted performers into the limelight
Your Task? Ask
Faigy Peritzman A tangible legacy I want to pass on to my children
Are You There?
Sarah Chana Radcliffe Emotional withdrawal makes others feel lonely, abandoned
A Peace of a Whole
Rebbetzin Debbie Greenblatt Love shalom more than you love being right
Seminary Applications
Rabbi Zecharya Greenwald, as told to Ariella Schiller It’s just as hard for seminaries to reject you