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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.


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