October 23, 2019

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Apollo 11 and Kiddush Levana


Something to think about as we approach the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing….

JTA reported on July 22, 1969:

Thoughtful Jews have speculated about the impact on Judaism’s religious outlook that would be made by man’s successful exploration of space. In a small way the answer began to emerge within hours of the historic Apollo 11 moon landing and exploration by Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Col. Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr.

The word came from Israel where Gen. Shlomo Goren, the Armed Forces’ Chief Chaplain, issued instructions about a change in the prayer for the blessing of the new moon which is said each month. The old blessing was worded: “As I dance before you and cannot touch you, so my enemies will not be able to touch me.” It now reads: “As I dance against you and do not touch you, so others, if they dance against me to harm me, they will not touch me.” The new version of the prayer is actually an old one found in the Talmud in Masechet Soffrim, chapter 20.

I have never seen any Jewish prayer book that uses Rav Goren’s changed language of Kiddush Levana.

The language in Sofrim indeed doesn’t use the “cannot touch you” language.

אחר שסיים הברכה אשר במאמרו יאמר שלוש פעמים: סימן טוב סימן טוב סימן טוב לכל ישראל, ברוך יוצרך ברוך עשך ברוך קונך ברוך בוראך, ורוקד שלוש רקידות כנגדה ואומר שלוש פעמים: כשם שאני רוקד כנגדך ואיני נונע בך כך אם ירקדו אחרים כנגדי לא יגעו בי, תפול עליהם אימתה ופחד וכו’ ולמפרע (פי’ להיפך כאבן ידמו זרעך וכו) אמן סלה הללוי-ה. ואומר לחבירו שלוש פעמים: שלום! וילך לביתו בלב טוב. 
Why do we use language that is apparently not true nowadays, as it is possible to touch the Moon?
I have seen three answers given. Rav Chaim Kanievsky said that it could mean that it is impossible to touch the Moon from Earth. Alternatively, it could mean that we are not permitted by Jewish law to go to the Moon as it is dangerous and we should not put ourselves unnecessarily in danger.
Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein has a different approach, saying that it means that we cannot touch the Moon without special equipment. He brings a proof from a law that if a man divorces his wife conditional on her being able to soar to the sky, the divorce is invalid because it is impossible. But the Midrash does describe elsewhere that Alexander the Great flew on the back of an eagle! The answer must be that when we talk about the impossibility of flight, we mean unaided. That is the meaning of Kiddush Levana.
But I have a more basic question: why do we use the language today of “cannot touch” when the very source for Kiddush Levana in Sofrim uses language of “does not touch?” The questions wouldn’t even come up if we used the original language!
The first source I mentioned claims that the Vilna Gaon’s prayerbook uses the original terminology, but the one I looked at online did not. I haven’t found any other sources for the changed language.
Any ideas?

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