Fifty years ago, on 21st July 1969 at 02:56:15 UTC (Coordinated Universal Time), American astronaut, Commander Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle and walked on the moon. 19 minutes later, he was joined by Lunar Module pilot, Buzz Aldrin. Meanwhile, Command Module pilot, Michael Collins flew the Command Module Columbia alone in lunar orbit. Armstrong and Aldrin collected 47.5 pounds of lunar material to bring back to earth. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_11)
Aged 14, I remember sitting with my family watching the TV pictures TV on a clear night in London. As I marvelled at the flickering images, I kept glancing at the slender crescent of the new moon with a sense of wonder. Suddenly, the moon had become another world and I never looked at it in the same way again.
So, an unforgettable moment and a date to remember. I doubt few people remember the Hebrew date. Interestingly, lift-off from the Kennedy Space Centre took place on the new moon, Rosh Chodesh Av 5729 – corresponding to 16th July 1969 – which explains why six days later when that iconic space-walk took place, the moon appeared as a crescent in the night sky.
It was only when I embarked on rabbinic training at the Leo Baeck College in the autumn of 1984, that I became conscious of the waxing and waning moon cycle as I followed the Hebrew months that follow the moon. Most of us are not aware of the Hebrew date each day, but the arrival of a special day in the calendar prompts remembrance. Rosh Ha-Shanah, falling as it does on the 1st day of the 7th month of Tishri, dawns so to speak in darkness. Appropriately, Chanukkah falls in the dark final days of Kislev and first dark days of Tevet. Meanwhile, four festivals commence at the full moon: Pesach on 15th Nisan, Sukkot on 15th Tishri, Tu Bishvat – the New Year for Trees – on 15th Sh’vat and Purim on 14th Adar. By contrast, Shavuot falls on 6th Sivan, when the moon appears as a crescent, and at Yom Kippur on 10th Tishri and Tishah B’Av on the 9th Av, the moon is becoming a two-thirds disc in the sky.
Of course, the moon has a tremendous impact on planet Earth, causing a huge gravitational pull that makes the oceans rise and fall – what we call the tides. The earth lives, quite literally, by the moon as well as by the sun. So, maybe we should pay it more attention. As it happens, awareness of the moon is incorporated into Jewish practice. Each new moon is announced on the Shabbat beforehand and Rosh Chodesh (1st of the month) is celebrated with the insertion of the Ya’aleh v’yavo prayer into the first of the three concluding blessings of the Amidah, the recital of half-Hallel – half the celebratory psalms recited on the pilgrim festivals – and a special Torah reading. During the past forty years, Rosh Chodesh has also been reclaimed as a women’s festival by Jewish women meeting in Rosh Chodesh groups at the start of each month to celebrate and study together. Perhaps, as we mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, clear skies permitting, we might consider following the changing moon from day-to-day.