This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

I'm Bein' Followed by a Moonshadow...*

The seventh day of Sukkot, which we refer to as "Hoshana Rabbah," was originally associated with the seasonal prayers for abundant precipitation in the approaching rainy season. The critical importance of rain for the Israeli ecology, combined with the powerful themes of divine judgment still reverberating from the previous weeks' holidays, have lent to Hoshana Rabbah many of the features of Yom Kippur itself. Thus it is often depicted as the occasion when the year's verdicts are finally and irrevocably sealed.

This idea is underscored in some of the day's synagogue practices: e.g., the cantor wears a white "kittel" and chants some of the day's prayers to the melodies associated with the "Days of Awe."

The metaphysical stature of Hoshana Rabbah was progressively enhanced over the centuries, so much so that its original agricultural roots were virtually obliterated in the popular consciousness. This pattern was particularly pronounced in the Jewish mystical tradition, the Kabbalah, and has had far-reaching effects on Jewish folk beliefs and practices.

The foremost classic of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, describes how on Hoshana Rabbah, the verdicts that were decreed on Yom Kippur are officially distributed to all mortals.

An eerie variation on this motif is encountered in the influential thirteenth-century Biblical commentary of Rabbi Moses ben Nahman (Nahmanides). In his explanation of a peculiar Hebrew expression that is employed in the Torah to describe the defenselessness of Israel's enemies--"their protection [literally: their shade] is removed from them" (Numbers 9:14)--the "Ramban" suggested that "Scripture might be alluding to the well know fact that on the night of the `sealing' [of the divine decree] the head of a person who is fated to die during the approaching year will project no shadow in the moonlight."

A later Jewish Biblical exegete, Rabbi Bahya ben Asher, ascribed a figurative meaning to Nahmanides' tradition: A shadow symbolically marks out the place that a being occupies on the earth, and accordingly its removal demonstrates that that being no longer occupies a fixed or designated place in the sublunar world.

Many subsequent writers speak of this tradition, namely that in the moonlight of Hoshana Rabbah no visible shadow will be cast by the heads of individuals who are destined not to live out the year.

As we frequently find when investigating superstitions of this sort, it turns out that the medieval Jews were echoing beliefs that was widely held among their non-Jewish neighbours in northern and eastern Europe. However the Christians, of course, associated the phenomenon with their own holidays.

One Jewish scribe gratefully recorded in a manuscript colophon that "on the night of Hoshana Rabbah of [1556] I observed the shadow of my head in the moonlight. Praised be God, for now I am assured that I shall not die this year."

Rabbi David Abudraham of Seville, in his fourteenth-century commentary to the Jewish prayer-book, tells disapprovingly of some people who were accustomed on Hoshana Rabbah to venture outside, draped only in a sheet, which they removed after having chosen a spot where the outline of their shadow would be clearly distinguishable in the moonlight. These individuals would check not only for the dreaded missing head, but also for fingers and limbs whose absent shadows would surely foretell the imminent demise of close relatives and loved ones.

Rabbi Moses Isserles, the sixteenth-century Polish rabbi whose glosses on the Shulhan Arukh are a central pillar of Ashkenazic religious law, recorded that several prominent halakhic authorities discouraged this practice on the grounds that it appeared to invite misfortune. --And in any case "most people are not sufficiently expert in these matters." He counselled that people ought generally to avoid delving into the future.

A more recent halakhic authority, Rabbi Barukh Epstein, summarized the theological issue succinctly: "God forbid that Jews should indulge in such speculations, when an instant's repentance has the power to overturn any unfavourable decree. We would do much better to place our trust directly in our Heavenly Father."

This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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[1] First Publication: Jewish Free Press, October 5 1995, p. 8. Bibliography:
  • I. Jacobson, Netiv Binah, Tel-Aviv 1978
  • Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition, New York 1970
  • S. Z. Zevin, ed., Talmudic Encyclopedia, Jerusalem 1980.