Celebrating our mastery of scientific secrets

Celebrating our mastery of scientific secrets

Chukat — Numbers 19:1-22:1

This is quite a holiday weekend. Americans everywhere look forward to July 4, with its barbecues and fireworks, picnics and parades. Not to be outdone, our neighbors to the north celebrate Canada Day at about the same time. And we Jews? We keep our respective national holidays (July 1 or July 4), but squeezed between the two mega-days of national consciousness for Canada and the United States is a specifically Jewish holiday as well: Rosh Hodesh, the new moon, the first day of the month — in this case, the month of Tammuz.

Americans do not celebrate new months; they are, after all, the day that rent and mortgage payments are due. Months are arbitrary, corresponding to nothing astronomical. We once had only 10 of them; two more (July and August) were added by Julius and Augustus Caesar. Jews, by contrast, regard months as significant. Our year is solar, but our months adhere to the waxing and waning of the moon. Holidays often fall on moon days: the new moon (Rosh Hashana) or the full moon (Passover, Purim, Sukkot).

Nowadays, the new moon is marked mostly just by relatively arcane liturgical customs that are noticed only by regular synagogue-goers. But Jews in antiquity took the new moon seriously. According to the Yerushalmi, women observed it as a holiday. Ex post facto, the rabbis judged it “acceptable” and gave it a midrashic rationale — but I doubt the women cared. The moon appealed to them as a natural symbol for their own monthly cycles. According to the Mishna, they also danced on the full moon of Av and “spun yarn by moonlight.” I suspect they were doing more than spinning yarn. This was probably part of a larger set of women’s rituals that the rabbis knew about but neither investigated nor controlled.

It wasn’t just women who celebrated new moons, however. In medieval Eretz Yisrael, Jews marked them with a full Kiddush, the prayer we say to inaugurate Shabbat and holidays. The new moon Kiddush dropped out of use by the time of the Crusades, but we still have its wording. It praises God for revealing the “secret of the moon’s renewal,” for “appointing people of wisdom who can determine the times of the new moons and holy days,” and for “calculating the tiniest divisions of time” that produce the calendar.

Astronomy was considered the queen of the sciences back then. What we have here, therefore, is a holiday thanking God for running the universe according to the natural laws of science and then giving us scientists to figure out what those laws are.

What a spectacular idea — both America’s Independence Day and Canada Day celebrate the establishment of national entities. Each of them celebrates national freedom — secular parallels to Passover and Hanukka, or to the France’s Bastille Day. Other holidays that turn up everywhere recall tragedy: Yom Hashoa for Jews, 9/11 (still in the making) for America. Sometimes we memorialize our war dead: Remembrance Day in Canada, Memorial Day in the States, Yom Hazikaron in Israel. Giving thanks for food and well-being is common also: Sukkot and Shavuot come quickly to mind — and Thanksgiving itself, of course. Religions also mark our relationship to God: for Jews, the High Holy Days and the month of Elul leading up to it; for Christians, it is Lent, which culminates in Easter.

But science? What religion stops regularly to thank God for the laws of the universe? Where else do you find a religious culture dedicated to the awe one feels when contemplating the “starry sky above.” It is no accident that so many rabbis over the years have been scientists as well, or that so many Jewish scientists have found no conflict between their science and their Judaism.

I come from Canada originally. I might phone home this year to wish my relatives a good Canada Day. I will certainly be out myself celebrating on the Fourth of July. But I will not lose sight of Rosh Hodesh, squeezed innocently between the two. Blessed is God who designed a universe replete with mathematical beauty; blessed is God who gave us minds to calculate the equations by which it works; blessed is God who revels in our mastery of scientific secrets.

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