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Friday, August 31, 2012

Blue Moon Over Machtesh Ramon

The full moon that rises today, Friday August 31st, will be a blue moon. Well...not really like the photo I've tinted here for you. The moon is never actually blue. A "blue moon" is the second full moon in a calendar (Gregorian calendar) month. Its color is no different from a regular full moon. The first full moon this month fell on August 1st; the second on August 31st. Since the  moon has a period of 29 1/2 days, it sometimes happens that two will fall in the same 31 day month.

In the Hebrew calendar, based on a lunar cycle, there can never be two full moons in a month, by definition. The full moon of August 1st fell on the 15th of Av; the full moon of August 31st falls on the 14th of Elul. So, a blue moon is really just a coincidental occurrence. It happens 7 times in 19 years, a Metonic cycle of the moon, so about once every 2.7 years. Not exactly rare, but rare enough for the term "once in a blue moon" to have entered the common parlance, meaning an event that does not occur often. The next one is on July 31, 2015.

"Blue Moon" rising over Machtesh Ramon.
Why a "blue moon" and not, say, a "green moon"? The name apparently derives from the Old English word "blewe" which means "betaryer" and also "blue". In the Middle Ages when the Church announced the date of Lent and Easter to the populace, these events were calculated from the appearance of the full moon. If there was an extra full moon before Lent, it threw off the calculations. Hence the calendar had been "betrayed" by a "blewe" moon. Perhaps betrayer was chosen as the term since it was reminiscent of Jesus's betrayal by Judas, but that is just my speculation. In any case, the "blewe moon" was intercalated so as not to throw off the dates of Lent and Easter. If this is the case, then a "blewe moon" would have indeed been very rare, since only the second full moon in the month before Lent would have qualified for that designation.

As it happened, the name came to be applied to any second full moon falling in the same calendrical month of the year. In the case of the Hebrew calendar this is the 15th of Elul, two weeks before Rosh Hashannah. The theme of Elul is "Hamelech Ba'Sadeh", The King is in the Field, accessible to all who wish to reach out to him, make amends and a better start for the new year about to begin. Kesivah and Chasimah Toavah to all k'lal Yisroel!

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