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The Jews and the Chinese: Reaching for the Moon

Michele Kriegman
 1995, 'The Jews and the Chinese: Reaching for the Moon', Moment, 10: 32-33.
'The Forward' cited it as a noteworthy item.

Every autumn since my marriage to an ethnic Chinese man, I had celebrated the holiday of the 5,000-year-old culture whose people gather on the 15th of Tishri to reenact an important historic event while enjoying the harvest moon. But although the 15th of Tishri is the first day of Sukkot, these people are not Jewish and the holiday celebrated is not Sukkot. It is the Chinese Moon Festival, or Mid-Autumn Festival, that is celebrated throughout the sphere of Chinese cultural influence, from Vietnam to Japan. Not having grown up in a family of Sukkot-celebrators, it took several years before I realized that the Asian holiday coincided with a holiday of my own people. I have found that selectively borrowing from the Moon Festival can draw us back to the agricultural roots of Sukkot, to appreciate better the Creator of nature, and fulfill our need for connection with other peoples. But juxtaposing these two different full-moon holidays also confirms for me the distinctiveness of the Jewish people and our ethical mission.

The traditional calendars of both Chinese and Jews are lunar calendars. Two years out of three, Sukkot, on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Tishri, coincides with the Moon Festival, on the 15th day of the eighth moon of the Chinese year. This is the time of year when the moon appears brightest in the night sky, a fact of which both festivals take advantage by being held out-of-doors.

This past Sukkot my children and I huddled close in our sukkah. I started by telling them the Chinese folktales of the season: How the rabbit-in-the-moon pounds an elixir of immortality with mortar and pestle under a grove of cassia trees. How WuGang the woodcutter was sentenced by the Jade Emperor to cut down a cassia tree but every time he completed an ax cut, the bark sealed itself. How Lady Chang-eh became the moon lady in a palace built from cassia trees after her husband, HouYi, the master archer of the skies, was given a magic elixir of immortality by Mother of the West, who gave it to HouYi after he shot down nine of the 10 suns that appeared one day and threatened life on earth.

Then I moved on to the Jewish tales – that it was oil from cassia trees that Aaron used to anoint the tabernacle that held the Torah when the Israelites dwelled in sukkot like these. It is cinnamon, or cassia bark, that is one of the scents traditionally used for havdallah.

Some traditional-style Chinese homes or teahouses place seven grasses in a vase next to a neatly arranged tray of white rice balls. The moonlight dances off the silken tassles of the grasses and lends the rice balls a pale luminescence. There is more than hint of our own tall lulav and round etrog in the silhouette of this nocturnal still-life.

Then there is the story behind why mooncakes, the traditional round pastry eaten for the Moon Festival, all have pieces of paper baked into them, placed under them, or attached to the box in which they are delivered. It is said that long ago Chinese hid pieces of paper in mooncakes with the secret message containing the time to begin a revolt against their Mongolian overlords. It brings to mind a story from our own Jewish past when the Maccabees were too busy fighting their Syrian overlords to celebrate Sukkot on time. Only when victory was declared and the ner tamid relit were they able to celebrate the eight days of Sukkot. That Sukkot-out-of-season was the historical inspiration for the eight days of Hanukkah.

As the moon grew higher and the leaves of the trees began to stir, I was reminded of the ghost stories that haunted the backyard campouts of my childhood. The stage was set for some Yiddish ghost stories. The Demon and the Willows tells how a man uses a lulav to drive away a she-devil. The Vanished Bridegroom is a Rip Van Winkle-like story with a Chinese counterpart. On the day before his wedding, a Jewish bridegroom is met by his long-dead childhood Torah study partner. He agrees to go study some gemara together for old times sake. But when the bridegroom returns home afterward, he finds 150 years have passed. In China there is said to be a mountain cave where Yuexialaoye the matchmaker of earthly marriages plays chess with the god of longevity. If you stop to watch, you’ll find many years have passed upon returning home.

By now we had given ourselves goosebumps and decided to use the old standby for warding off ghosts: the Shema. (There is a brief passage in Talmud [B. Meg 3a] that advises us to recite the Shema to overcome fear. Also, “the practice of reciting the Shema at bedtime is connected with the fear of demons” [Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 14, col. 1373].) This prayer to the one God reminded us just in time that there are no goblins or other gods. It also gave me a quick thought. For Chinese people with a literary bent, one prelude to enjoying the harvest moon was to admire a fragment of scripture or a seasonal poem on a beautiful calligraphy scroll. For both Chinese and Jews, calligraphy has been a highly developed decorative art that nears the borders of abstract art. In this spirit, but falling far short of any artistic standards, we wrote out the Shema and taped it to our sukkah just to make double-sure there were no uninvited unearthly guests.

We did, on the other hand, want the invited guests, the ushpizzin: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David. A 16th-century mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria, said each of these men represented one of the s’phirot, or aspects of God, that are part of the created world. They are: chesed, loving-kindness; gevurah, severity or strength; tiferet, beauty; netzach, victory; hod, glory; yesod, intimacy; and malchut, majesty. They are mirrored in the Chinese Five Good Characteristics: long life; wealth; peace; virtue; and honor.

Both traditions value and try to embody “family harmony” during these two moon holidays. Jews express “family harmony” as shalom bayit. Shalom is related to the word shalem, meaning whole or complete. Chinese express family harmony in the form of a circle because its roundness looks whole and complete. The full moon is the perfect celestial embodiment of their ideal.

But if we play with the Chinese emphasis on the number five we begin to see the underlying difference between Sukkot and the Moon Festival. The Five Good Characteristics, mentioned above, and other sets of five like the Five Flavors (sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and hot), the Five Colors (green, red, yellow, white, and black), or the Five Directions, correspond with the Five Elements in Chinese cosmology – wood, fire earth, metal and water – which embody the Chinese idea of a cyclical process to life. Wood is pounded by metal; metal is melted by fire; fire is snuffed by water; water is soaked up by earth; earth is beaten by wood; wood is pounded by metal; and on and on in a continuous circle.

By now you’re probably reminded of the Passover song, “Chad Gadya/Only One Kid.” But the Jewish cosmology does not circle round like the Chinese one does. “Chad Gadya” spirals from the lamb, up past the angel of death, all the way to God.

This parallels the Jewish worldview that by striving to repair the world, tikkun olam, we can move toward the messianic age rather than merely repeat the yearly round of fertility and agricultural festivals embedded in our lunar calendar. We act on our worldview when we accept the ethical commandment to welcome as ushpizzin the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger into our sukkah.

In essence, the coincidence of Sukkot with the Moon Festival reminds us of the earthly universalist aspects of our harvest festival and the shared emphasis on family. It reminds us that other peoples too have fought oppressors just as we have. But at the same time, this coincidence reminds us that we have chosen to be different by, forgive me, reaching for the moon with our ethical ideals. 

Michele Kriegman-Chin, a magazine writer and mother raising three Sukkot-celebrators, is currently working on a book, Of Mysterious Origins: Orphans, Adoptees and Test-tube Babies.

Related article: Moon-viewing: An Aesthetic for Tsukimi and Sukkot

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