Our People's Story Book


Traditional Stories, Modern Commentaries
By Jewish Nights Publishing
Vol. 83, Goodnight, Moon

Warning: The work below is a parody, of the perfectly Purim variety. Enjoy, and try not to hurt yourself laughing.

Talmudic Perspectives

The following passages from Chapters of the Children, or Masechet Pirkei Banim, illustrate its traditional pride of place on the night table of the rabbinic library:

MISHNA: WHEN DOES ONE RECITE GOODNIGHT MOON? UNTIL EIGHT. RABBI JUDAH SAYS: UNTIL ONE HOUR BEFORE. RABBI GAMLIEL SAYS: UNTIL MIDNIGHT. GEMARA: Until eight? What does that mean? Rav and Shmuel argued. Rav said: Until eight in the evening, for it is as my father taught: “No story for you, young man, if you’re not in bed by bedtime.” Can it be that bedtime is eight? Is it not written (Kohelet, 7:30), “of making of bedtimes there is no end”? [The cases of ] Kings are different, as it is written, “And David addressed them, saying: “You kids don’t know how good you have it. If I wanted a bedtime psalm growing up, I had to write it myself.” Shmuel said, until eight means until eight years old. From where does he get this? As it says in The Little Midrash Says What I Want It To, “And Aaron said to Yochebed his mother, ‘If I hear that stupid story one more time I swear I’ll kill somebody. Mo is six—can’t he read it to himself?’” How does this teach us anything? Moses was six, and he wanted the story read to him. Six, but not seven; and the Mishna which says until eight, means up to but not including, so that we read to a seven-year-old but not an eight-year-old. But maybe Moses was different? No, we learn the law from Aaron, and we do not read aloud in the presence of eight-year-olds, because of the prohibition of tempting minors to lose their tempers. Maybe Aaron was different, because he did all the talking and his brother took all the credit? No, let us not say that, because it is said of Aaron that he loved peace and chased peace and loved his brother and chased his brother and only once was his brother rushed to the emergency room.

Rabbi Bluto ben Rav Popeye said, “Once I visited the Academy in Pumpeditha. The sages were debating the question of eight inclusively or eight exclusively. For seven years they argued this point, and not once did they arrive home from the Academy in time to put their children to bed.”

Abaye once told his mother: “I do not want to go to bed. I will run away and become a Torah scholar and hide in the study hall where you can’t find me and they wouldn’t let you in even if you did.” Said his mother: “If you become a Torah scholar and hide in the study hall, then I will be the vending machine that sells you Coca Cola so you can stay up all night learning.” “If you are going to dispense soda,” said Abaye, “then I will by all means become a Torah scholar.” And so he did.”

Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi said, “Better to read two books by Dr. Seuss than to read Goodnight Moon once.” It is from here we learn of the prohibition of ktav isha (reading writings written by women).

Every night, Rabbi Bag Bag would recite before his son. His son would say: “Read it again! Read it again! Read it again, Abba!”

How the Story Book Devolved

Goodnight Moon holds the distinction of being rejected by almost every modern edition of the traditional bedtime liturgy. In 1819, the Hamburg Reform Liturgy and Children’s Programming Committee voted to reject Goodnight Moon as “contrary to the spirit of the age.” Particularly upsetting to their sensibilities were the reference to the cow jumping over the moon—“contrary to all we know about astronomy,” as one committee member huffed, and the illustration of the uneaten, “unhygienic” bowl of mush. Shortly thereafter, the Hungarian Orthodox authority, the “Burna Sefer,” would ban the age-old story as “reeking of heresy” after his granddaughter pointed out the “old lady whispering hush,” in defiance of the Mosaic prohibitions against women raising—or lowering—their voices.

In the 1940s, the Conservative movement proposed republishing the story, but the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards expressed concern that the mouse–featured on all but one page of the book—might bring bread into the house during Passover. When it was suggested that those concerned simply sell the book to Gentiles over the Passover holiday, the editor did just that—and it became a smash publishing hit for Harpers and Row.

In the 1990s, an attempt to re-introduce the book into the Reconstructionist liturgy fell apart when the publishing committee was dominated by radical opponents of speciesism, whose draft, with species-neutral references to “the living being who jumped over the moon,” a “living being whispering hush,” and “two differently-sized beings who lost their mittens,” was rejected by even more radical “inanimists” who objected to draft’s “privileging of living beings over non-living beings by other living beings—the rankest form of prejudice—as manifest in the failure of the balloon to receive a speaking role.”

(continued on p. 300)

A Woman’s Whispered Voice

Goodnight Moon has held a paradoxical resonance for generations of Jewish women. As one reads, re-reads, over-reads and, fine, reads it one last time but-only-if-you-close-your-eyes, one is led to believe that Margaret Wise Brown seeks to reject the traditional woman’s role. The titular “Moon” is, in Jewish tradition, a symbol of the feminine. The reader simultaneously has us bid “goodnight” to that symbol, while encountering “the great green room”—where celebrity guests wait before appearing on television for their moment of fame. The telephone too brings to mind the media of mass communication, with all the disruptions, positive and negative, they have produced. And the “red balloon” reflects the desire, so often suppressed in Jewish (and non-Jewish) societies to rise flamboyantly above ordinary communal existence. Yet our expectations are upended when, on turning the page, we encounter the argument “re-framed” as….

(continued on p.315)

Our Biblical Heritage

While the source-critical debate over Goodnight Moon never reached the heightened pitch of the argument over the Torah’s multiple authors (one thinks of the famous duel between Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber on the banks of the Main River over whether R stood for Redactor, Rabeinu or Rosenzweig [the latter being the view silently held by Fraulein Rosenzweig]), the question of whether Goodnight Moon has one, three or more authors continues to keep scholars up past their bedtime. Can a work that clearly owes so much to the Ugaritic psalm, ‘I see the moon and the moon sees me,’ really have been written by a Manhattan socialite? Most scholars take “Margaret Wise Brown” as stand-in for a postulated committee of at least three authors. Clearly most of the book consists of a “doublet,” that is, two versions of the same tale repeated. For convenience, we designate the first section, which announced the existence of the objects in the room, as E; the second, in which the objects are greeted “Goodnight room....” is designated G. Yet the repeating motifs of the Cow Jumping over the Moon and the Three Little Bears speak to a separate awareness of European folktales.....

(continued on p.322)

Kabbalistic Perspectives

Few books were as beloved by the circle of mystics of Safed as Goodnight Moon, for the simple yet thorough recounting of kabbalistic mystical lore. As Gershom Scholem has observed, the expulsion from Spain had separated sleepless historical reality from messianic dreams, and Goodnight Moon quickly found a place in that yawning gap. The idea that the moon—symbolizing shechina and the Jewish people—would reach a state of “good,” despite the long “night” of exile was immediately appealing, and the theurgic bedtime ritual of its midnight recitation became immensely popular. With the “great green room” clearly symbolizing the sephira of tiferet, the book lays out a messianic vision of flying cows, working telephones, and the end of the alienated situation of naughty little kittens who have lost their mittens.

(continued on p. 345)

Reprinted with permission from
Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility March 2005 v.35/619. For more information visit www.shma.com.