the New Moon, Rosh Chodesh

    January 2010            
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Once in a New Moon

By Yonatan Sredni

An internet headline jumped out at me recently.

"New Moon is #1!" it shouted.

Since I am not a teenage girl hooked on the Twilight fantasy-romance novels, I honestly thought it was referring to Rosh Chodesh. (Hebrew: the new month) I couldn't have been more wrong.

The New Moon film is based on the second book of the Twilight series (of the same name) written by Stephenie Meyer. I know the plot has something to do with vampires; and as soon as I consult with my teenage nieces, I'll fill you in.

But what bothers me is that the other new moon, Rosh Chodesh, the one we mark at the beginning of every Hebrew month, never seems to get its due.

In the Torah, Rosh Chodesh has a primal place. In fact, it is the first commandment given to the Israelites before the exodus from Egypt:

    "And the LORD spoke unto Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying: 'This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.'" (Exodus 12:1-2)

Obviously, the appearance of the New Moon was important not only because it marked the start of each lunar month on the Hebrew calendar, but it also determined exactly when the holidays would fall during that month.

The appearance of the new moon was originally based on the testimony of witnesses who observed the new moon themselves. When two reliable witnesses appeared before the Sanhedrin (Jewish Supreme Court) the day was declared as Rosh Chodesh, either making the month a full month or a defective, 29-day month. After declaring the new month, news of it would then be communicated throughout Israel and the Diaspora. At a later date, a custom was developed in which an additional day could be added to the month to ensure that certain holidays (such as Yom Kippur) did not fall on the days before or after Shabbat.

Despite the existence of a fixed calendar, the date of Rosh Chodesh is still announced in synagogues on the Shabbat prior to its observance and is called Shabbat Mevarchim (the Sabbath in which the New Month is announced) during which we declare what day(s) of the coming week Rosh Chodesh will fall out on.

Rosh Chodesh today is marked with special additions to the prayers (Hallel and Mussaf) and insertions (Yaaleh Ve'yavoh) into the regular daily prayers and the Torah reading describing the Rosh Chodesh offerings is read.

Although Rosh Chodesh is considered a 'minor holiday' it still contains lots of significance. In fact, Rosh Chodesh is sometimes referred to as 'the woman's holiday'. According to our Sages, when the Israelite men demanded the women's gold and silver for the creation of the golden calf, the women, because of their righteousness, refused to surrender their jewelry. As a result, the women were rewarded by being exonerated from working on Rosh Chodesh.

Rosh Chodesh has a Channukah connection too. As kids we were taught that the evil Syrian-Greeks forced the Jews in the land of Israel to abandon their traditions. Which exact traditions were they banned from keeping? According to some sources, the main decrees were against: Shabbat, Brit-Milah (circumcision), and Rosh Chodesh. A hint to these three major observances can be found in the holiday of Channukah itself. Channukah always has at least one Shabbat in it, it last for 8 days (reminding us of the 8th day for circumcision), and Rosh Chodesh (Tevet) always falls during Channukah.

But while Shabbat (however you 'observe' it) and Brit-Milah (some 90% of Jewish baby boys born in Israel have a bris) are still central to Israeli life, Rosh Chodesh sometimes gets forgotten by the general public.

Rosh Chodesh comes more often than a brit, but less often than Shabbat. Couldn't something be done to put the Jewish 'New Moon' back at #1?

A few years back, Natan Sharansky's political party pushed for Sundays to be a day off (wouldn't that be great - a Sunday off, just like in the old country), but that plan never took off as giving up an extra day a week of work or school was deemed too costly. But I recall another proposal that Rosh Chodesh be a 'shabbaton', once a month having an extra day off from school and work, a day to spend with families and friends, a day for outings, unlike Shabbat which does not allow for observant Jews to travel. Not only would it be fun, it would bring back Rosh Chodesh as a day to look forward to. "Hey guys, Thursday is Rosh Chodesh! Whoo-hoo!"

Maybe we can change the holiday of Rosh Chodesh nationally so it becomes not just another, sometimes forgotten, day on the calendar, but a day we really look forward to, appreciate, and celebrate. Or, as Twilight fans might say, a day we could really sink our teeth into.

Chodesh Tov!

The writer has an MA in Creative Writing from Bar-Ilan University.


from the January 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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