The New Moon, Rosh Chodesh


The New Moon, Rosh Chodesh


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Opinion & Society

The Jewish Month

By Chaim Issacson

The world has two time measuring cycles, the sun and the moon. As all know, the sun takes some 365 and a quarter days to make a yearly cycle. The moon, on the other hand, makes a cycle every 29 and a half days. This means that it difficult to measure years using the lunar cycle.

The world is divided as to how to use these two cycles. Whereas the western world uses the solar year, the Muslim world uses the lunar year. The Muslims add twelve months together and that is a year. Therefore it happens that a Muslim baby born in the winter will celebrate an adult birthday in the summer since the lunar year is some 354 days and the solar year is 365. Each year the Muslim calendar "loses" 11 days or his year "slips" back by 11 days in relation to the solar calendar. Whereas the Christian holidays always fall in the same date according to the solar calendar, they have no relation to the lunar influence. The Muslim holiday, on the other hand, Ramidan, for example, will move through the yearly cycle, but be fixed by the moon.

We Jews, of course, have our own way of fixing the calendar. We use a combo of solar and lunar measurements.

One of the first commandments that was given to the Jews, even before they left Egypt, was to fix the calendar to observe the month of the Passover in the appointed time, the spring. Thus, the requirement of having a monthly calendar that is adjusted to meet the solar cycle is a Biblical injunction.

It should not be overlooked that two of the major Jewish festivals begin on the full moon, Passover and Succoth. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year is different, it is the first day of the seventh month.

The Jewish month is based on the seeing the new moon. When two persons saw the new moon they would come to the Jewish High Court and give testimony that they had saw the moon. This did not mean that the court did not know when the moon was scheduled to appear, but rather that the sanctification of the moon had to be made according to eyewitness reports. The court would question the witnesses to ascertain that they indeed did see the moon. Afterwards, the court proclaimed that a new month had begun.

Even if the court knew by its own calculations that the new moon was scheduled to appear on a certain day, but due to weather conditions it was not seen, they did not declare the new moon until the next day when witnesses arrived. It was conceivable that the new month would be delayed a day. Also the courts were empowered to add an extra month to the yearly cycle to insure that the holiday of Passover would be in the spring. For this purpose they would add another month to the yearly cycle. The year would then have thirteen months (as in this year 2000, or as we say, 5760).

Since the spotting of the moon and declaration of the new month had ramifications as to when the Jewish holidays would be, many tried to thwart the actions of the courts in order to prevent the Jews from observing their holidays. Aside from dishonest 'witnesses', the ancient Greeks, during the time of Chanukah, tried to prevent the Jews from declaring new months through various decrees. This was in hopes to prevent the Jews from observing their holidays.

In addition, during the time after the first exile, when many Jews still resided in Babylon, the courts set up a relay system of lighting fires on the tops of mountains. In this manner the declaration of the month was related quickly to the Jews in the Diaspora so that they could observe the festival of Passover and the holy fast of Yom Kippur in its proper time. The Samaritans, who inhabited the mountainous area, would lite fires in order to confuse the Jews in the Diaspora. The courts were then obligated to send out messengers to bring the news to those Jews who lived so far away.

Although the new moon is not a 'religious' holiday, it does have religious significance. The day, during the time of the Holy Temple, was marked with an additional sacrifice. Today, a special prayer called "Hallel," or praise, is said and many have the custom to eat something special in honor of the new month.

In olden times, we had a court that would declare the new month according to the sightings. This court was made up of judges who were empowered through a direct chain from Moses. This was a requirement. Today, no one has such authority to declare a new month. Thanks to the farsightedness of Rabbi Hillel the Prince, who was the last of the princes from the house of David, we have a calendar that has all of the months and holidays figured until the Jewish year 6000. According to the Jewish tradition, the Messiah will come by the year 6000 and the continuation of the calendar will be addressed then.

Rabbi Hillel, who lived during the turbulent time of the destruction of the Temple, saw that the troubles of the Jewish people were increasing and the ability of the courts became diminished. Using the calculations that were known to the Jewish sages from the time of Moses, he publicized the calendar through his efforts it was accepted. This calendar is the one we use today. This calendar basically uses a 19-year cycle of twelve regular (12 month) years and seven intercalated (13 month) years.

The order of the intercalated years in each cycle is the 3rd, 6th, 8th, 11th, 14th, 17th, and 19th years. The month that is added is the month of Adar (the month that precedes the month that has the Passover holiday). The year then has two Adars, Adar 1 and Adar 2. The holiday of Purim is then celebrated in the second Adar.

The Jewish people are often compared in rabbinical literature to the moon. Just as the moon has periods of being full and being lacking, so do the Jewish people. Just as the moon receives its light from the sun, so the Jewish people receive their sustenance from G-d directly.

from the February 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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