General Topics

Rosh Chodesh


This week we have celebrated the New Month of Cheshvan. Sometimes it is called Mar Cheshvan because, so goes the official story, it is the only month with no special days and is therefore sad (Mar). They really liked anthropomorphisms in days gone by. So that is why we add the adjective. In reality it has more to do with the ancient Akkadian name of the month: “AraChashman”. Many of the Biblical months were taken from the Babylonians, such as Nissanu, Tammuz, and Adar. Others come from Ugarit, and the Bible itself cross-uses different local pagan names such as Bul, Ziv, and Eytan. But my interest here is not in the names.

The New Month is the most neglected Biblical holy day of them all. Probably because it is not a day when one needs to stop working. No, that can’t be right, because on Chanukah and Purim, which are certainly popular, we can work as normal if we are so inclined, and they are not even Biblical festivals. And not because it occurs at least 12 times a year, because Shabbat happens much more often. My pet theory is its association with penance, since most people prefer happy occasions.

The Torah includes the New Month, Rosh Chodesh, in its list of festivals, and in the Temple there were special ceremonies. Included were sin offerings. The two goats mirror the two-goat sin offerings on Yom Kipur. Thus Rosh Chodesh was associated with atonement, a sort of mini-Yom-Kipur. Coincidentally, the Babylonian word “sin” was the god of the moon. People in ancient Israel used to go up to the sanctuaries on the new moon (2 Kings 4). After the destruction of the Temple, the liturgy, in its nostalgia for the lost past, harked back to Rosh Chodesh rituals in the Temple.

But its major significance in the old days was the fact that we have and had a calendar that is both lunar and solar, and they used to rely on witnesses appearing before the religious authorities every month to confirm the start of the new month, which was then communicated through a chain of bonfires around the Jewish world. The detailed procedures of testimony are laid out in the Talmud and encapsulated in the Maimonides codes. Once the calendar was calculated, arithmetically one knew exactly when the moon appeared and much of the significance and ritual fell into abeyance.

The Talmud says that one should make a blessing over the new moon, as well as lots of other natural phenomena. With no explanation, it also says that women were to have a day off from work on Rosh Chodesh (Megillah 22b). We know that in times gone by the poor only got holy days off work, but I have yet to find a satisfactory reason as to why Rosh Chodesh was chosen to give women an extra day off and why this did not include second days too. Perhaps it was a way of giving it more significance.

For most men Rosh Chodesh is just a day (or two days, as this month) like any other weekday. Except that in our morning prayers we have Hallel, as we do on every happy festival, Musaf (an additional service), and in addition we read from the Torah. And we say the prayer for festivals, “Yaaleh Veyavo”, in the appropriate places and in the Grace After Meals.

The custom of Kiddush Levana, Sanctifying the Moon, emerged sometime in the fifteenth century, seemingly a Kabbalist innovation. It is practiced still in many communities on the first Saturday night on which one can see the clear new moon of each month. This is not that frequent in the Northern Europe I grew up in. Which probably explains why it required the Middle Eastern mystics to come up with it. Similarly, the use of the repeated refrain “Shalom Aleychem”, which is borrowed from Islamic prayer ritual, attests to its later origins. And the declaration that “David is the King of Israel and will live for ever” indicates a response to those religions that sought to supersede Judaism.

But in our day, feminists of one hue or another have adopted Rosh Chodesh as their private festival. Sometimes it involves Mikvah parties, when groups of ladies go for an optional extra immersion. Some denominations have been creative with special Rosh Chodesh meals, cups of wine, dancing, and New Age meditation.

How did that come about? Here’s my theory. The moon has always had a bad rap in most societies. It represents darkness, which was when evil spirits and devils wandered the world causing havoc and distress, sucking blood and life out of innocent maidens. The moon was associated with sin and female seduction of otherwise good men. Witches came out at night and rode their broomsticks towards the moon. And madness became so linked to the moon that the very word for madness, “lunacy”, came from the Latin word for moon, “luna”. And it But reigning over all was Lilith, the spirt of the night.

Lilith does not figure much in Jewish lore before Medieval times. There is only one brief mention of her in the Talmud. Lilith really only came into her own in Medieval Jewish narratives, when everybody, including Jews, was fearful and superstitious. Religious authorities even encouraged it as a tool of keeping the masses under control. It’s not very different nowadays in many quarters of our credulous world. Lilith, according to these stories, was Adam’s original partner but refused to accept his dominance. More liberal feminists, liking the idea of an independent female figure, adopted her as their mascot, and indeed named one of the founding magazines of the movement Lilith.

So with Lilith on board, Rosh Chodesh, among certain groups of our people, becomes a day devoted to appreciating women. I fully support women’s rights (which is not necessarily sameness) and detest any manifestation of male chauvinism.

1 thought on “Rosh Chodesh

  1. We don't know we're born today, do we? One day off a month in the old days ………… Ayshet chayil comes to mind.

Comments are closed.