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43. Rosh Chodesh

April 12, 2015 | by

Celebrating the new moon.

Is Time Absolute?

Time. Nothing has more impact upon life than the notion that time is passing. You'll be late for work. Late for school. Late for that important meeting. Imagine life without time, without the concept of lateness. With no sense of rushing. No aging and approaching death. It sounds tranquil. Maybe a little boring...

Before the primordial sin, life was very serene. Mankind was in no hurry because death was not a possibility. It was only after Adam and Eve's transgression that humanity was fated to mortality and the consequential limitations of time.

For centuries, the Western world believed that time is absolute. This held true in physics and certainly in philosophy. The concept of viewing time as a subjective dimension was limited to science fiction writings. Until a nice Jewish boy named Albert Einstein came along and taught the world differently.

The Law of Relativity demonstrated that time is not absolute and unconditional. Rather, it is a dimension just like space; it can be manipulated and altered. This new idea was very much in synch with the philosophy of time that Jewish wisdom has been teaching for millennia.

Time is a creation. It is a metaphysical sphere of existence with properties that manifest itself within the physical world. Theoretically, it is possible to go beyond the limitations of time, and it is certainly feasible to manipulate time somewhat. What does this mean for us in a practical sense?

In the United States, Memorial Day is observed on the last Monday in May. Why that date? Because lawmakers and politicians deemed this a practical time to commemorate the nation's fallen soldiers. But there is nothing intrinsic and inherent about this day in particular that makes such commemoration appropriate. A different day could have been chosen just as well.

This is not the case with Jewish holidays. The dates of our festivals are intrinsic to their themes. It is not that we celebrate Passover on the 15th of the month of Nissan because that happened to be when the Exodus occurred. Rather, the Exodus occurred on that day because the 15th of Nissan is – metaphysically – a day of redemption. Such was the case before the Exodus and continues until today. Thus on Passover, we are not commemorating the Exodus of millennia ago. Rather, we are celebrating the current spiritual mode of redemption that is metaphysically bound to this important day. The same is true of all of the themes of the Jewish holidays. We do not commemorate the past. We live the present to the fullest.

Sanctification of the New Month

One of the divine gifts bestowed upon the Jewish people was the ability to manipulate time. The Sanhedrin (Jewish Supreme Court) was given some elasticity to determine how the Jewish calendar should work out. In its time, the Sanhedrin accepted testimony from witnesses who observed the first sighting of the new moon and thereby determined when the new months should begin.

This system, called Kiddush HaChodesh, continued for many centuries. However, once the Sanhedrin could no longer operate in the Land of Israel, a new approach was needed. Along came the great scholar and astronomer, Hillel1 who formulated a perpetual calendar that is operative until the Messiah re-establishes the Sanhedrin.

The Contemporary Calendar2

The Western world today uses the Gregorian calendar. It is a rigid 12-month system based on the earth's 365 and ¼ day revolution around the sun. Each year consists of 12 months and one additional day is added every four years. This calendar disregards the new moon, which will variably be staggered throughout the months.

The Muslim world utilizes a lunar calendar. It involves a simple 12-month system following the moon's path around the earth. It ignores the earth's revolution around the sun and therefore the months do not correspond to the seasons of the year. As such, a holiday that occurs one year in the summertime, can occur in the winter on other years.

The Torah system is lunar-solar. This means that we base the holidays primarily on the moon, but we manipulate the calendar so that the seasons limit when the holidays can fall out. To explain:

Each month consists of 29 or 30 days. Most years consist of 12 months, but every two or three years a "leap month" is added so that Passover falls out in the springtime. This is because God asserts that Passover must occur in the springtime.3

Rosh Chodesh (literally the "head of the month") marks the start of a new monthly cycle. The first day of the month and the 30th day of the month (for those months that have 30 days) will always be Rosh Chodesh, except for the first of Tishrei, which is Rosh Hashana.

This chart enumerates the names of the Jewish months, as well as the length and the number of days of Rosh Chodesh.

The Jewish Calendar

Heralding Rosh Chodesh

There is an ancient tradition to announce the upcoming Rosh Chodesh in the synagogue, on the Saturday morning preceding Rosh Chodesh. This is so that the congregation will be prepared for the new month and will remember when it will begin.4 During this time, we pray that the upcoming month will be prosperous, both spiritually and materialistically.

The one leading the prayers takes the Torah scroll in his arms5 and everybody rises.6 If possible, the molad [the precise astronomical moment of the start of the cycle of the new moon, according to the Jerusalem region] should be announced,7 in commemoration of the declaration of the new moon that was performed in the era of the Sanhedrin.8 After the name of the month and its starting day is declared, the congregation prays for the success of the month.

Only before the month of Tishrei is this ritual not practiced. The reason is because there isn't really any "Rosh Chodesh" for Tishrei, as Rosh Hashana supercedes it.9 Moreover, certainly no one needs to be informed when Rosh Hashana will be.10

Rosh Chodesh as a Mini-Holiday

In the era of the Temple, there were special additional sacrifices that were offered on Rosh Chodesh as a means of attaining atonement for the sins of the month. These offerings generated joy across the nation.

Today, though we no longer offer sacrifices in the Temple, we still mark Rosh Chodesh as a time of atonement and joy. Some people even dress in finer clothes for the occasion.11

During most months, Erev Rosh Chodesh [the day preceding the first day of Rosh Chodesh] is known as Yom Kippur Katan [the quasi-Yom Kippur]. In some communities, special prayers are observed on this day, in order that God should arouse the forces of atonement. In previous generations, many pious people would even fast on this day.12 In any case, this is a day that everyone should introspect upon his actions of the preceding month and consider which of them require teshuva.13

There are four months before which this ritual is not observed, because we don't want the serious nature of the Yom Kippur Katan to mar these festive times. They are Tishrei,14 Cheshvan,15 Tevet16 and yar.17

When Erev Rosh Chodesh falls out on Friday or Saturday, Yom Kippur Katan is observed on the previous Thursday, out of respect for Shabbat.18

Unlike Yom Tov, it is permitted to work on Rosh Chodesh.19 Women have a custom to refrain from certain work (e.g. doing laundry) on Rosh Chodesh,20 as their nature is to be more in tune with the monthly cycle.21

On Rosh Chodesh, it is a mitzvah (but not an obligation) to celebrate with a festive meal.22 Even when Rosh Chodesh is on Shabbat, it is proper to add some special delicacy in honor of Rosh Chodesh.23

Due to the joyous nature of Rosh Chodesh, it is forbidden to eulogize24 or to fast on that day.25

Special Prayers

Since Rosh Chodesh included special sacrifices in the Temple, today we insert a special prayer on Rosh Chodesh, requesting that God return us to Zion and allow us to once again bring these special offerings. Ya'aleh v'yavo is added to the 17th blessing of the Amidah, as well as the third blessing of the Grace After Meals.26 If it is omitted during Shacharit or Mincha, one must repeat the service. If it is left out of Ma'ariv or the Grace After Meals, one need not go back.27

After the Amidah of Shacharit, we recite Hallel while standing.28 Hallel is a selection of jubilant, buoyant praises of God, found in the Book of Psalms, chapters 113-118. It is proper for it to be sung.29 In most Ashkenazic communities, a blessing is recited before and after the recitation. In most Sephardic communities, no blessing is recited. The reason for this difference of opinion is based on the fact that the reciting Hallel on Rosh Chodesh is a post-Talmudic custom. Therefore, it is questionable if a blessing is said on this relatively "new" practice.30

In honor of the day, we read a special Torah portion describing the sacrifices that were offered on Rosh Chodesh.31

Because of the exuberance of Rosh Chodesh, it is inappropriate to recite prayers that contain a sad or justice-oriented frame of mind, such as Tachanun.32

Although we cannot offer animal sacrifices today, we recite the Mussaf prayer that emphasizes the offerings of the Rosh Chodesh.33 The holiday spirit that it entails obliges us to remove our tefillin before its recital.34 (We do not wear tefillin on Yom Tov.)

Sanctifying the New Moon

Anyone who blesses the month in its time, is as if he is greeting the Divine Presence. (Talmud - Sanhedrin 42a)

In midrashic literature, the Jewish nation is often compared to the moon. The role of the Jewish people is to be "a light unto the nations." This does not mean that we are to convey our own luminance to others; rather, we are to reflect the luminosity of the Creator. This is similar to the moon exhibiting the light of the sun.

Moreover, Jews are always trying to change. Just as the moon waxes and wanes, the Jewish people are never stagnant. We struggle to grow, and even after a down period, we manage to pick ourselves up again and become rejuvenated.

It is interesting that some of the most notorious anti-Semites had a phobia of the moon. In 1924, Adolph Hitler said to Rudolph Hess, "You know... it's only the moon I hate. For it is something terrible, dead and inhuman... It is as if there still lives in the moon a part of the terror it once sent down to earth... I hate it!"35

For Jews, on the other hand, the moon is a source of comfort and hope. It reminds us that we will be revitalized in the future. It is no coincidence that the very first commandment given to the Jewish nation while still in Egypt was to base the calendar on the moon.

Every month, we have an opportunity to be re-inspired by the new moon. There is a special joyful prayer that we say outdoors upon observing the luminary that is so meaningful to us. This is known as Kiddush Levana, sanctification of the moon. (This is not to be confused with Kiddush HaChodesh which was done only in earlier times.)

This blessing is recited at night36 while standing37 outside under the starlit sky. It may only be said at a time and place from which the moon can be clearly seen.38 It should not be recited when the moon is covered with clouds.39 If at all possible, kiddush levana should be said with a minyan. The more people, the greater the mitzvah.40

It is ideal to recite this blessing on Saturday night when the excitement of Shabbat has not yet dissipated.41 It may not be said before 72 hours have passed since the molad [the astronomical moment of the start of the cycle of the new moon]. Before this point the moon is too small to really appreciate.42 The blessing may not be said after 15 days following the molad43 – since the moon is already waning, it can hardly be considered "new."44

Kiddush levana may not be said on Friday night, or on the night of Yom Tov.45

For mystical reasons, women do not recite this prayer.46

It was Jews who taught the world that prayer can be directed to God and God alone. So be sure that is doesn't look like you are praying to the moon.

After the blessing, it is customary to recite various biblical verses that emphasize God's care of us. Then, everyone greets three of his friends with the expression, "Shalom Aleichem!" [Peace unto you]. In some communities, the service is concluded with joyous singing and dancing. It is a festive expression of confidence that whatever happens this month, God will be there to give us the support that we need.

  1. He lived in the middle of the fourth century C.E. He is not to be confused with Hillel the Elder of the first century C.E. who is know for his disputes with Shammai.
  2. More information about this subject can be found in Understanding the Jewish Calendar by Rabbi Nathan Bushwick (Moznaim 1989). It is particularly readable for the layperson.
  3. Deuteronomy 16:1
  4. Ohr Zarua (Hilchot Rosh Chodesh #453)
  5. Mishnah Berurah 417:2
  6. Mishnah Berurah 417:1
  7. Aruch HaShulchan 417:1
  8. Sha’arey Ephraim 310:37
  9. Aruch HaShulchan 417:9
  10. Sha’ar HaTziyun 417:2
  11. Yesod Vi’Shoresh Ha’avodah (section 9)
  12. Mishnah Berurah 417:4
  13. Mishnah Berurah 417:4
  14. Luach Eretz Yisrael
  15. Mishnah Berurah 492:2
  16. Mishnah Berurah 686:1
  17. Mishnah Berurah 429:10
  18. Mishnah Berurah 417:4
  19. Orach Chaim 417:1
  20. Kol Bo
  21. Eliya Rabba 417; quoting Ohr Zarua
  22. Orach Chaim 419:1
  23. Mishnah Berurah 419:2
  24. Orach Chaim 421:1
  25. Orach Chaim 418:1
  26. Orach Chaim 188:7, 424:1
  27. Orach Chaim 422:1
  28. Orach Chaim 422:7
  29. Orach Chaim 487:4
  30. See Orach Chaim 422
  31. Orach Chaim 423:2
  32. Orach Chaim 131:6
  33. Orach Chaim 423:3
  34. Orach Chaim 423:4
  35. The Psychopathic God: Adolph Hitler by Robert G.L. Waite [Basic Books 1977], pg. 19
  36. Rema – Orach Chaim 426:1
  37. Talmud – Sanhedrin 42a
  38. Rema – Orach Chaim 426:1
  39. Mishnah Berurah 426:3
  40. Biur Halacha 426:2
  41. Orach Chaim 426:2
  42. Mishnah Berurah 426:20
  43. Orach Chaim 426:3
  44. Mishnah Berurah 426:18
  45. Rema – Orach Chaim 426:2; Sha’ar HaTziyun 426:12; Shu”t Minchat Yitzchak 2:120
  46. Mishnah Berurah 426:1

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