What’s Rosh Chodesh?

March 31, 2014
New Moon

New Moon

And on your joyous occasions-your fixed festivals and new moon days-you shall sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being. They shall be a reminder of you before your God: I, the Eternal, am your God.” –Numbers 10:10

Rosh Chodesh (Rohsh Choh-desh – “ch” pronunced as a gutteral) literally means “Head of the Month.”

Every month in the Jewish calendar begins with a little celebration. The moon is dark (new moon) and we look forward to what the month will bring. It’s an optimistic celebration, looking forward to what is good without dwelling on the bad things that might happen.

In Biblical times, there were special sacrifices for Rosh Chodesh, and the shofar was blown to announce the new month. The Diaspora Jews found out about the new month via signal fires lit at Jerusalem, where the observation of the moon took place.  This became more and more difficult under Roman persecution, which is why Jewish astronomers worked to calculate a calendar that would allow Jews to observe the festivals without access to the site of the Temple.

Customs for Rosh Chodesh vary among the Jewish people. In Reform congregations, Rosh Chodesh is observed for one day, beginning at sundown. It is first announced on the previous Shabbat. Then on the actual day of Rosh Chodesh, we add prayers to the Amidah and the Birkat Hamazon (prayer after meals), giving thanks for the new month and asking God’s protection.  A short service of praise (Hallel) is added to the service. There is a special Torah reading for Rosh Chodesh (Numbers 28:1-15).

There is an old tradition linking women to the Rosh Chodesh holiday. Since the 1970′s, women have begun gathering for prayer and study on Rosh Chodesh, and you may hear reference to a “Rosh Chodesh group,” a group who meet regularly on the first of the month. Over the last quarter century, a group of women called The Women of the Wall have met at the Kotel in Jerusalem to pray and read Torah, and to advocate for their right as Jewish women to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.

Image: Eva Mostraum Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

 


Odd Bedfellows (on Valentine’s Day, no less)

February 14, 2014

We continue with this curious Jewish year of 5774: first we had Chanukah/Thanksgiving, now we have Purim Katan/Valentine’s Day, and next month we’ll have Purim/St. Patrick’s Day. Passover will arrive without a pairing, unless you count Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, which would make for a very odd couple, he having been a slaveowner and all that.

Purim Katan (Little Purim) is the holiday that isn’t, a day when we have Purim without the observances, as the Velveteen Rabbi explains in her excellent post for the day. (If you are not acquainted with Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s writing, you are in for a treat.)

Valentine’s Day was originally Lupercalia and not the least bit Jewish, but then, it wasn’t exactly about love, either: more of a combination fertility festival and bacchanal. It has become a marketing bacchanal in our day, with the media blaring nonstop about great deals on roses, candy, diamonds, and other love tokens.

My inner Zionist reminds me that i could skip all this nonsense if I’d just make aliyah already. In Israel, one celebrates only Jewish holidays. But here in Galut we will continue to tumble between two calendars.

 


Why Two Months of Adar?

February 1, 2014
Jewish calendar, showing Adar II between 1927 and 1948

Jewish calendar, showing Adar II between 1927 and 1948

If you have a Jewish calendar, you may have noticed that yesterday and today we celebrated Rosh Chodesh Adar Aleph, the first day of the month of Adar Aleph (Adar One). Next month is Adar Bet (Adar Two).  Why two months of Adar? Last year we had only one.

The Jewish calendar is both a lunar and a solar calendar. That means that it is aligned with both the moon and the sun. Our months are aligned with the moon – every Rosh Chodesh (new month) falls on a New Moon. The average lunar month is equal to 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes. The average solar year is equal to 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, 45.51 seconds. If we stayed on a strictly lunar calendar, our holidays would slowly rotate around the seasons, as they do in the Islamic calendar. However, our holidays align to the seasons: Passover to springtime, for instance.

To keep the holidays in their proper seasons, the calendar adjusts periodically. One of the ways it does this is by adding a month of Adar whenever Passover strays too far from springtime. In ancient times, this was done by observations and adjustments announced by the Temple. Since the 4th century, we use a mathematic formula to determine when to add a month of Adar. If you are interested in the math, there are articles online that go into detail, but most Jews simply use a calendar.

But… why Adar? Why not Cheshvan or Av? Adar is the last month of the year (when you use the Biblical calendar, which counts Nisan as the first month.) So we are doubling the month at the end of the year.

However, it’s an interesting choice. Av and Adar have special associations, with Av as the “saddest/unluckiest month of the year” and Adar as the “happiest/luckiest month of the year,” drawing from the sacred days in them. In Av we remember the destruction of the Temple. Who wants to do that twice? But Purim falls during Adar, when we remember our deliverance from the evil plans of Haman. That’s worth remembering twice! (So you might well ask, do we celebrate Purim twice? See tomorrow’s post.)

The calendar is teaching us a subtle message: when we have the opportunity to dwell on something, choose joyful memories. It’s an extension of the commandment to “choose life” [Deuteronomy 30:19.]

I wish you joyful months of Adar in 5774!

Image: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons


It’s Half-Past Sukkot – Do You Smell Rain?

September 21, 2013
Areas with Mediterranean climate

Areas with Mediterranean climate (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Israel and the California coast both have a “Mediterranean climate.” We have rain in the winter, and it is dry in the summer.

For California Jews, this means that we experience the seasons as if we lived in Israel.  At the end of Sukkot, we will change a phrase in our daily Amidah prayer from a prayer for dew (the summertime prayer) to a prayer for wind and rain.  And sure enough, a trifle ahead of schedule, there is rain in the forecast for Northern California. Ideally, it would wait a few days, but still — pretty close!

I love the way the calendar reconnects me to the natural world.  The new day comes when the sun sets, not when the clock clicks over a line. I can look at the night sky, and know where I am in the Jewish month. Certainly, I can look everything up on hebcal.com, but the daily observance of Judaism pushes me to open my eyes, take a walk outside, and notice the world.

Some may say, “Ah, this is because the Jewish Calendar has its roots in the agricultural calendar of the Ancient Near East.” That’s true. But as with many things in Judaism, while it may have its roots in something impossibly long ago and far away, the effect of the observance in the here-and-now is fresh and urgent. Torah calls out to us to pay attention: pay attention to the world of which we are a part, pay attention to the people around us, pay attention to our own words and behavior.

Pay attention!


Why is the Jewish Calendar so Weird?

August 31, 2013

Time Selector

Elul, the month of looking inward, is almost over.  Wednesday night is Erev Rosh HaShanah, the evening of the New Year.

Jewish “days” start at sundown, because in Genesis 1 it says, over and over, “It was evening, and it was morning.”  This is something that takes some getting used to, if you don’t grow up with it:  the day begins when the sun dips below the horizon.  The fact that you’ve been up for hours has nothing to do with it.

Jewish living is like that, tilted 90 or 270 degrees from Western secular life.  The day begins at sundown.  The year begins in the fall.  (Also in the middle of winter and in the springtime.)  Sunday is yom rishon, the first day of the week (and it begins on Saturday night.)  The whole thing is cockeyed.

There is no doubt about it, we are a stiff necked people, as the God of Israel comments to Moses in Exodus 32:9.  Only a stiff necked people could insist on their own cockeyed timetable for thousands of years of diaspora, tripping over other people’s holidays and calendars and clocks and whatnot.  Ask anyone who asked for Rosh HaShanah off this week:  it’s a nuisance.  Yet we stick out our stiff necks and insist on it year after year after year, annoying our bosses, confusing our neighbors, and making some paranoid types certain that we are Up to Something, an international conspiracy, perhaps.

Why not accomodate?  Why not assimilate?  Why not go with the flow, for crying out loud?

We stick with it because time is sacred.  The traditional story is that the day begins at sundown because Genesis says so.  But we could as well read it the opposite direction:  we have that story to explain, to remind us, to keep stepping to that Jewish drummer:  it was evening, it was morning, it was the first day.  The creation story doesn’t tell us “how the world was made,” it tells us how to look at the world.  It’s easy to say, the day begins when I get up in the morning — then the world revolves around my state of consciousness. It’s easy to say, the day begins at midnight, because the government and mutual agreement say so.  But Genesis says, “It was evening, it was morning,” to throw us off balance, to say, “Stop!  Look!  Think!  PAY ATTENTION!”

Pay attention, because some years, like this year,  Rosh HaShanah is “early.” Mind you, it always comes on the first day of Tishrei, but if you usually live on the Gregorian calendar, this year 1 Tishrei comes on the evening of 4 September, which is unusually early in September. Pay attention, because while in the “regular” world it is 2013, in the Jewish world, it is about to be 5774.

Notice the passage of time.  Notice the cycle of seasons.  Notice when the sun goes down and comes up, and that will require you to take your eyes off the computer screen, off the TV, off your own navel, and out to the horizon.  Live out of step with the ordinary, so that you will step lively.  Pay attention.

Pay attention, because as Chaim Stern z”l wrote for Gates of Prayer:  “Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.  Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk.  Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed.   And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder:  How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!  Blessed is the Eternal One, the holy God!”


Jewish Astronomy: The Moon

July 29, 2013
Full Moon Over Jerusalem

Full Moon Over Jerusalem (Photo credit: zeevveez)

Did you know that you can tell where you are in the Jewish month, just by looking at the night sky?

Every Jewish month begins on the New Moon, when the sky is darkest. We call that day Rosh Chodesh, “Head of the Month.”  In ancient times, that’s how the calendar was set: experienced Jews would look at the sky from the Temple Mount and decide when it was the New Moon. They would then make the official announcement of the arrival of the new month.

So if the moon is dark, it’s a new Jewish month. To find out which month, consult a Jewish calendar.  <- If you click on that link, it will take you to the niftiest Jewish calendar imaginable. If I could access only one website, it would be hebcal.com, no kidding.

If the moon is waxing (appearing to grow larger) then we are in the first half of the month. If it is waning (appearing to grow smaller) a new month is coming. Some Jewish holidays (Purim and Passover, for example) begin near the 15th of the month: no surprise there, it’s the Full Moon!

This is also the reason that the Jewish calendar sometimes seems crazy relative to the secular calendar. The Jewish year is lunar (matched to the moon) with periodic adjustments to keep it in sync with the seasons (the solar year.) So some years the holidays seem “early” or sometimes “late.” Really, they’re right on time.

The best thing to do is to get a Jewish calendar and use it. But some things you can know just by looking at the sky: “It’s Rosh Chodesh!” you can say, whenever you see the New Moon.

“Why bother with a separate calendar?” some might ask. The beauty of the Jewish Calendar is that it brings us into sync with the rhythms of nature.  Days begin at sundown, not at a mark on a clock. Months begin when the moon is dark; they swell and then fade.  While we can learn details and names from a calendar or a website, the plain facts of Jewish time are in the sky above us, if we are only willing to go outside and look. 


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