Chodesh Tov! It’s Elul tonight!

Jewish cemetary

At sundown tonight, not only will it be Shabbat, it will be Rosh Chodesh Elul, the first of the month of Elul.

Elul is the 12th month of the Jewish year – so yes, a month from now we will be celebrating Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year.

Elul is a month of quiet preparation for the renewal of the High Holy Days. Traditionally, we take this time to “wake up our souls” with the sound of the shofar and with penitential prayers (selichot.)

It’s a time for cheshbon nefesh – taking an accounting of one’s life. In what ways have I fallen short in the last year? What regrets would I have, if I died tomorrow? What do I have to show for my one, precious, singular life?

Many Jews also take some time this month to visit the graves of loved ones. Going to a cemetery reminds us of our own mortality.

I’ll write more about these customs over the coming month. In the meantime, do you have plans for Elul? How do you go about your personal accounting?

Rosh Chodesh Av 5775 Public Domain

Av (ahv) is the eleventh month of the Hebrew year. It began at sundown last night, July 16, 2015.

Av is often mentioned as the “unluckiest” or “saddest” month of the year, based on a mention in the Talmud in Taanit 19a: “When we enter Av, our joy is diminished.”

Av has a number of sad anniversaries in it. Foremost of those is the 9th of Av, Tisha B’Av, on which we remember the destruction of both the first and second Temples, as well as the Expulsion from Spain in 1492. These were the greatest disasters in Jewish history before the 20th century.

Av is also a hot, dry time in the Land of Israel, when water is even more precious than usual and when the sun beats down even in the relatively cooler places like Jerusalem and Sefat.

What are your associations for this season? How might they fit into the Jewish understanding of this time of year?

Happy Rosh Chodesh Tammuz!

Tammuz 5775 began at sundown on June 17, 2015.

Welcome to Tammuz! We observe it in the summertime, just as did the ancient Babylonians, who named it after their god Tammuz.

One of the quirks of the Jewish calendar as we know it today is that it is in some ways a hand-me-down from ancient Babylon. Before the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians and the subsequent exile, we know that Jews followed a lunar calendar that began its months on the new moon and that had adjustments to keep the agricultural holidays in their proper seasons. We have a few month names from that calendar in the Torah, but most of the months seem to have been like modern Hebrew days. They went by number, “In the First Month” etc.

But the names of the months we use today came back from Babylon with our ancestors. So the month of Tammuz still carries the name of a long-forgotten idol. In ancient Babylon, the month was dedicated to the god, and it began on the first new moon after the summer solstice. The shortening days and the blistering heat made a setting for a period of ritual mourning for the god, who was understood to die and be resurrected annually, similar to the Greek Persephone and Ra/Osiris of Egypt. He’s even mentioned in the Tanakh as one of the foreign gods sometimes worshipped in Jerusalem, much to the distress of the prophets:

Then he brought me to the door of the gate of the Lord’s house which was toward the north; and, behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz. Then he said to me, ‘Have you  seen this, O son of man? turn yet again, and you shall see greater abominations than these!” – Ezekiel 8:14-15

There are no holidays in Tammuz, only one fast: on the 17th of Tammuz there is a fast from sunrise to sundown in memory of breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, the beginning of the end for Solomon’s Temple in 586 BCE. That day begins the “Three Weeks” leading up to Tisha B’Av, when we recall the destruction of the temple and other disasters.

Tammuz isn’t a happy month. Traditionally, the sin of the Golden Calf is supposed to have taken place in Tammuz. There are also some notable yahrtzeits (anniversaries of deaths) in the calendar this month:

This is usually a quiet month in synagogues. Behind the scenes, preparations for the High Holy Days are underway. Many people take vacations now, and it is also the season for congregational trips to Israel. It is quiet, but a time of gathering energy, of things just over the horizon. Stay as cool as you can.

No, You Can’t Have My Earrings!

One of my favorite midrashim is rooted in the story of the Golden Calf:

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”  So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”  So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron.  And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.”  And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play. – Exodus 32: 1-6

Of course, we know how the story ends: building the calf was a huge mistake. The tablets that Moses brought down the mountain specify that the people are not to make any images of their God. Moses is angry, and God is angry, and Aaron and the people are in big, big trouble.

However, midrash offers an interesting wrinkle on the story: according to a story that appears both in Numbers Rabbah and in Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer. Not everyone contributed to make the calf. When the men approach their wives and daughters, they refuse to participate. Rashi tells us in a comment on Megillah 22b that their reward for this is the women’s holiday of Rosh Chodesh, the first of every month, when women are exempt from work.

Some writers, including the redactor of Numbers Rabbah, have suggested that this is evidence of women’s moral superiority. Sometimes when I tell this story, people have said that it was because the women were vain, and they just loved their jewelry and didn’t want to give it up – in other words, that women are morally inferior to men!

But this is not a story about gender superiority or inferiority. It’s yet another story about Jews disagreeing as to the best way to worship. Often our tradition has given men greater authority on such things. The ancient midrash points to the fact that gender doesn’t magically confer the right answers.

One of the things I love about studying rabbinic texts is that just when I decide that the rabbis were all patriarchal old so-and-so’s, they surprise me. These texts are greater than any of us, then or now.


Joy Increases – Welcome to Adar!

A few blooms announce the arrival of spring.

“Mishenichnat Adar marbin b’simchah” B.Ta’anit 29a

“When Adar enters, joy increases.”

Sunset on February 18, 2015 brings us Rosh Chodesh Adar, the beginning of the month of Adar. Adar is the month of Purim, of good luck, of silly games and pranks.

The quotation above is from Masechet Ta’anit in the Babylonian Talmud.

Ta’anit means “fasts.”  This masechet [book] is a compilation of discussions about fast days (with, of course, digressions on those discussions.) Fast days are somber occasions: Yom Kippur [The Day of Atonement] and the Ninth of Av [the memorial of the destruction of the Temple] are the best-known fast days. They are not happy occasions. How did this line about Adar wind up in there?

When we look at the context, the rabbis are in the midst of a sobering discussion about the “curtailment of rejoicings” in the month of Av. There’s a heartbreaking story about the young priests going to the roof of the Temple as it was burning, reaching their arms up to throw the Temple keys into the hands of the angels.  Then the young priests, their duty done, fall into the fire. There is a sad quotation from Isaiah about people dying, and God weeping.

Then a new bit of Mishnah is quoted: “WITH THE BEGINNING OF AV REJOICINGS ARE CURTAILED.”

Then the Gamara expounds:

Rab Judah the son of R.Samuel b. Shilath said in the name of Rab:

Just as with the beginning of Ab rejoicings are curtailed, so with the beginning of Adar rejoicings are increased. 

R. Papa said: Therefore a Jew who has any litigation with Gentiles should avoid him in Ab because his luck is bad and should make himself available in Adar when his luck is good. 

To give you a future and a hope: 

Rab Judah the son of R. Samuel b. Shilath said in the name of Rab: By this is meant [an abundance of] palm trees and flaxen garments. 

And he said: See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field which the Lord hath blessed: 

Rab Judah the son of R. Samuel b. Shilath said in the name of Rab: As the smell of an apple orchard.

… and then the text returns to the grave discussion of the “curtailment of rejoicings” of the month of Av.

 Too many of us know tragedy at some point in our lives. But just as this discussion of Adar bursts in upon the discussion of tragedy for a moment, so does the month of Adar burst in upon us at the point where winter appears to be endless.  Good surprises burst in upon gray skies: sometimes instead of bad luck, we have good luck. Sometimes a new baby is born, and he smells wonderful. The message: The truly devout remain open to the possibility of joyful moments.

Adar comes with a command to “increase joy.” To do that, we must stay attuned to the possibility of the sacred moment when laughter breaks through tears, sun through clouds, beauty through the gray winter. If we are paying attention, we will be awake for joy. Adar is the month to cultivate that sacred skill in ourselves. For indeed:

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!  [Gates of Prayer]

Happy Adar!  May our joy increase, and may we be awake to it!

May it give us all “a future and a hope.”  Amen.

Iyyar Tov!

JudischerKalender-1831 ubt
Hebrew Calendar, 1831

Happy Rosh Chodesh Iyyar!

If you are thinking “What’s Rosh Chodesh?” <– click the link

Iyyar is the eighth month of the Jewish Year, counting from Rosh HaShanah in the fall. It’s pronounced “ee YAR.”

Its name comes from the Akkadian ayyaru, meaning blossom. Look out your window: if you live in the Northern Hemisphere, the plants are blooming!

Iyyar is the month of the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel (5 Iyyar).

During Iyyar, we count the omer, and we celebrate Lag B’Omer.

What will you do with your month of Iyyar?

Image © 2004 by Tomasz Sienicki [user: tsca, mail: tomasz.sienicki at] (Own work (photo 13 November 2004)) [CC-BY-2.5, GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

What’s Rosh Chodesh?

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