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.
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.