“Rosh Chodesh, the Modest Holiday”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat Pinchas opens with the Al-mighty praising Pinchas, grandson of Aaron the High Priest, for fatally stabbing Zimri, the leader of the tribe of Shimon, and Cozbi, the Midianite princess, who had tried to commit a lewd act publicly. The parasha continues with a new census of the people that is followed by the counting of the Levites, and the decision by G-d that Tzelafchad’s daughters may inherit their father’s tribal land. Finally, Moses is shown the “Promised Land” by G-d and asks that a new leader be appointed to succeed him.

Beginning with chapter 28, and continuing for two full chapters, parashat Pinchas concludes with a detailed list of the many supplemental offerings that were brought to the Temple on Shabbat, New Moon festivals, and Jewish holidays. After recording the details of the daily burnt offering and the additional Shabbat offering, the Torah turns its attention to Rosh Chodesh, the New Moon festival. We are told that on Rosh Chodesh, in addition to the daily burnt offering and its libation, a series of special burnt offerings are brought, together with their meal offerings mixed with oil and wine libations, as well as a sin offering.

Rosh Chodesh has a special and prominent place in Jewish tradition. While most of the nations of the world calculate their calendars based on the sun, the Jews abide primarily by the lunar calendar with adjustments to coordinate with the solar calendar. The symbolism of the moon is very important to the Jewish people, who are often compared to the moon, especially to the moon’s proclivity to wax and wane. While the light of the moon is dim in comparison to the light of the sun, and though the light of the moon may, at times, appear to be completely lacking, it is the moon that has the capacity for renewal, not the sun. It is this capacity for renewal with which Jews identify and is the secret of Israel’s endurance and eternity. While other nations often rise to great heights, once they peak they decline and do not rise again and frequently vanish completely.

The Jewish people, however, are different. For 15 generations, from Abraham to Solomon, the Jewish people rose, and for 15 generations afterward, from Raheboam until Zedekiah, they descended, until they reached the lowest rung. By that time the Temple had been destroyed and the people were in exile in Babylon. The nations of the world sought to destroy the Jewish people so that the name of Israel would be obliterated, and it indeed seemed as if Israel’s light had been completely extinguished. Then a “new moon” appeared, and Israel’s light began to shine again, sparkling, even in exile. It is now shining again in its own land–the Holy Land of Israel. It is this pattern of constant renewal that connects the Jewish people so profoundly to the moon.

Originally, the day of Rosh Chodesh (the New Moon) was fixed by the Sanhedrin, the High Court of Israel, consisting of the greatest rabbis of the generation, who confirmed the sighting of the moon by witnesses. The Beit Din would proclaim the sanctification of the new month, the people all over the land were informed of this special day, and Rosh Chodesh rituals were observed in the Temple.

Unfortunately, because of our enemies’ relentless efforts to undermine the Jewish calendar, the ancient practice of determining Rosh Chodesh based on witnesses became impossible. Tradition teaches us that in the year 359, due to Christian persecution, Hillel II, a grandson of Rabbi Judah the Prince, proclaimed a mathematical calendar, fixing the dates and times of the new months and the festivals that would be valid until the time of our People’s final redemption.

Tradition asserts, however, that it wasn’t the sage Hillel who originated the idea of the fixed mathematical calendar. The sages maintain that the calendar calculations were actually given to Moses at Sinai. Moses reputedly already knew the calculations and the precise moment of the birth of the new moon for each month. The arrival of witnesses in ancient times only confirmed the calculations that were already known.

The precision with which the ancient rabbis calculated the calendar was certainly one of the most amazing achievements of the ancients. Rejecting all the contemporary astronomical calculations, theirs was the most precise scientific computation until the satellite calculations of the 1960s. A discrepancy of even a fraction of a second would have rendered the calendar unusable, since any miscalculation would have resulted, centuries later, in the holidays not coinciding with the proper seasons, and Passover would no longer be in the spring as required by the Torah.

Since Rosh Chodesh is described in the Torah (Numbers 10) as one of “the days of rejoicing and of the appointed seasons,” Rosh Chodesh is considered a holiday, albeit a minor holiday. Abridged Hallel psalms are recited, a special reading from the Torah is chanted, and a supplementary Mussaf Amidah is recited. It is forbidden to fast on Rosh Chodesh, nor are eulogies allowed on this day, which would dampen the spirit of the festival.

While work is permitted on Rosh Chodesh, there is an ancient custom in many communities throughout the world that women not work on this day. Some commentators regard this as a reward for the women who refused to participate in the sin of the Golden Calf. Another reason given for this custom is that the moon’s waxing and waning seems to parallel women’s natural bodily cycles.

As Rosh Chodesh has no distinct celebratory rituals, such as Shofar or Lulav, it is, in a sense, a very modest and understated holiday that tiptoes in and departs just as quietly. Although there are no major celebrations, and only minor additions to the prayer services and the Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals) are recited, Rosh Chodesh is, nevertheless, a fundamental linchpin of our religion, without which our people would cease to exist. Its modesty should not be mistaken for lack of importance.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The fast of the 17th of Tammuz will be observed this week on Tuesday, July 3, 2007, from dawn until nightfall. The fast commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to its ultimate destruction. The fast also marks the beginning of the “Three Weeks” period of mourning, which concludes after the fast of Tish’ah Ba’Av.