Rosh Hodesh: Underrated and Overlooked
By Jean Gerber
Let’s start with a question. What 3000-year-old holiday equal to Shabbat and festivals, similarly celebrated with food and drink, but without halachic restrictions on work, etc., do we hardly ever observe? It’s Rosh Hodesh!.
How do we know the holiday is over 3000 years old? Consult the first book of Samuel 20:25: “And when the new moon was come, he [King Saul] sat down to eat meat.”
(Now this meal ended badly. David was supposed to be in attendance on Saul as part of his court but, knowing that Saul planned to kill him out of jealous rage, David hid. In his anger, Saul thrust his spear at Jonathan, David’s soul mate. The two meet later and David flees. As we know, soon both Saul and Jonathan die, and the kingdom passes to David.)
So, Rosh Hodesh goes back a long way, at least to the time of the first kings of Israel. However, it is usually celebrated more sedately and without the spears. By Temple times, its announcement included blasts of the shofar, as well as special sacrifices. In their place today, with much less fanfare, we simply recite parts of Hallel and special prayers during Musaf.
Further, if we look at the biblical sacrifices for the new moon, we see that some are made for atonement, as a sort of miniature Yom Kippur. This dual aspect is still reflected in the prayers, although the “atonement” part of it is long forgotten.
Kabbalists in the Middle Ages saw the new moon—indeed the moon itself—as a symbol of this broken world. As the moon is the lesser of the two lights, being irregular and “broken” in its cycle, so too do we live in a broken world where evil mingles with good, and Jews live in Exile. But when the messianic age arrives, the moon will be restored to equality with the sun, evil defeated, and Israel, with the nations, will again celebrate:
“[and] as the new heaven and the new earth which I will make will endure… so shall your seed and your name… and from new moon to new moon, and Sabbath after Sabbath, all flesh shall come before me to worship, says the Lord.” (Isaiah 66:22-23)
But there is more. Rosh Hodesh observance became identified with women:
“[T]he women indeed did firmly refuse to give up their jewels for the making of a monster [golden calf] that is of no assistance… As a reward for this, God gave the new moons as holidays to women, and in the future world they will be rewarded for their firm faith in God, in that, like the new moons, they too may be monthly rejuvenated.” (Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, p. 122, vol. III)
Rosh Hodesh is a holiday granted especially to women, a day of feasting and delight, a day when we contemplate our failings and try to do better, with a hint of the messianic era yet to come. It’s a holiday well worth celebrating.