by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
There was a popular Israeli song in the forties that my father loved, and he taught his pupils at Carmel College We always used to sing it at the last Shabbat meal of the academic year. “Hayamim Cholfim, Shana Overet, VeRak haManginah Tamid Nisheret,” “The days go by, the years pass on, and only the tune remains.” And we naughty pupils sensing freedom ahead used to substitute monkey nuts for Manginah. Indeed, time passes, and we tend to mark the passage of time in many different ways.
On the 28th of August, we will celebrate the New Moon of Ellul. It is the only month where we add special prayers every day in preparation for the New Year and Sephardim say Selihot, prayers for forgiveness every single morning too. But otherwise? No big deal. Who makes a fuss nowadays about the New Moon? It was not always thus. Why has the New Moon slipped down the order of priorities?
The Jewish religion is very much time-based. It fosters awareness, and consciousness of space and time as well as nature in all its aspects. We have all the festivals that mark the passage of the seasons and the solar year. But we also follow the lunar calendar. This is why we always celebrate our festivals to align with the seasons. Whereas Islam, for example, only follows the solar calendar and Ramadan can occur throughout the year.
But in addition, we mark every month, week, and Shabbat throughout the year. Not to mention the stages of every day, from morning to noon to evening in our prayers and rituals. The Bible records them all. But one of them has become a kind of orphan. And that is Rosh Chodesh, the New Moon, or the New Month. It is true, that we announce details of each month in the synagogue and bless its arrival, and we add some extras to the service on that day or days (sometimes it is two days, sometimes it is one). But we don’t really make as much fuss over it as one might expect.
The Bible (Exodus 12:1) starts the year off with the month of Nissan in the Spring when the Exodus took place, but it says nothing about celebrating it in any way and focuses instead only on Pesach. And it is not until the Book of Numbers (10:10) that we are told
“And on your happy occasions, your fixed festivals and new moon days, you shall sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and your communal and celebratory sacrifices.” This idea of equating the New Moon with other festivals and blowing trumpets as we do on Rosh Hashanah is reflected in Psalms (81:4). “Blow the horn on the new moon, on the full moon for our feast day.”
In 1 Samuel 20:18 when everyone was expected to turn up at the King’s table to celebrate the New Moon David fled for his life. In 2 Kings 4:23, the Shunammite woman wants to go to visit Elisha because her son has died, and her husband asks why it is neither Shabbat nor a New Moon. The prophet Isaiah refers to the popularity of attendance at the Temple on New Moons Isaiah (66.23) and Ezekiel (46:1). Clearly in those days, the New Moon was celebrated by the populace.
One of the most important civil and religious duties in Ancient Israel of the authorities was to fix the actual dates of the calendar and the holy days. These were determined by sightings and witnesses who appeared before the religious courts to verify the appearance of the New Moon. And this was then transmitted across the land and to the diaspora by a chain of bonfires on mountain tops. Which explains why sometimes they celebrated for two days if the witnesses did not arrive on time or if it took time to pass the news on to the diaspora communities because the bonfires were often sabotaged. Which explains where the two days of festivals come from when the Torah only mandated one. This was the practice right up until Hillel 2nd (320-365 CE ) who calculated the calendar. So that it was known to everyone when the New Month was, and the two days were kept on as a matter of custom rather than necessity.
But there is another feature of the New Moon. It is a monthly Day of Atonement. The New Moon is often referred to as mini-Yom Kipur because the sacrifices on that day included the goat of atonement so central to Yom Kipur (Numbers 28:15). Although there has never been any suggestion of fasting then. And this was reiterated by the Talmud (Shevuot 2b) by R. Meir and R. Shimon.
In our daily prayer books, the text of the Additional Amidah prayer reads:
“You have given New Moons to your people as times of atonement for all generations… God of our fathers, renew this coming month as a good and blessed one, a month of joy and delight, of freedom and comfort, and sustenance, of life and peace, and for a pardon of our sins and forgiveness of iniquity.”
Nowadays, it seems to slip by without much more than half an hour longer at the morning service when Hallel and Musaf are recited. But wait, as the adverts say, there’s another, totally different dimension to the New Moon. It is Women’s Day! (If one is allowed to use that word nowadays).
According to the Jerusalem Talmud (Pesachim 4:1) women were not to work on the New Moon. The great Medieval rabbi Rashi commenting on the Babylonian Talmud (Megillah 22b) says that it is the universal custom in his day for women not to work on the New Moon.
The Midrash says that women were given the New Moon off from work because they did not willingly give their golden ornaments to make the Golden Calf. But others suggested it was a way of rewarding women for their constant work. Something not even considered elsewhere until modern times!
But now that things have changed it has become fashionable to celebrate aspects of spirituality more relevant to them, to focus on the female aspect of God so central in The Zohar and throughout the world of Kabbalah which is much more female-friendly. So that there is some progress and creativity surrounding the New Moon.
And yet it seems strange to me that nowadays most of us do not acknowledge each New Moon as a mini-Day of Atonement. It is not as though we have to fast. But perhaps that’s the reason. We only take things seriously if they come clothed either in joy or suffering, but not when normal life goes on. Yet given our tendency in religious Judaism to add things, to become stricter, why are we not taking the New Moon more seriously?
This is about the only case I can think of where a holy day that once was taken very seriously, is no longer. Could this be a precedent for leniency in other areas too? Reducing obligations instead of adding them on?
I wish it were so, but somehow, I doubt it.
P.S. I will be taking a break for two weeks. Back in September.
Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.