Class 10: Rosh CHodesh - New Moon

This monthly holiday, mentioned in the Bible, is still celebrated by Jews around the world, and holds particular significance for women.

introduction: Jewish Cycles of the moon

The Jewish calendar is rooted in the cycles of the moon. Each month of the year is a lunar month, beginning on the new moon and ending when the moon is dark. Jews celebrate the first day of the month, the new moon or Rosh Chodesh, as a minor holiday. Sometime during the first two weeks of the month, often at the end of the Sabbath, Jews recite a blessing over the moon in gratitude for having been given the cycles of time. In the last week of the month, on the morning of the Sabbath, Jews announce the name and date of the coming month both as a welcome and a reminder to the community. This announcement signals that the current month is coming to a close. Some Jewish traditions refer to the last day of the month, the dark of the moon, as Yom Kippur Katan (a little day of atonement), and regard it as a day of fasting and penitence. Then the new moon of the next month begins. When the moon dies we contemplate our own mortality, and at the birth of the moon we celebrate our potential for rebirth.

One of the words for "moon" or “month” is chodesh, renewal. The traditional Jewish blessing over the waxing moon says to the moon: “You are a crown of glory for those who are borne in the womb, for they, like you, are destined to be renewed.” Jewish tradition sees the cycles of the moon as a metaphor for the renewal of life.

The New Moon: Rosh Chodesh

In biblical times, Rosh Chodesh was a festival, and priests offered special celebratory sacrifices.[1] In rabbinic times, when a court of rabbinic judges sat in Jerusalem, witnesses came to the court every month to announce that they had seen the new moon, and Jews lit bonfires on the mountains to announce its arrival.[2] Today Rosh Chodesh remains a minor holiday for all traditional Jews, marked by the reciting of special Psalms and sections of the Torah.

According to both the Talmud and mystical tradition, the new moon is a time to celebrate the reappearance of the Shekhinah, the feminine Divine presence.[3] This is one reason that, from Talmudic times, Jewish tradition has designated Rosh Chodesh as a special holiday for women.[4] In the Middle Ages, Jewish women did not work on Rosh Chodesh. Instead, they held feasts, charity collections, and even gambling parties with one another (or, sometimes, they saved their laundry to do on Rosh Chodesh!).[5] In recent years, modern women have reclaimed Rosh Chodesh as a special day for women, creating Rosh Chodesh groups for study and creative ritual.

The tradition offers three reasons for this. The one I like best goes as follows: when the Israelites in the wilderness gave their most beautiful materials for the making of the mishkan (the dwelling place of God's presence, coming from the same word as Shekhinah), women donated more than men. [6] The Torah says that “the men gathered upon the women”,[7] implying that the women were more quick to come to give the Shekhinah their treasures. Therefore, women refrain from weaving, spinning, and sewing on Rosh Chodesh in honor of their generosity and zealousness. [8] In this story, women are the most enthusiastic givers to the mishkan, which represents the indwelling Divine Presence. This parallels women's association with the Shekhinah.

Another midrash credits women with faith in the oneness of God. This legend comments on the story of the Golden Calf, when the Israelite nation made and worshipped a golden statue of a calf while Moses was receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai: The women heard about the making of the Golden Calf and refused to give their jewelry to their husbands. Instead, they said to them: ‘You want to construct an idol, a molten form which is an abomination? We won't listen to you!’ And the Holy One of Blessing rewarded them in this world that they would observe the new moons more than men, and in the next world they are destined to be renewed like the moon...[9] This midrash suggests when the Israelites are afraid God had abandoned them and, out of fear, want to make a god, the women have faith that God's presence will return. So women are especially associated with the moon, which disappears and returns.

The third story explaining the connection between women and the new moon is perhaps the most telling. According to the Talmud, the moon starts s an argument because she and the sun are the same size: The moon said to God: ‘Sovereign of the Universe, can two kings share a single crown?’ God replied: ‘Go and make yourself smaller.’ ‘Sovereign of the Universe,’ she said to him, 'because I made a proper claim before you, am I to make myself smaller?’ He said to her, 'Go, and you will rule over both the day and the night.' She said 'What good is a lamp in broad daylight?' He said, 'Go! Israel shall use you to count the days and the years.'[The moon went on complaining].... On seeing that the moon would not be consoled, the Holy One of Blessing said 'Bring an atonement for me for making the moon smaller.' [Hence the sin-offering of the new moon was offered in the Temple.][10]

In this story, the moon asks: how can two beings be equally powerful? Instead of answering her, God commands the moon to make herself smaller implying that one luminary does have to be bigger. But the moon finds this unfair, no matter what other gifts God gives her in compensation. God is eventually forced to admit the injustice of this situation, and makes a sin-offering every month on the new moon to atone. So too, though women have been unfairly diminished within the tradition, they have continued to pursue equity and fairness. Just as the moon, according to legend, will be restored to her full size in the time of the Messiah,[11] so many women hope to achieve full equality when society is transformed.

Rosh haShanah, the new year and festival of the rebirth of the world, falls on the new moon. Like the new moon itself, Rosh haShanah is a time of celebrating the Shekhinah’s presence among us and of beginning again. The end of Chanukah, which is a time of increasing light, also falls on Rosh Chodesh.

The Waxing Moon: Kiddush Levanah

The waxing moon is marked by the Birkat Levanah or Kiddush Levanah, the blessing over the moon. From three days after the new moon to fourteen days after the new moon, it is permitted to recite the blessing, but only if one can actually see the moon in the sky. Kiddush Levanah is one Jewish ritual that takes Jews outside into nature, and it is often performed Saturday night, at the end of the Sabbath, on the steps of the synagogue.

One must be able to see the moon at the time that one recites the blessing. After reciting the blessing over the moon, it is proper to dance joyfully and to greet three people with the worlds "shalom aleichem." It is also customary to sing the song "David melekh yisrael chai vekayam" (David the king of Israel lives forever)--because the new moon is also associated with eternal life and messianic times of perfect peace.

The blessing is as follows: Blessed are you, God, ruler of the universe,whose word created the heavens and whose breath created the heavenly hosts, who gave them ordinances that they not change their orbits. Joyful and happy are they to do the will of their creator, a worker of truth whose work is truth! To the moon God said; renew yourself, crown of glory for those borne in the womb, for they like you, are destined to renew themselves,and to give glory to their creator for the sake of God's holy honored sovereignty (malkhut/Shekhinah). Blessed are you, God, renewer of months. The Talmud states: Rabbi Yochanan said: "Those who recite the blessing over the new moon in its time is as if they greeted the presence of the Shekhinah." [12]

The new moon, symbol of rebirth, is a messenger of the Shekhinah, reminding us that we hold change within us. Kiddush Levanah is a protective time: one practice that some people have is to dance toward the moon and recite three times: I dance toward you but cannot touch you! So may my enemies not be able to touch me for evil."

Some men have reclaimed Kiddush Levanah as a time for celebrating and worshipping with one another. In the Zohar, David, the king of Israel, is a male figure representing the Shekhinah. Kiddush Levanah allows men to greet the David—the poet, scholar, dancer, lover, shepherd—in themselves. Shavuot, the holiday of the revelation of the Torah and a spring harvest festival, falls at the waxing moon, the time of growth and blessing. Yom Kippur, the holiday of personal growth and change, also falls at this time.

The kabbalists believed that the waxing moon was an auspicious time when the Shekhinah's power increased in the world. Oddly enough, Tisha B'Av, the commemoration of the Temple's destruction, falls at this time too—perhaps because even destruction can be a time of growth. A friend once reported to me the Zen saying, “Yesterday my house burned down. Today I have a better view of the rising moon."

The Full Moon: Keseh

The fifteenth of the Hebrew month is the full moon. The Psalms use the word keseh to describe a festive time, [13]and some commentators believe this word refers to the full moon. Keseh is like kos, cup, and the full moon is like a brimming cup of abundance. Many festivals of freedom and abundance, such as Sukkot, Tu B'Shevat, Purim, and Passover, fall on the full moon. Several years running I have had the privilege to dance in the sukkah, the ritual roofless hut of Sukkot, under a full moon. The roundness and brightness of the moon made me feel that the Shekhinah was watching and celebrating my companions and me in our joy.

In the Zohar, the full moon signals the time when the Divine womb creates pure and blessed souls. It is the time when the moon and sun, which in kabbalists thought represent the feminine and masculine faces of God, are most in contact. The Zohar writes that at the full moon the Shekhinah is called field of apples, while at the dark moon She is called field of Anatot (meaning poverty).[14]

The Waning Moon: Birkat haChodesh

The two weeks of the waning moon are marked in the synagogue by Birkat haChodesh, the prayer for the next new month. This prayer , recited on the Shabbat before the new moon, focuses not on the renewal of time but on the human desire for safety and sustenance.

The prayer asks for "a life of peace, a life of goodness, a life of blessing, a life of honorable work, a life of bodily health, a life of fearing heaven and fearing wrongdoing,. a life that has no shame..." The prayer then announces: “The new month of ___ will be on ___ day of the week. May it come to us and all Israel for goodness.”

The new moon is a symbol of eternal renewal, and the full moon is focused on the present. The last weeks of the month are focused on hopes and fears for the future. The prayer we use is adapted from the prayer the Talmudic sages used to recite at the end of the Amidah[15]—words that acknowledge our need and vulnerability.

Holidays that fall during the waning days include Chanukah (which extends into the new moon), a holiday celebrating victory after near defeat, and Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, a holiday that marks the end of the Torah and its beginning. These are holidays of descent and ascent—of gateways from death into life.

The Dark of the Moon: Yom Kippur Katan

The dark of the moon, in mystical terms, represents the exile or veiling of the Shekhinah. It is a time of difficult journeys and of longing for illumination.

Moshe Cordovero of Sfat, a great Jewish mystic, began the custom of Yom Kippur Katan, fasting at the dark of the moon and seeking sanctification before the new moon arrives. This seems a typical purification practice before rebirth, just as some hold vigils or bathe in a ritual bath before times of spiritual transition. Yet the custom is not widely observed today. Even for those of us who dislike fasting, Yom Kippur Katan can be a time of examining our fears and the hard journeys we must make. Shefa Gold has written a song called “The Dark Rays of the Moon” that honors the sanctity of this time.[16] 

Though the mystics believe that every dark moon is a time for reflection, Yom Kippur Katan is not observed before the following months: Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, because Yom Kippur has just occurred and we do not need another one; Tevet because it would fall during Chanukah, which is a time of joy; Iyar, because it would fall during Nissan which also is a month of joy and doesn't allow fasting; and Tishrei because it would fall on the day of Erev Rosh Hashanah, when penitential prayers are not said. If Rosh Chodesh falls on Shabbat, we observe Yom Kippur Katan on the preceding Thursday, because Friday is too close to Shabbat to be a fast day.[1]

No holidays fall on Yom Kippur Katan, though Chanukah spans it. It is a time of solemnity and inner reflection.

Beginning Again

In the evening service, in the prayer for the falling of night, we find the words: "In Your wisdom You change the times and turn about the seasons." This happens not only throughout the year but throughout the month. A month is a complete cycle of life, and the five phases of the moon bring us from spring to winter, from youth to old age, and from innocence to experience. When the new moon's sliver of light appears, we begin, once again, to change the times.

References

1] Numbers 29:6 [2] Mishnah, Rosh haShanah 1:1-9 [3] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 42a [4] Jerusalem Talmud, Taanit 1:6. [5] Leah Novick, “The History of Rosh Chodesh and Its Evolution as a Woman’s Holiday,” in Celebrating the New Moon: A Rosh Chodesh Anthology, ed. Susan Berrin (Jason Aronson, 1996). [6] Mekorei haMinhagim, 38 [7] Exodus 35:2 [8] Rashi on Megillah 22b [9] Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, 45 [10] Babylonian Talmud, Chullin 60b [11] Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer 45, 51 [12] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 42a [13] Psalm 81:4 [14] Zohar I, 249b [15] This prayer, whose name literally means “standing,” is the central petitionary prayer of Jews (Berachot 16b). It is recited three times a day. [16] See Shalom Center article. [1] Klein, Isaac. A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1979, pages 262-3.

The Meaning of Rosh Chodesh 

by Jill Hammer

The Jewish calendar, unlike the secular calendar, is arranged according to the phases of the moon. Many Jewish festivals fall on the full moon. Rosh Chodesh (literally, “head of the month” or “head of the moon”), the first of every Hebrew month, always falls on the new moon. In biblical times, Rosh Chodesh was a festival marked by celebratory sacrifice and feasting, in rabbinic times, bonfires were lit on the mountains to announce the arrival of the new moon, and today Rosh Chodesh remains a minor holiday for all traditional Jews. The renewal of the moon, when the moon begins to show its light after a dark period, is a day for Jews to celebrate their own renewal.

In Jewish lore and mysticism, as in other cultures, the moon has been a symbol for feminine principles. Rosh Chodesh, the new moon, has special meaning for Jewish women. From Talmudic times, Jewish tradition has designated Rosh Chodesh as a special holiday for women. In the Middle Ages, Jewish women did not work on Rosh Chodesh. Instead, they held feasts, charity collections, and even gambling parties with one another (or, sometimes, they saved their laundry to do on Rosh Chodesh!). In recent years, modern women have reclaimed Rosh Chodesh as a time for women’s celebrations, and have formed Rosh Chodesh groups for study, reflection, discussion, and creative ritual. Rosh Chodesh groups have spread throughout North America and Israel and are a source of women’s spiritual creativity and fellowship. The new moon, a dark time when we wait and hope for the moon’s light, has now become a symbol of women emerging from obscurity to take their rightful place in Jewish tradition.

Origins of Rosh Chodesh

How did Rosh Chodesh become a women’s holiday? The tradition offers three reasons. Midrash (interpretive legend) from the rabbinic period (4th-10th century) comments on the story of the Golden Calf (Ex. 32), when the Israelite nation made and worshipped a gold idol while Moses was receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai:

“The women heard about the making of the Golden Calf and refused to give their jewelry to their husbands. Instead, they said to them: ‘You want to construct an idol, a molten form which is an abomination? We won’t listen to you!’ And the Holy One of Blessing rewarded them in this world that they would observe the new moons more than men, and in the next world they are destined to be renewed like the moon…” Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, 45

In this interpretation, the women are rewarded with a holiday because of their independence, wisdom, and piety in the face of an inappropriate request. Rosh Chodesh becomes a celebration of women’s commitment to the Israelite vision of God.

In a second Rosh Chodesh story, a medieval commentator notes that when the Israelites in the wilderness gave their most beautiful materials for the making of the mishkan (the Tabernacle, the dwelling place of God’s presence), women donated more than men (Mekorei haMinhagim, 38). The Torah says that “the men gathered upon the women” (Ex. 35:2), implying that the women were more quick to come with their gifts. Therefore, women refrain from weaving, spinning, and sewing on Rosh Chodesh in honor of their generosity and zealousness (the commentator Rashi, on Megillah 22b).

In this story, women are the most enthusiastic givers to the Tabernacle, which represents the indwelling Divine Presence. This foreshadows women’s association with the Shekhinah, the immanent, feminine aspect of divinity in Jewish culture.

The third story explaining the connection between women and the new moon is perhaps the most telling. According to the Talmud, the moon precipitates an argument because she and the sun are the same size:

‘”The moon said to God: ‘Sovereign of the Universe, can two kings share a single crown?’ God replied: ‘’Go and make yourself smaller.’ ‘Sovereign of the Universe,’ she said to him, ‘because I made a proper claim before you, am I to make myself smaller?’ He said to her, ‘Go, and you will rule over both the day and the night.’ She said ‘What good is a lamp in broad daylight?’ He said, ‘Go! Israel shall use you to count the days and the years.’ [The moon went on complaining]…. On seeing that the moon would not be consoled, the Holy One of Blessing said ‘Bring an atonement for me for making the moon smaller.’ [Hence the sin-offering of the new moon was offered in the Temple.] Babylonian Talmud, Chullin 60b

In this story, the moon points out the fundamental problem of duality— how can two beings be equally important? She does not offer a solution, merely asks a question. Instead of answering her, God commands the moon to make herself smaller, implying that one luminary does have to be bigger. But the moon complains that this decision is unjust, and no matter what other gifts and enticements she is offered, she refuses to give up her claim of equality. God is eventually forced to admit that the situation is unfair and makes a sin-offering every month to atone for this injustice. So too, though women have been smaller in influence within the tradition, they have continued to pursue equity and fairness. Just as the moon, according to legend, will be restored to her full size in the time of the Messiah (Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer 45, 51), so many women hope to achieve full equality when society is transformed.

These legends tell of the origin of Rosh Chodesh as a women’s holiday, but they were probably invented long after the connection between women and the moon was formed. Women, like the moon, have cycles, and the association between them is an ancient one. Modern feminism, by reclaiming this holiday as a time for women to share their voices and experience renewal and growth, is connecting both to long-standing Jewish custom and ancient female experience.

Rosh Chodesh Throughout History

A variety of colorful sources tell us how women celebrated Rosh Chodesh in different time periods. There was a widespread custom for women not to work on the new moon (Jerusalem Talmud, Shulchan Arukh). Women refrained from spinning, weaving, cleaning, and other difficult chores. Though some felt women should not entirely refrain from work, in order not to embarrass men, women were encouraged to abstain from all but light work (Mishnah Berurah). Some women lit memorial candles on Rosh Chodesh. In Yemen, candles were lit in homes and synagogues, and in Algiers, gold coins would be placed inside the burning candles for good luck (Celebrating the New Moon, p. 9). In Europe, Ashkenazic women recited special Yiddish prayers called techinas for Rosh Chodesh (Celebrating the New Moon, p. 51), and some women collected charity for the poor. Rabbis declared a ban on Rosh Chodesh gambling because some Jewish women were using the holiday to entertain themselves with gambling.

Some months had particular customs associated with them. Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the beginning of the month when Passover falls, was the anniversary of the death of Miriam the prophetess (Numbers 20:1; Miriam’s Well, p. 66). Some women began Passover preparations on that day (Celebrating the New Moon, p. 17). Rosh Chodesh Tevet, which falls during the last days of Chanukah, was associated with Judith, a Chanukah heroine, and was called Chag haBanot, Festival of the Daughters (Miriam’s Well, p. 86). This holiday was a time when women sent presents to their married daughters, gathered in the synagogue to pray for their young daughters, passed down inheritances, and accepted gifts from their bridegrooms (Celebrating the New Moon, p. 18). Rosh Chodesh Kislev has special meaning for the Jews of Ethiopia— the day before Rosh Chodesh Kislev is the holiday of Siged, when the community celebrates, and when women recall their dedication to Jewish tradition (Celebrating the New Moon, p. 19).

Celebrating Rosh Chodesh in the Here and Now

The modern woman’s conception of Rosh Chodesh began with feminists who wanted to create authentically Jewish women’s traditions and recover neglected one. Their Rosh Chodesh celebrations included newly invented liturgies as well as re-creations of old rituals. Some groups gathered to celebrate biblical women and tell new stories about them. Others gathered to explore Jewish law and practice. Some groups invented ways to worship feminine aspects of divinity, or to celebrate new rites of passage related to women’s lives. Many of the new women’s rituals we have came out of Rosh Chodesh communities. Members of Rosh Chodesh groups came from all religious denominations and levels of observance.

From its inception, this new approach to Rosh Chodesh was a force for spiritual creativity and cultural change. Rosh Chodesh means different things for different women. Some light a candle, make a blessing over a cup honoring Miriam the prophet, or buy flowers. Some attend an independent group; others attend a synagogue-affiliated Rosh Chodesh group. Some Rosh Chodesh groups focus on study of Torah or other texts or invite a woman speaker or teacher. Some discuss current events, women’s history, or their own spiritual struggles. Some focus on inventing creative new rituals; some just begin or end with a ritual. Many groups focus on life events, activities, or themes pertaining to the month: new growth for Shvat, month of the trees’ birthday; mourning for Av, month of the destruction of the Temple; masks and hiding for Adar, the month of Purim; freedom for Nisan, the month of Passover. Some groups work on art projects or other creative work that centers on women and Judaism. Rosh Chodesh creativity is still unfolding!

Modern References

  • Adelman, Penina. Miriam’s Well. New York: Biblio Press, 1986
  • Berrin, Susan. Celebrating the New Moon. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson, 1996

Ancient and Medieval References

  • Babylonian Talmud
  • Jerusalem Talmud
  • Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer
  • Mekorei haMinhagim
  • Mishnah Berurah
  • Shulchan Aruch

Fires of the Moon: A Ritual for Rosh Chodesh

In ancient times, two witnesses had to confirm the appearance of the new moon. The exact day of this appearance was crucial because the new moon would determine when the month began and when that year’s festivals would fall. The Mishnah (the earliest Jewish legal code, 200 CE) reports that two witnesses would report that they had sighted the new moon to a court of judges in Jerusalem. These judges would examine the witnesses carefully to make sure their testimonies were identical, and then confirm that the new moon had indeed appeared (Mishnah Rosh haShanah 2:6). In order to quickly transmit this knowledge to the far-flung Jewish community, bonfires were lit on hilltops around Jerusalem. Each community that saw the fires burning would light its own bonfire. Thus the news would pass from mountain to mountain and town to town, until all the Jews knew it was Rosh Chodesh, the new moon.

Some modern Rosh Chodesh groups, in remembrance of this custom, begin their rituals in the following way: After everyone in the group has been given an unlit candle, a single participant lights her candle from a central flame. Then she passes the flame to the next person in the group, until all the candles are lit. Through this ritual, we recall both the ancient bonfires of the Jewish people and the light of hope and warmth that we pass from one person to another.

Rosh Chodesh Poem

by Rachel Barenblat

Constant companion, you come
in colors that make me hungry,
buttercream and milk, ice, even pumpkin at harvest-time.
Sky’s second-showiest jewel,
cats covet you, serenading.
Your borrowed robes gleam, balm for tired eyes.
Full, you cast shadows on snow
almost crisp enough to read by. At your smallest you hover
like a thin silver earring. One winter night we watched
our home come between you
and your source. You blazed orange
your cycle in reverse, sliver
then quarter, then half…
We shivered in blankets, rapt,
unable to turn away.
Even in earth’s shadow you shone.
Today you emerge newborn
again, weak but waxing.
Moon, bless the new month
with your assurance
that the spiral keeps turning.
Renew our days as of old.
Cast your pearls beneath our feet.
Bless us with your light.

Renew the Women: A New Moon Chant

Writing Blessings for the Hebrew Months / Herstory, Reflections & Invitation

Herstory and Reflections on writing blessings for the Hebrew months

by Kohenet Ilana Joy Streit, Rosh Chodesh Kislev/ November, 2015

My priestess title is Weaver of Blessings. My practice of writing a blessing for each Hebrew month is a weaving of a bunch of different Jewish traditions along with the unfolding of my life.

There is a Jewish tradition of saying 100 blessings a day. For a number of years, I've been writing interpretive versions of Jewish liturgy, as well as original blessings for daily life and the Jewish year.

This past Spring, a friend saw my Prayer for the New Week, said that it made him think of Adar, and asked me if he could change "week" to "month" and read it at davenning for Rosh Chodesh Adar.

I said, if you want to do that, that's fine (just let folks know that it's your adaptation), but that's not what I'd write for Adar. And then, within a few days I believe, I proceeded to write my Blessing for Rosh Chodesh Adar.

I wrote Hashiveinu a few years ago. At the time, it was my take on the Days of Awe. I wrote Blessing for Rosh Chodesh Elul this year, right around that rosh chodesh. It was a kind of update to Hashiveinu: my current commentary on the season. Then came the blessings for Tishrei and Cheshvan. I did not decide to write these; I was simply open to them. I am a midwife to my own writing.

There's a Jewish idea of a chazaka: that once you do something [a mitzvah] three times in a row, (unless you specifically say otherwise) that there's a way that you are obligating yourself to keep doing it. By the time I'd written the blessing for Cheshvan, I was thinking about this.

So, I didn't really decide to keep going, but I kind-of expected that there would be a blessing for Kislev. I was curious what it would say. Then out it came. (I edited it slightly as I was typing it up.)

There is a tradition of birkat hachodesh: announcing the new moon on Shabbat morning, at the end of the Torah service, on the Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh. I love this liturgy! It is a beautiful moment of wishing good things for the month ahead. (You can find a classical version in many siddurim, and Marcia Falk's version is also lovely.)

My writings are another weaving of this tradition. It is a way of inviting the taste of the new month to enter our mouths, and also a way to renew my intentions for the world -- love, courage, compassion, connection, playfulness, peace -- within the language of each coming month.

I particularly like that this format gives me space to write pieces which are Jewishly rooted and, at the same time, juicy and flirty. That is, it’s a way for me to express myself as a lover in the world.

Invitation to Write

Pick One or More:

1. Pick a piece of Jewish liturgy. Write a personal response to it, using one or more of the netivot. (The shrinekeeper at Chanuka? The mourning woman at havdala? The fool’s response to Ma Nishtana?)

2. Pick a piece of Jewish liturgy (particularly one that you find difficulty connecting with), and pick a netiva that calls to you. What would this prayer or blessing look like in her voice? Or, pick a moment in your life or in Jewish time -- preparing for Passover, hanging a mezuza, writing a thesis, etc., -- and see what the netivot want to say through you.

3. If you don’t think of yourself as a writer, or are having trouble getting started, start on (2) above, and instead of following the instructions, write why you can’t do it, or why it’s hard to. Keep writing.

- אילנה, Kohenet Ilana Joy StreitWriter, Ritualist, Educator, Connector

Rosh Hodesh: New Moon as Foundation for the wheel of the year, New Moon as Root of Embodied Cycles

Rosh Hodesh is a root of Jewish sacred time.  New moon is the fulcrum for the flow of our holyday festivals.  She guides us in when to pilgrimage, when to rejoice and when to mourn. Some believe that Rosh Hodesh is also the root of Shabbat.  

The Ancient Hebrews and the Babylonians were among the first two people’s known to count a seven day week. Before Jews came to keep both our own calendar and the Julian calendar - which was introduced in 46 BCE and decreed by Constantine to the be the official calendar of the Roman Empire in 321 CE -   it is not clear to scholars on which 7th day Jews marked Shabbat.

Except we know that each Jewish month began then and begins now with the new moon.  Which guides us to Shabbat’s likely origin in the lunar sabbath - kept at the new, first quarter (waxing), full and last quarter (waning) moons.  Of these lunar sabbaths, that of the new moon was the original and the most strong.  Talmud recounts that certain forms of work were abstained from on the new moon, and later rabbis delineate this abstention from work as referring particularly to women.  

While for post-biblical Jews, Shabbat and Rosh Hodesh evolved to be observed separately when Jews aligned with the weekday aspect of the Julian calendar, there remain today spiritual communities beyond Judaism where sabbaths are marked in accordance with the lunar cycle, most notably in both Rastafari and in neo-pagan practice. 

What we call Rosh Chodesh, or the head of the moon, is distinct from what is scientifically known as the new moon and when it is marked.  The astronomical new moon is when the sun and moon have the same ecliptical longitude, which renders the moon not visible from earth.  In simpler terms, the new moon is when the moon has risen but is wholly invisible in the sky.  This occurs every 29.5 days and marks the beginning of the lunation cycle.  Rosh Hodesh is marked for the day after a new moon at 18:00 Jerusalem time.   

In biblical times Rosh Hodesh was a time of celebratory offerings made by the kohanim and in rabbinic times, Rosh Hodesh was announced by bonfires on hilltops. Though the calendar we work with is now fixed, Rosh Hodesh is announced in some synagogues on the shabbbat before it’s arrival, along with a prayer asking it be Divine will to renew the month for good and of blessing.  In some contexts, the molad, or birth date and time of Rosh Hodesh is also announced.

Rosh Hodesh as a root of sacred Jewish time is aligned with wider practice of new moon as a time of power, release and resetting for people - particularly women - across place and across herstory.   Many cultures track the energies of the lunar cycle in a way that marks the new moon as a time of rebirth and renewal and the full moon as a time of creative expression and festivity.  This maps well on the cycles of the body.  It is both widely reported and also measured, that when menstruating women live away from artificial light, we most often bleed on the new moon and ovulate on the full moon.  The lunation cycle becomes both a map of and a guiding light for our hormones, setting the path for our menstrual and ovulatory flow.  

Regardless of whether our menstruation aligns in this way, and whether we menstruate or not at all, the moon in her cycle can be a powerful map for our creative and emotional cycles.  The flow of contraction and release at the dark of the moon, resetting on new moon and building in creative and expansive energy along the moons waxing til she heightens at full can be a potent mirror for our own energetic ebb and flow.  The intensity of full moon energy reverberates far beyond the human community, and the activity and vocality of the animal community is often also heightened at this time.  As the full moon begins to wane, we who are tracking her often enter a period of quieting, calming and completion, settling as she darkens toward becoming new again.

How does the lunar cycle live in your body?   How do you notice yourself in alignment with the moon’s ebb and flow? 

If you track the moon closely - how do you do so?  Do you journey out or gaze through a window each night to track her presence?  Do you sing her praise or dance her rhythms?  Does whatever calendar or time marking system you work with visibly mark her cycles?   

What does she want from you?  If you sense you are currently in whole alignment with the moon and lunar flow, woohoo!  If you sense you could be supported by greater alignment with the moon, what are ways you want to embrace toward this? 

One of my favorite practices is Moving the Moon - dancing the phases of the moon as she moves through my body.  I might choose four songs for the most distinct aspects of her cycles.  (I particularly like La Sagesse by Shiela Chandra for the New Moon phase and Full Woman by Rachel Bagby for the Full Moon phase).  When you dance to the moon, what songs and movements feel most aligned for you?

While technology isn’t always most supportive in attuning me to the natural realms, I love the moon phase emoji’s available on most smart phones.  There are priestesses who regularly include the current phase of the moon in their text messages to me.  Tech as lunar tracking - who knew?!?!

Notice how the structures you choose affect your relationship with the moon. How does the moon’s prominence or lack thereof affect how well you are track her and yourself in dance with her?  For right moon-alignment, I particularly recommend calendars like M’saviv, We’moon, or creating your own.  Notice how language affects your relationship to the moon.  Do you refer to months or moons as you describe the almost 30 day lunation cycle?  How do you balance the dance of Gregorian or Jewish / lunar -based months in your orienting?  How we live in time shapes our experience. 

Of all of the sessions in The Wheel of the Year, I am particularly grateful to connect with you in this Rosh Hodesh exploration.  Remembering the sanctity of the cycles of the moon is imperative in rooting in and evolving the experiences of women and of body as sacred.  The passion that I hold for menstrual awareness is deeply rooted in my love for the moon and my gratitude for the gifts she has given me.  My strong sense is when we open to receive the blessing of the moon, allowing her to guide and grow us, and rooting in her cycles, the presence and power available is beyond measure.  My experience is that she links me deeply, with astounding grace, to the earth and to the cosmos, to the ancestral and the future.  My experience is that being her with brings me more alive in my body and more aligned presence and more activated possibility.  

My prayer is that the moon becomes ever more honored and that the wholeness she brings be well-integrated on this plane.  I claim the root of Shabbat in Rosh Hodesh and the lunar cycle from a place of deep knowing, from a place of giving primacy to embodied knowings and of female power within Jewish contexts and of reclaiming the herstory at the roots of our traditions.  I desire and dream one day of living in community which honors Shabbat in this lunar way.  Perhaps you will play with me here? 

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