Guest Author - Lauren Tuchman
Many people may not know that amongst Judaism’s many holidays and festive occasions is a holiday that has been customarily observed by women—Rosh Chodesh. Rosh Chodesh literally translated means head of the month and refers to the first day of the new Jewish lunar month. Unlike the Gregorian calendar that many of us are quite familiar with, which is a solar calendar, the Jewish calendar is both a lunar and solar calendar. The new Jewish month is determined and announced when the new moon has been cited. When the Sanhedrin still stood, before the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., the new month would be announced when two reliable witnesses caught sight of the new moon and made this known to the Sanhedrin. Emissaries would then be sent throughout Israel and the diaspora to announce this to the Jewish people at large. Today, we rely upon a precalculated calendar.
The Jewish year generally consists of twelve months save for a leap year in which a thirteenth month, Second Adar is added. Some months have twenty-nine days while others have thirty. When a month consists of only twenty-nine days, Rosh Chodesh occurs on the first day of the next month. When a month has thirty days, Rosh Chodesh occurs both on the thirtieth day of the current month and the first day of the month to follow.
Although the observance of Rosh Chodesh has experienced a resurgence in the past several decades, mention of its observance is first made in the twelfth chapter of the book of Exodus, immediately after the Children of Israel have left Egypt. Rosh Chodesh is also mentioned in the book of Numbers. Today, Rosh Chodesh is observed by several additions to daily prayer services. It is customary to recite psalm 104 on Rosh Chodesh. Additionally, in the Amidah or standing prayer, a special prayer, Ya’aleh v’Ya’voh is added. After the repetition of the Amidah, we say an abridged form of hallel, known as half-hallel. Hallel consists of psalms 113 through 118 and is recited on Jewish festivals and other occasions including the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot as well as on Chanukah. There is a special Torah reading for Rosh Chodesh as well. In the Grace after Meals or Birkat haMazon, one adds a special blessing for Rosh Chodesh as well as Ya’aleh v’Ya’voh. When the Temple still stood in Jerusalem, an additional sacrifice was brought on Rosh Chodesh. To commemorate this, we add an additional prayer service, called Musaf after the morning service.
The observance of Rosh Chodesh holds immense significance for women. According to legend, women were rewarded with its observance owing to their refusal to contribute their jewelry to the construction of the golden calf. A connection has also been made between Rosh Chodesh’s monthly observance and women’s monthly menstrual cycles. Today, it is common in many communities for women to refrain from all work on Rosh Chodesh and to spend the day with family and friends. Since the 1970‘s, Rosh Chodesh groups have become increasingly popular as well. Rosh Chodesh groups are groups of women who gather on Rosh Chodesh to celebrate the day. Many are associated with particular synagogues while others meet independently. There is no set structure for these groups. Some are more spiritually-focused while others use Rosh Chodesh as an opportunity to talk about issues of concern to them and their families and communities. In Eastern Europe, it was customary for women to light candles in observance of Rosh Chodesh. In addition, many tekhines, or women’s petitionary prayers in Yiddish were composed to be said on Rosh Chodesh.