A Jewish Joke
Q: What service commemorates the cow that was sacrificed on Rosh Chodesh?
Rosh Chodesh “on one foot”:
Rosh Chodesh, literally meaning “Head of the Month”, is the holiday commemorating the beginning of the Jewish month. It happens every month except for Tishrei, because the beginning of that month is Rosh Hashanah.
Let’s Start at the Very Beginning
Context: This is from the Biblical Book of Exodus, right before the 10th Plague. Up until this time the Israelites didn’t have control over their time, and now that they are going to be free they are going to control their own calendar and use of time.
If you had to implement this from scratch, what questions would you have?
What Determines a "Month"?
Context: This is from the Biblical Book of Isaiah, at the very end. Because this verse mentions Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh, it is part of the Haftarah (prophetic reading) for when Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh coincide twice a year.
We see from this text that a “month” is the amount of time it takes to go from new moon to new moon (think “moonth”). A year is therefore 12 “moonths”.
But a Lunar Year is Shorter than a Solar Year!
Context: This is from the Biblical Book of Exodus, right after Pharaoh freed the Israelites following the 10th Plague. “Aviv” means “spring”, so this verse indicates that Passover has to be in the spring.
This is a problem, because 12 lunar months is 354 days, while 1 solar year is 365 days. Therefore, holidays will get 11 days earlier each year. The Muslim calendar is a lunar calendar, and that’s why Ramadan sometimes coincides with Yom Kippur and sometimes with Tisha B’Av. Without some way of fixing the Jewish calendar, Passover will eventually be in the winter.
Context: This is from the Babylonian Talmud, Masechet (Tractate) Sanhedrin, which is about the roles of judges.
In order to fix the calendar, by the time of the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 1:1) it was decided that every so often a panel of 3 judges could declare the need for an extra month at the end of the year (Adar 1 / Aleph, since the year began with Nisan back then). The word the Talmud uses is “intercalating”; today we could call this “declaring it a leap year”. This text shows how they came to this conclusion (for another take on the matter, see here: https://youtu.be/_0ffgZKL66M)
Note that when there is a yahrtzeit (anniversary of a death) or a Hebrew birthday in the month of Adar, in a leap year it falls in Adar 2 / Bet. This keeps it the same distance from Passover. On the other hand, if a death or birth occurs during a leap year in Adar 1 / Aleph or 2 / Bet, then it all gets consolidated into Adar during non-leap years.
Context: This is from Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, where he took the rules in the Talmud and removed the discussion so you could just see the bottom line.
In 358 CE Hillel II fixed the Jewish calendar so that one could plan ahead. Leap years, when an extra month was added, were put at specific points in the 19 year cycle so as to make sure all the math worked out. The cycle is 19 years long, because that’s the length of the Metonic cycle, which is when the lunar orbits of the planets reset themselves. The Babylonians, Chinese, and Israelite calendars all used this system, which the Greeks calculated as well. Today, the Bahai calendar is based on this 19 year cycle too.
How Long Is a Month?
Context: This is from the Mishneh Torah again.
Based on mathematical calculations, some months have 30 days (“full months”) and some months have 29 days (“lacking months”). When a month has 30 days, the last day is Rosh Chodesh and the first day of the next month is also Rosh Chodesh. When a month has 29 days, only the first day of the next month is Rosh Chodesh.
How Was a New Month Determined?
Context: This is from the Mishnah, Masechet (Tractate) Rosh Hashanah, which is about Rosh Hashanah (as you might imagine). Since Rosh Hashanah is at the start of the month of Tishrei, figuring out when Rosh Hashanah was worked the same way as figuring out when any month was. Witnesses would come to Jerusalem to testify that they had seen the new moon. At least 2 of them had to agree on what it looked like.
One time the New Moon had to be declared somewhere else (for unknown reasons) and the code phrase was "David Melech Yisrael Chai V'Kayam" ("David, King of Israel, lives and endures") (Rosh Hashanah 25a:9). Henceforth, during "Kiddush Levana" (a blessing over seeing the moon, said during the first half of the month), we say (or sing) this phrase.
Context: More Mishnah Rosh Hashanah.
Once the court decided that it was a new month, they had to get the word out. This was originally done by lighting torches on mountaintops across the Land of Israel and all the way to Babylonia (modern day Iraq).
Context: In “The Lord of the Rings”, the beacons were lit in a similar way to summon help from a distance. This video, set in New Zealand, shows the scene from “The Return of the King” when The Warning Beacons of Gondor were lit. (See here for more information: https://lotr.fandom.com/wiki/Warning_beacons_of_Gondor)
Context: The continuation of the same text about the beacons from the Mishnah.
The Samaritans moved into the Northern Kingdom of Israel after the Assyrians took the Ten Lost Tribes away in 722 BCE. The Samaritans didn’t like the Jews, and in fact the idea of “The Good Samaritan” was a New Testament dig at the Jews. When Cyrus let the Jews return from Babylonia in 538 BCE, the Samaritans tried to keep them from rebuilding Jerusalem and the Second Temple. Therefore, when the Samaritans tried to mess with the signal fire system for announcing the new month, a new system of messengers was needed. Because it wasn’t clear if the messengers reached the Diaspora on the right day, the Festivals got an extra day outside the Land of Israel (Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot) in order to make sure that they were on the right day at some point during the holiday.
Context: From the Mishneh Torah again.
Maimonides / Rambam is taking on the question: If we know exactly when the holidays are, now that the calendar has been fixed, why bother with an extra day outside of the Land of Israel. His answer: Tradition! However, the Reform movement took off the extra day because they decided it was no longer necessary.
How was Rosh Chodesh Celebrated Biblically?
Context: This is from the Biblical Book of Numbers. In Chapter 10, the Israelites are told to make silver trumpets so they know when the different parts of the camp are supposed to set forth (similar to bugle calls in the military). We learn here that the trumpets were sounded during the Rosh Chodesh sacrifices. This probably reminded both the priests and the people that this wasn’t just an ordinary sacrifice, but one for a special occasion.
Context: This is from the Biblical Book of Numbers, right after the daily and Shabbat sacrifices and before the sacrifices for the other holidays. Think of this as holy BBQ (“Hakadosh barbecue”).
Context: This is from the Biblical book of First Samuel. David isn’t sure how King Saul feels about him, so Jonathan, Saul’s son and David’s friend, is going to find out at the Rosh Chodesh feast. This is part of the “Machar Chodesh” Haftarah read twice a year when Rosh Chodesh is on a Sunday.
How is Rosh Chodesh Celebrated Today?
Context: This is from the Torah Service, after the Haftarah and before Ashrei. It is the blessing announcing the new month on the Shabbat prior, reminiscent of when the Sanhedrin announced the new month in Mishnaic times. We ask for “a life” 11 times because most years this is done 11 times (12 in a leap year). We don’t announce Tishrei - that’s part of why we blow the shofar during weekday Shacharit during Elul. We stand during this blessing in commemoration of the witnesses who stood to testify that they had seen the new moon.
There is a custom to use a “signature tune” for each month to announce those months. These tunes are: MarCheshvan: plain Major Nusach, similar to the way MiShebeirachs are chanted; Kislev: Maoz Tzur (German tune); Tevet: Maoz Tzur (German tune); Shevat: Atze Zetim; Adar I/II: Chag Purim; Nisan: Adir Hu (German tune); Iyar: Hatikva; Sivan: Akdamut / Festival Kiddush; Tammuz: Eli Tziyon; Av: Eli Tziyon; Elul: Mi Chamocha of HHD Arvit, or L’eila L’eila if more notes are needed (kippah tip to Cantor Neil Schwartz).
Context: This is the prayer “Ya’aleh v’yavo”, which is added to the Amidah and Birkat HaMazon on Rosh Chodesh, Passover, and Sukkot (see the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 422:1)
Context: This is a version of the Miami Boys' Choir tune for "Ya'aleh V'yavo". It was recorded by the Israeli a cappella group "Kippalive" in 2020.
Context: This is from the Babylonian Talmud, Masechet (Tractate) Ta'anit, which is about fasts. The Mishnah (Ta'anit 4) talks about how the Priestly Blessing was said on communal fasts called on account of drought. From there, the Mishnah says that the Priestly Blessing was also said at times connected to when the Torah was read. The Gemara discusses the connection between days that the Torah is read and days when Hallel is recited. This includes Rosh Chodesh.
Hallel on Rosh Chodesh is abbreviated, skipping the "Lo Lanu" and "Ahavti" parts. It is said that this is because Hallel on Rosh Chodesh was originally a custom (per our text from the Talmud). Some have connected Hallel on Rosh Chodesh to the fact that Psalm 150 says "Hallelu/ya" 12 times, repeating the last verse, and this is like the 12 or 13 months of the year.
Context: This is from the Mishneh Torah again. After discussing why there are 3 daily services, Maimonides/Rambam explains that on days when there was an extra ("Musaf") sacrifice, there's an extra ("Musaf") service. When Rosh Chodesh falls on a weekday, it is customary to remove one's tefillin before starting Musaf, since we don't wear tefillin on holidays.
Context: This is the insertion into Birkat HaMazon on Rosh Chodesh.
It is probably the source for the greeting on Rosh Chodesh: “Chodesh Tov” (“a good month”) — to which the response is “Chodesh Tov”.
Context: This is from the Mishnah, Masechet (Tractate) Megillah, which is about reading the Megillah (logically). It also talks a lot about reading from the Torah. This mishnah from the Mishnah establishes that we read Torah on Rosh Chodesh, and that we have 4 aliyot. The Rosh Chodesh reading is unique in that we repeat a verse (Numbers 28:3) to ensure there are a minimum of 3 verses in each aliyah (the Talmud spends most of Megillah 22a figuring this out).
Note that Torah reading practice evolved by the time of the Gemara - there was a concern that people would come late or leave early, so the Rabbis said that one should say a blessing before and after each aliyah (Megillah 21b:16)
Context: This is the Gemara for the text from the Mishnah we just saw. It is trying to figure out why there are 4 Torah readings on Rosh Chodesh (and Chol HaMoed, in the middle of Sukkot and Passover), and what this tells us about how many Torah readings there are on fast days.
Wait, What’s This About Women Not Working?
Context: This is from Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer, a book of midrashim that claims to have been written by Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus in the 100s CE but probably actually dates to the 800s CE. It is picking up on the fact that in the story of the Golden Calf the men insisted that Aaron make them a visible god, so Aaron told them to break off the gold earrings that their wives were wearing (Ex. 32:2). In the next verse, though, it says that the men brought Aaron the earrings that they were wearing, implying that the women refused to give up their gold earrings for the creation of an idol. Therefore, this midrash says that the women were rewarded with not doing household work on Rosh Chodesh.
A woman’s body is characterized by cycles of change” as women go from one stage of life to another: puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, birthing, breast-feeding, and menopause. “Likewise,” she writes, “each month the moon waxes and wanes with a comforting predictability” (33). She further writes: “All throughout the generations women have experienced the same cycles of life. Like the familiar moon, the body gently speaks to us. The moon’s cycles are reflected in our counting and deposited in our bodies. One can look at the moon to observe its phases, and likewise, a woman can observe her internal body changes."
Because of the association with women and Rosh Chodesh, many "Women's Rosh Chodesh" groups meet monthly. There are no formal rules for these groups, but they are spaces for female-identified individuals to gather monthly and usually have some Jewish component. The group Moving Traditions has established "Rosh Chodesh: It's a Girl Thing" groups for girls (and later "Shevet Achim" groups for boys).
With appreciation to: Adam Bellows, Yonah Bookstein, Jacob Fine, Sarah Alevsky, Sarah Chandler, Deracheha, Hadar, MyJewishLearning, and Rabbi David Polsky.