Celebrating Rosh Chodesh, The New Moon

Rosh Chodesh – Hebrew for “head of the month” – is the monthly holiday that celebrates the arrival of the new moon, marking the start of a new month in the Jewish calendar. Because each lunar month is 29.5 days, the Jewish calendar “splits the difference”: some months are 29 days and others 30. When a month is 29 days, Rosh Chodesh is celebrated for one day – the first day of the new month. When a month is 30 days, Rosh Chodesh is celebrated for two days – the last day of the prior month and the first day of the new month.

Jews are moon gazers. We look to the heavens to know if it’s a new month and even a new year. We start many of our favorite holidays when the moon is full and bursting with light – like the spring freedom festival of Passover and the fall harvest festival of Sukkot. And since the moon is a master of renewal, that inspires us: sometimes in our lives we surge, sometimes we shrink, but we know that each month, like the moon, we have a chance to find new strength and energy.

How does one celebrate Rosh Chodesh? There are many ways. In biblical times, Rosh Chodesh was a day of festive meals and refraining from doing business. Later, because of the synergy between lunar and feminine cycles, it became a special holiday for women – a day off from work, a time to gather, pray, and learn. In some circles today, Rosh Chodesh is an occasion for women of all ages to come together in creative celebration.

In synagogues, it’s traditional on the Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh to announce the coming of the new moon – to wish for a month of “joy and vitality,” and often to chant those wishes in a melody that hints at the holiday arriving in the new Jewish month (a Hanukkah tune to announce the month of Kislev, a Purim tune to announce the month of Adar, etc.). There are special readings from the Torah scroll to mark the coming of Rosh Chodesh and special prayers and blessings reserved for Rosh Chodesh itself.

In this Jewish story, we see the origins of the monthly New Moon holiday of Rosh Chodesh:
On the fourth day of Creation, God made “two great lights.”
The moon approached God and said: “O Holy One! How can two kings wear one crown?” And God replied: “You’re right. Go make yourself smaller.”
The moon continued: “O Master of the Universe! Just because I made a reasonable observation, why should I be the one to become smaller?”
And God replied: “As compensation, you can be present in the sky both day and night.”
The moon countered: “And what’s so great about shining alongside the sun? I mean, what use is a candle in the middle of the day?” And God offered: “So this will be your greatness: the Jewish people will count their days and years by you.”
The moon demurred: “But they will need to count with the sun as well, because that’s how the seasons are taken into account.”
God saw that the moon was not comforted. So finally the Holy One said: “The Jewish people will bring offerings each New Moon, as atonement for Me for having diminished the size of the moon.”