Rosh Chodesh (sometimes transliterated “Rosh Hodesh”) is the Hebrew term for the beginning of a new month on the Jewish calendar. It literally means “head of the month” just as “Rosh HaShanah” (the Jewish New Year) means “head of the year.”
The first day of every Hebrew month is called “Rosh Chodesh” and is marked by the appearance of the new moon. The Hebrew calendar follows the cycle of the moon and is therefore a lunar calendar.
Historical Origins of Rosh Chodesh
In ancient Israel the beginning of each month was determined by the testimony of witnesses who had seen the new moon. Witnesses would report their sightings to the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem where they would be asked a series of questions about what they had seen and be presented with a chart of the moon’s phases. Once it was determined that two independent witnesses had seen the new moon the Sanhedrin would announce the beginning a Rosh Chodesh using messengers and signal fires to communicate with neighboring communities.
At this time in history Rosh Chodesh was an important event celebrated by family festivities, the blowing of the shofar and sacrifices at the Holy Temple. However, after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. the significance of Rosh Chodesh slowly diminished since sacrifices could no longer be offered. Eventually a standardized calendar based upon mathematical knowledge of the lunar cycle was established during the fourth century. This too reduced the significance of Rosh Chodesh.
Rosh Chodesh in the Hebrew Bible (Tanach)
Rosh Chodesh is referenced in the Tanach, which includes the Five Books of Moses (Torah) as well as the Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings). In Exodus 12:1-2 God establishes the beginning of the Hebrew calendar, while in Numbers 10:10 God describes the celebration of the new moon:
“Also at your times of rejoicing—your appointed festivals and New Moon feasts —you are to sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, and they will be a memorial for you before your God. I am the Lord your God.”
Rosh Chodesh is also referenced in Numbers 28:11 and Psalm 81:3, where the text reads: “Sound the ram’s horn at the New Moon, and when the moon is full, on the day of our festival.”
Rosh Chodesh in Modern Times
Though Rosh Chodesh is no longer celebrated as a festival holiday, it is nevertheless remembered on Shabbat Mevarechim, which means “the Shabbat that blesses the month.” This is the Shabbat directly before Rosh Chodesh and on this day a special prayer is recited that blesses the new month.
At this time the date of Rosh Chodesh and the name of the upcoming Hebrew month are also announced to the congregation.
Shabbat Mevarechim is not observed during the month of Elul because the following month is Tishrei. Since Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, takes place during Tishrei it is believed that Jews do not need a reminder of when Tishrei begins. (Rosh HaShanah is one of the most important Jewish holidays and therefore the assumption is that most Jews anticipate its coming.)
Rosh Chodesh and Women
Rosh Chodesh has traditionally been associated with women for two reasons: First, according to the midrashic work Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, Rosh Chodesh was given to women as a reward for withholding their jewelry when the Israelites made the Golden Calf during their wanderings in the desert (Exodus 32). In a manner similar to Shabbat, women were given Rosh Chodesh as a day of rest when they were not required to work. The second reason women have often been associated with Rosh Chodesh has to do with similarities between the menstrual cycle and the monthly cycle of the moon.
In addition to these connections, in the Kabbalistic tradition the Shekhinah (the feminine aspect of God) is often compared to the moon. As a result, women are also associated with the moon and therefore Rosh Chodesh.
In modern times some women participate in Rosh Chodesh groups. These groups meet every month, often on the date of Rosh Chodesh for that month, and are composed entirely of women. The customs of each Rosh Chodesh group are determined by its members and their goals for the group. Some groups use this time together to study Torah and other Jewish texts, while other groups may choose to spend their time catching up with friends while enjoying a festive meal, baked goods or tea. Some groups may incorporate study, food and relationship building all in one evening.
- Telushkin, Joseph. “Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History. “ William Morrow: New York, 1991.