Shabbat Parashat HaChodesh is always the Shabbat on or just before the first of Nisan. It is the last of the four special parashiot that precede Pesach. This year it is actually Shabbat Rosh Chodesh.
Read from Shemot chapter 12, parashat HaChodesh contains the first mitzvah of the Torah given to all the people of Israel as a nation – the commandment of a lunar based calendar with Chodesh Ha’Aviv, the month of spring (Nisan) as its commencement. Moses was shown the new moon and told that it was the basis of the calendar.
This being the first mitzvah is significant because as the Jewish people use a lunar calendar, the declaration of a new moon is critical to determining the dates of all its associated holy periods including fasts and festivals. Without a calendar, we are simply bereft of the ability to celebrate the Torah and many mitzvot.
While today to welcome the new month, in synagogues around the world we simply bless and announce its advent on the preceding Shabbat and on the actual day(s) recite Hallel and musaf, historically Rosh Chodesh took on much greater significance.
Fasting and mourning were not permitted on Rosh Chodesh. Women enjoyed special privileges on this day. According to the Talmud (Megillah 22b) women were forbidden from performing any work on Rosh Chodesh. Rashi says this “work” referred to the labour undertaken by the women in the construction of the Mishkan including spinning, weaving, and sewing. To this day many women have special customs on Rosh Chodesh.
Interestingly, during the Hellenistic period, one in which the Jewish people were not free to practise their religion, the Greeks went to great lengths to ban Rosh Chodesh. They understood that without the ability to declare a new month the Jewish people were unable to set and observe their holy times.
Rosh Chodesh is subject to many technical rules as to how it can be declared. Before the calendar was fixed (by the Patriarch Hillel II in in 358 CE), the witnesses of the new moon fronted up to the Beth Din in Yerushalayim where they were subject to intense questioning and corroboration.
But the significance of Rosh Chodesh is deeper. Many mitzvot and Jewish times of worship are anchored around our collective understanding of time. From a Jewish perspective, time and the way we understand it is central to our festivities, our periods of mourning, and our worship.
The way in which our year is structured helps us experience the different emotions required to work on ourselves leading up to the new year. These “landmarks”, whether holidays or festivals themselves, such as Pesach or Shavuot, or time periods, such as Sefirat Ha’Omer or the Three Weeks, are metaphors for the inner journey that the soul goes through as it traverses the Jewish map of the year.
And it is not just the months and weeks of time that reflect inherent periods in our time-map.
Each week the Shabbat signifies a different type of time break, one in which we step back from our daily lives and rest. For the Jewish week is centred around Shabbat and a consciousness that while time may fly past, each week we are required to stop and reflect on the week that was.
Humans generally may perceive time in steps that take place day after day; certain periods may seem to have a distinct beginning, middle, and end that demonstrate a familiar linear pattern. But Jewish thought sees time differently.
And in that context Rosh Chodesh gives a deeper significance to our lives. It represents a time for renewal, as each month comes and goes. It is a metaphor for the Jewish people’s ability and strength to rise against challenges to revitalise ourselves again.
Each month as the moon grows from the tiniest sliver to a full shining orb, it parallels the fate of the Jewish people.
Though nations may come and rise up to destroy our people, from the ashes we renew and reform. Wishing you a Chodesh Tov!
Melbourne lawyer and writer Nomi Kaltmann is also the founder and inaugural president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance Australia (JOFA).
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