May 2024

Prayers & Passages: The Beauty of the New Moon


by Rabbi-Cantor Cheri Weiss

As a child growing up in Boston, I had the good fortune of being able to frequently visit the city’s Museum of Science. I was most fascinated by its planetarium, where I disappeared into the brilliant dark skies surrounded by stars, planets, and stories of these heavenly bodies. There I learned about constellations and the calculation of time. If someone had asked me then what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have eagerly replied, “astronomer!”

Our Jewish ancestors had no such sophisticated equipment to guide them as they navigated through the passage of time. The arrival of a new moon marked the beginning of a new month, known in Hebrew as Rosh Chodesh (Head of the Month). Two witnesses relayed its sighting to the Sanhedrin (Jewish High Court) in Jerusalem, who then affirmed the start of a new month. Bonfires were lit atop hills to signal to the people that the new month had arrived. And so it continued, hill to hill, village to village, bonfire to bonfire. (I wonder how that worked when the moon was blocked by clouds.) It was critical to them to mark this transition of months, since the celebration of Jewish holidays depended on its accuracy.

Eventually this system was replaced by a fixed lunar calendar in which months contained 29 or 30 days. There are twelve months per year except during leap years (which occur in seven out of every nineteen years) when a thirteenth month (a second month of Adar) is added. For months when the preceding month lasts 29 days, Rosh Chodesh is celebrated on the first of the new month. In months when the preceding month lasts 30 days, we celebrate two days of Rosh Chodesh, the 30th day of the preceding month and the first day of the new month. (I know, it sounds complicated, but that’s how Jewish tradition is sometimes.)

While Rosh Chodesh was once been celebrated with great fanfare, today it is marked in a more subdued manner. Specific readings are added to synagogue worship services such the Ya’aleh v’yavo prayer during the standing Amidah or Tefilah section of the service, and most (but not all) of the Hallel prayer. (The full Hallel is said only during the month of Tevet during Chanukkah). The Torah reading contains a description of the temple sacrifices that would have been made to mark the occasion, and a prayer for a blessed month is added to services on the Shabbat prior to Rosh Chodesh. There is no prohibition in the Torah against working, and to most people it is otherwise business as usual.

To many women, however, Rosh Chodesh holds special significance. Derived from Talmudic and Midrashic discourse, in more Orthodox circles, women refrain from work. They consider it to be a gift of time granted to them by the ancient rabbis for refusing to turn over their jewelry to construct the biblical golden calf. In the past few decades, Jewish women of various religious and secular backgrounds have reclaimed Rosh Chodesh as a time to gather in camaraderie. Common activities include meal sharing, the study of Jewish texts, and discussions centering around women’s issues. Exploring traditional Jewish rituals as well as creating new ones allows women to explore spirituality in unique and meaningful ways.

Rosh Chodesh groups have sprung up in synagogues and temples throughout the country, and independent Rosh Chodesh groups have also become very popular. For those interested in either starting their own group or joining an existing one, the organization Ritualwell ( offers a wealth of information and suggested resources. Based on my own experience, the gathering of women to celebrate the new moon of Rosh Chodesh is a soul-enriching blessing I look forward to continuing for many years to come.


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