Rosh Chodesh means “head of the month,” and refers to the minor Jewish holiday that occurs at the beginning of each new month in the Hebrew calendar. The ancient Rabbis interpreted the Biblical verses Exodus 12:1-12:2 as requiring that the new month be determined by eyewitness testimony. Just as God showed Moses and the high priest Aaron the new moon, witnesses were supposed to testify before the judges of the Sanhedrin, the Great Court in Jerusalem, that they had seen the new moon. The officiants at the Holy Temple would then mark the occasion with a sacrifice, feasting, and fanfare. After the destruction of the Second Temple, this eyewitness procedure was replaced by astronomical and mathematical calculations that were used to determine when each month began. Bonfires were lit on the mountains between Jerusalem and Babylonia to announce the arrival of the new moon. In later years, as witnesses and messengers were replaced with a fixed calendar, few Rosh Chodesh rituals remained, although it continued to be marked liturgically by the birkat ha-chodesh (or, in Ashkenazic pronunciation, birkas hakhoydesh), the blessing of the month, which is recited on the Saturday before each new month begins.
Because of associations between women and the moon, Rosh Chodesh has long been considered a special holiday for women. This association was taken up by Jewish feminists in the 1970s as they innovated to create Jewish rituals that affirmed women’s strength and created empowering female community within Jewish ritual life.
This kit looks at the commemoration of the new month as it is depicted in a wide range of cultural texts, with a focus on the role of gender in Rosh Chodesh rituals.
Cover image: Jews during Kiddush levana, the ritual of sanctifying the moon. Painting by Wacław Koniuszko in the National Museum in Warsaw.