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Reflections on the New Moon
November 2009   
 
This past Shabbat I sat in synagogue, listening to the Blessing of the New Month, Kislev, which will begin tomorrow.
 
“May it be Your will, our G-d and the G-d of our forefathers, that You inaugurate this month upon us for goodness and for blessing. May You give us long life—a life of peace, a life of goodness, a life of blessing, a life of sustenance, a life of physical health, a life in which there is fear of heaven and fear of sin, a life in which there is no shame nor humiliation, a life of wealth and honor, a life in which we will have love of Torah and fear of heaven, a life in which G-d fulfills our heartfelt requests for the good. Amen, Selah.”
 
The Shabbat before the New Month is known as Shabbat Mevarchim, The Sabbath of Blessing. After the Torah reading, the prayer leader holds the Torah, recites this poignant blessing for a good month, then announces the day of the upcoming week when the new month will begin.
 
It’s a short prayer—nothing that takes too long to say, but the words… the hope the prayer holds within it… gets me each time. In a way, it reminds me of a miniature version of the Holy Days of Awe- of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Then, we turn to G-d, praying and pleading for a good year. And here we are asking for a good year… one month at a time. The few short paragraphs always make me think of the month gone by and the upcoming one. Are we waiting for a baby to be born? Waiting for the results of an election? One short month can change the life of a family, of a country, so drastically and dramatically. We are asking for something so simple and so basic—but we are in fact asking for everything important. “A life of peace”. When will we, in this beleaguered country of ours, ever have to stop asking for that? “A life of physical health”. We all have our private lists of those who need G-d’s help for a recovery from sickness and pain. “A life of wealth and honor”. In these times of economical hardships everywhere, everyone is just looking for the means to support their families with self respect.
 
Then the prayer leader continues: “He who performed miracles for our forefather and redeemed them from slavery to freedom—may He redeem us soon and gather in our dispersed, from the four corners of the earth; all Israel becoming comrades.”
 
Always. In every holiday, ever prayer service, every day of a Jewish person’s life, there is mention of the Ingathering of the People of Israel to their rightful place in Israel. No matter what we are thinking of… what we are praying for… we are always aware of the painful fact that exile still exists within us and we are waiting for the complete return.
 
The final paragraph of the New Moon service is very special in that it intersperses the needs of the individual with the needs of the nation as a whole. I love how it reflects the teachings of our Rabbis that all of Israel are brothers. One nation, one heart, one people, and what affects our fellow man affects us.
 
“May the Holy One, renew this month upon us and upon all His people, the Family of Israel, for goodness and for blessing… for joy and for gladness… for salvation and for consolation… for good sustenance and for support… for good life and for peace… for good tidings and for good news… for rains in their proper time… for complete recovery and for early redemption. Now let us respond: Amen.”
 
After each phrase of wishes, the cantor pauses and the congregation calls out “Amen” and there is a rousing sense of community, of believing that all is possible and our prayers can and will be answered. Perhaps this will be the month the phone rings with the job that my husband is waiting for. Maybe one day this month my daughter will meet a terrific guy. Maybe this month the rivers will run over with blessed rain.
 
The very first commandment given to the Jewish people, as a nation, was Rosh Chodesh—The New Moon. Not Shabbat, not keeping kosher, not even loving your fellow man. The New Moon. “And the Lord spoke unto Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying: ‘This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you'” (Exodus 12:1-2). The people of Israel were finally pulled out from under the burden of hundreds of years of slavery and G-d’s first order of business, His first directive to His people, is about marking and celebrating the holiday of the New Moon.
 
And interestingly enough, a thousand years later in the land of Israel, during the period of the Syrian-Greek persecution that culminated in the miracle of Hannukah, the New Moon was one of only three commandments whose observance our oppressors prohibited. The other two forbidden commandments were the Shabbat and circumcision, both referred to in the Bible as a sign, a treaty of sorts, between G-d and His people. So why is the New Moon included in this list? What makes it so vital to us as a nation?
 
One reason is a figurative one. The New Moon symbolizes renewal. Just as the moon disappears at the end of each month but returns and grows to fullness, so it is with Israel. The Jewish people have the ability to rise from oblivion, from slavery and persecution, from exile and decline, and restore and renew themselves to greatness. In order to truly leave the servitude of Egypt, the Israelites had to establish their own calendar and be masters over their own time.
 
The significance of the New Moon can also be understood on another level. In ancient times, the new months were determined by observation. Each month began when the first sliver of moon became visible. Observers would report their sightings to the High Court, which would interrogate them to make sure that they were not mistaken. If two independent, reliable eyewitnesses confirmed that the new moon had appeared, and described it consistently, the court would declare the New Month. The High Court would light fires on mountaintops to let everyone know. As each town saw a fire lit, the residents would light a fire on its mountaintop so that the news of the new month would spread. Toward the end of the Second Temple period, this system was changed. The court sent messengers who would run from Jerusalem to the outlying towns and villages informing everyone that the New Month had been declared. This new system lasted until the 4th century CE when a fixed calendar was set, based on astronomical calculations and mathematical computations. The importance in ancient times of this mini holiday of the New Moon should not be underestimated. The entire calendar was dependent upon these declarations, without which there would be no way of knowing when holidays were supposed to occur. The fixed calendar provides the additional leap months that are necessary to ensure the holidays fall out in their proper time. The Jewish calendar is lunar, but it is also coordinated with the solar calendar. Many Jewish holidays have agricultural roots which means that they must fall during a particular season.
 
So the commandment of the New Month was given to the Jewish people as a way of giving them the gift of our festivals.
 
The actual celebration of the New Month has fewer built-in customs and commandments than other Jewish holidays. But sometimes because it comes so often and so regularly, it is extra special. It falls upon us, very often in the middle of our week, and has none of the prohibitions of work. So we continue with our schedules, with school, with work, with cleaning the house and carpooling our children. But everyone finds a way to make it festive. Many schools ask the children to wear white shirts on that day to add a holiday spirit. My older girls are at the stage when they are in university or in the work force, yet they still make sure to wear white shirts on the New Month. The Hallel- a prayer meaning “Praise” is added to the prayer service of the New Month and its hymns and songs are some of the most popular and beautiful in our liturgy. The tunes are heartwarming and inspiring and the words focus on raising our voices in praise and thanks to our G-d. Some families make a special meal or add a special delicacy to their meal in honor of this mini holiday.
 
On the first day of every New Month I always find myself playing back the words of the Blessing of the New Moon, we chanted in synagogue the previous Shabbat. So much to wish for myself, on the personal and national level. For my dear sweet family, for my people and my land. I can only pray, as it says in the prayer, for “a life in which G-d fulfills our heartfelt requests for the good. Amen.”
 
Shalom,
 
Shira Schwartz
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