This weekend we observe Rosh Chodesh Elul. Shabbat the first day is the 30th day of Menachem Av, and Sunday, the first of Elul. It will mean various additions to our liturgy, and from Sunday, as part of our preparation for the High Holydays, we say Psalm 27 twice daily until Shemini Atseret.
We mark Rosh Chodesh each month, with the exception of Tishri, and yet I wonder what in reality this means to most. Is it welcomed as having some special significance, or is it just accepted that the service lasts a little longer, or, that particularly on a weekday, may be more rushed than usual? And, sadly, it is totally unnoticed by those who are not regular Shul goers, and on most months of the year, it is marked on a weekday. Yet it can have a meaning which goes considerably beyond the additions to the liturgy.
Rosh Chodesh in ancient times was a major festival. As we go through the Tanach, we can almost trace its ‘demotion’, as there is a move from Rosh Chodesh and Shabbat, with Rosh Chodesh first, to Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh. Clearly the dates of our festivals are important to us. It seems that every year there are a few who say to me, we booked for ‘x’ before realising that it was Rosh Hashanah or Seder or….. However we all have access to calendars, and by looking online can find any Hebrew date farther ahead than most of us are likely to want.
This is a very long journey from our ancestors who depended on the sighting of the new moon in order to know when festivals would be. There was an elaborate procedure for examining those who had seen the emergent crescent, and when the new moon was confirmed, there was a ritual announcement ‘mekudash, mekudash’, ‘it is sanctified, it is sanctified’. That is recalled in the announcement which we have on the Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh each month, with the exception of Tishri. The reason for not announcing Tishri is generally said to be because the mood of Rosh Hashanah, with its theme of judgment, differs from Rosh Chodesh, and we do not include any specific Rosh Chodesh liturgy. However, there is also a superstitious reason that it is not announced in order to confuse Satan, so that no evil decrees are made at this time when we are praying we will be granted a good year.
Once the calendar was fixed, Rosh Chodesh diminished in importance, but always retained a special significance for women, and the link is clearly women’s monthly cycles and the moon’s monthly cycle. The significance is found in many cultures, and the Rabbis said that this was women’s reward for not bringing their jewellery for the Golden Calf. The reading is perhaps rather forced, and relies on a particular Aramaic translation, but nevertheless reflects the wish to give authority for women’s observance.
Over many centuries we have interesting accounts of how women observed Rosh Chodesh. While work was not forbidden as such, it was said that those women who chose not to work on Rosh Chodesh were observing a ‘minhag tov’, a good custom, and we find examples relating to women’s practice in the Middle Ages, and indeed in some communities until the Shoah.
In our time the re-emergence of Rosh Chodesh as a celebration for women began in the 1970s, and reflected the fact that women, particularly those from traditional communities, wanted a more active part in Jewish ritual life. Here was something which could be reclaimed and developed, and so there began to be Rosh Chodesh groups, particularly in the United States and Israel. The first group in England started to meet in the mid 1980s, and included many Masorti women.
While Rosh Chodesh has a particular significance for women, I would advocate it to be marked by all Jews, as a way of strengthening our links with the Jewish calendar, and helping us prepare for festivals. Those involved in synagogue leadership in a variety of ways, have already been planning for the Yamim Noraim for some time. Those who know they are leading services may have begun to practise, but somehow the real start is this weekend, or indeed, according to some, last weekend when Elul was announced. The Shofar is blown throughout Elul as a reminder of the ‘call’ to think about our actions, the Sephardim say selichot throughout Elul, while for Ashkenazim they begin later in the month, and, ideally, it is a time for all of us, even for those not actively involved with preparation for services, to read something appropriate, to think about our actions. The reality is that almost everything in life benefits from preparation. We will get more from the High Holydays if we think about them in advance, and the same is true of every other festival. Rosh Chodesh may still have a special significance for women, but, by trying to focus on it every month, it can enable all of us to have some sort of ‘new start’ each month, and better links with the Jewish calendar.
Rabbi Amanda Golby has recently started a new role as ‘Rabbinic Pastoral Support’ at New North London. She has long had an interest in Rosh Chodesh which was the subject of her Leo Baeck College dissertation, and would be happy to recommend reading or in other ways help anyone who would like further information.