What Does Rosh Hodesh Celebrate?

Tracing the meaning and motifs of Rosh Hodesh (the new moon festival) from the biblical through the talmudic periods reveals a day of two different meanings.

Blessing of New Moon by Artur Markowicz, 1933.

Every 29 or 30 days, Jews mark the appearance of the new moon.[1] Traditionally, it is a standard liturgical event, marked with a special Torah reading, the recitation of Hallel, an insertion into the Amidah and grace after meals, and the addition of another Amidah – the Mussaf.  For others, though, it is a more celebratory affair.[2] Some Hasidic circles have special meals, and it has also become an important day for women’s spiritual groups, especially Jewish feminists.[3]

What exactly is being celebrated on Rosh Hodesh, which is, after all, a recurring astronomical event?

Rosh Hodesh in the Bible

The importance of the new moon is already evident in the Hebrew Bible. Biblical authors from different times and places routinely refer to the new moon commemoration along with the Sabbath[4] and festivals. For example, the prophet Hosea (8th century BCE), in an oracle against the Kingdom of Israel, states:

הושע ב:יא וְהִשְׁבַּתִּי כָּל מְשׂוֹשָׂהּ חַגָּהּ חָדְשָׁהּ וְשַׁבַּתָּהּ וְכֹל מוֹעֲדָהּ.
Hosea 2:11 I will put an end to all her mirth, her festivals, her new moons, her Sabbaths, and all her appointed festivals.[5]

The association of Shabbat, Rosh Hodesh, and even the other holidays continues in biblical writings that date to the fifth or even fourth centuries BCE, after the exilic period.[6]

How Rosh Hodesh was Celebrated

Rosh Hodesh was marked both by priests in the cult and by the average Israelite. According to Priestly texts, special sacrifices were offered, and a trumpet was sounded to mark the day:[7]

במדבר י:י וּבְי֨וֹם שִׂמְחַתְכֶ֥ם וּֽבְמוֹעֲדֵיכֶם֮ וּבְרָאשֵׁ֣י חָדְשֵׁיכֶם֒ וּתְקַעְתֶּ֣ם בַּחֲצֹֽצְרֹ֗ת עַ֚ל עֹלֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם וְעַ֖ל זִבְחֵ֣י שַׁלְמֵיכֶ֑ם וְהָי֨וּ לָכֶ֤ם לְזִכָּרוֹן֙ לִפְנֵ֣י אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם אֲנִ֖י ידוד אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
Numbers 10:10 And on your joyous occasions—your fixed festivals and new moon days—you shall sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being. They shall be a reminder of you before your God: I, the LORD, am your God.

Amos  8:4-5 suggests that in the kingdom of Israel at least, commerce ceased:

עמוס ח:ד-ה שִׁמְעוּ זֹ֕את הַשֹּׁאֲפִ֖ים אֶבְי֑וֹן וְלַשְׁבִּ֖ית ענוי [עֲנִיֵּי] אָֽרֶץ׃ לֵאמֹ֗ר מָתַ֞י יַעֲבֹ֤ר הַחֹ֙דֶשׁ֙ וְנַשְׁבִּ֣ירָה שֶּׁ֔בֶר וְהַשַּׁבָּ֖ת וְנִפְתְּחָה בָּ֑ר לְהַקְטִ֤ין אֵיפָה֙ וּלְהַגְדִּ֣יל שֶׁ֔קֶל וּלְעַוֵּ֖ת מֹאזְנֵ֥י מִרְמָֽה׃
Amos 8:4-5 Hear this you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the Sabbath so that we may offer wheat for sale?”

Rosh Hodesh was a day of celebration: David was expected to join King Saul and his son for a two-day banquet on Rosh Hodesh.[8] It was also seen as an auspicious time, when people would approach local prophets.[9]

Is the New Moon Connected to the Calendar?

The various attestations of new moon celebrations in the Bible seem to focus on a lunar phenomenon. Nevertheless, Rosh Hodesh also has an important role to play in setting the calendar, as it is sometimes seen as the first day of a month. We see this already in the opening verse of the Pesach command in which God emphasizes the importance of the new moon for setting the calendar:

שמות יב:ב הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים רִאשׁוֹן הוּא לָכֶם לְחָדְשֵׁי הַשָּׁנָה.
Exodus 12:2 This month (ḥodesh) shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.

But the Bible is unclear about whether it generally assumes a lunar calendar, a solar calendar, or both.[10]

The Earliest Evidence for a Lunar Calendar

Only in the Hellenistic period does evidence begin to appear that the Jerusalem Temple ran according to a lunar calendar. Jubilees,[11] which used a neat, 364-day solar calendar,[12] testifies to the existence of this practice, even as it denounces it (Jub 6:36-37):

And there will be those who will examine the moon diligently because it will corrupt the (appointed) times and it will advance from year to year ten days…and they will mix up everything, a holy day (as) profaned and a profane (one) for a holy day, because they will set awry the months and Sabbaths and feasts and jubilees.[13]

Apparently, the author of Jubilees had little use for new moons, which do not correspond to his solar calendar.

A New Month Festival Even for Solar Calendars

The author of Jubilees knows, however, of the celebrations of the new lunar month (hodesh) in the Bible. Hence, Jubilees quickly mentions observing the new moon, although does not explain how or why (Jub 6:34):[14]

And all the sons of Israel will forget, and they will not find the way of the years. And they will forget the new moons and (appointed) times and Sabbaths.

The texts preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls also acknowledge the existence of a new moon festival, all while marginalizing it.[15] Even when we look outside of sectarian texts, including the writings of the first century Alexandrian Jewish writer Philo, the first century Roman Jewish historian Josephus, and the apostle Paul, we find mention of the new moon,[16] yet none suggest that it was used by Jews for purposes of dating. Dated documentary papyri and inscriptions from the period similarly do not mention the new moon.

The Septuagint and an Athenian New Moon Festival

Still, it is interesting to note that the Septuagint – the Greek translation of the Bible begun in the third century BCE –  usually translates the Hebrew term ḥodesh (i.e. in Exodus 12:2), with the Greek mēna (moon) or neomēnia (new moon).  The latter term likely reflects the Greek noumenia festival, commemorating the new moon,[17] and might well have been chosen because the translator identified the Jewish new month festival with that festival. On the noumenia, at least in Athens, most public assemblies and business were suspended, there was banqueting, and public and private sacrifices were made.[18]

In sum, even while they mention the day as significant, there is little evidence that Jews in the Second Temple period observed Rosh Hodesh specifically as a way to mark the calendar.

Rosh Hodesh for the Rabbis: Power and Authority

For the rabbis, however, the calendrical force of Rosh Hodesh was significant and inextricably bound-up with the issue of authority.

The rabbis create an intricate process for determining the sighting of the new moon and thus the beginning of the new month. It is a process that they describe as under their control.  According to the Mishnah (redacted in Palestine around 200 CE), two witnesses (who meet stringent qualifications, including not being gamblers or heretics) who claim to have observed the new moon must report to the central court in Jerusalem, which examines them. If their testimony is deemed truthful, the court declares the new moon and either sends messengers to announce the month or lights beacons to spread the news.[19]

Thus the rabbis create a formal legal procedure for the declaration of the new moon.  It was a procedure that they controlled, casting themselves as the expert examiners and judges.[20]

Whose Authority?

While rabbinic sources are united in their assertion that rabbis should set the calendar, they suggest that the question of which rabbi has this authority was unsettled.  Individual rabbis sometimes asserted their own authority against the decisions of their colleagues.[21] One rabbinic story asserts that dissent over the right to set the calendar was at the heart of one of the most searing and divisive disputes in rabbinic memory, which resulted in the deposition of Rabban Gamliel.[22]

Another story, recorded in the Palestinian Talmud, presents tensions over setting the calendar outside of Palestine, where it was ideally supposed to be declared (Palestinian Talmud, Sanhedrin 1:2 – 19a).

חנניה בן אחי רבי יהושע עיבר בחוצה לארץ שלח ליה רבי ג’ איגרן גבי ר’ יצחק ורבי נתן בחדא כתב לקדושת חנניה וחדא כתב גדיים שהינחת נעשו תיישים ובחדא כתב אם אין את מקבל עליך צא לך למדבר האטד ותהי שוחט ונחוניון זורק קרא קדמייתא ואוקרון תנייתא ואוקרון תליתא בעא מבסרתהון אמרין ליה לית את יכיל דכבר אוקרתנין קם רבי יצחק וקרא באוריתא אלה מועדי חנניה בן אחי רבי יהושע אומר אלה הם מועדי יי’
Hannaniah the son of the brother of Rabbi Yehoshua intercalated the year outside of Palestine.  Rabbi sent to him three letters together with Rabbi Yitzhak and Rabbi Natan.  In one, he wrote, “For the holiness of Hannaniah.”  In one he wrote, “Kids that you lowered were made he-goats.”  And in one he wrote, “If you do not accept upon yourself {my authority}, go forth to the Desert of Atad and be a slaughterer and Nehunion the sprinkler.”  He read the first {letter} and honored them.  {He read} the second {letter} and honored them.  [He read] the third {letter} and wanted to disgrace them.  They said to him, “You are not able to, for you already honored them.  Rabbi Yitzhak rose and read in the Torah, “‘These are the festivals of Hannaniah the son of the brother of Rabbi Yehoshua.’ Say: ‘These are the festivals of God!’”

In this story, Rabbi Yehudah the patriarch becomes upset that Hannaniah has dared to try to intercalate.  The three letters are cryptic, but they begin with mollification and end with what apparently is a threat of excommunication.  The rabbinic messengers emphasize to him with a mock reading from a Torah scroll that Hannaniah has effectively tried to usurp God’s own festivals by illicitly tampering with the calendar.[23]

The Authority of the Rabbinic Calendar in the Rabbinic Age

Apart from the rabbinic infighting, it is also not clear if most non-rabbis regarded the rabbinic declaration of the new moon as authoritative.  While it is an argument from silence, it seems significant that among the many legal cases reported in tannaitic (ca. 70-220 CE) literature, none deal with calendrical matters.

Later, amoraic rabbinic sources (ca. 220-620) state that some rabbis were specially appointed by the patriarch (nasi) to help set the calendar, perhaps indicating that at least at that stage, the court of the patriarch had formalized a procedure to set a calendar.[24] It is possible that some, maybe even most, Jewish communities in Galilee followed the patriarch’s calendar, but it is also hard to imagine a mechanism of compulsion if they decided not to.

The Celebration in Rabbinic Times

Most of the rabbinic discussions of the new moon and related calendrical matters (except for those dealing with the intra-rabbinic struggle to identify which rabbis have calendrical authority) have a distinctly scholastic quality to them.  These discussions, like those found in the literature of the Second Temple period, seem to have little to do with what ordinary Jews were doing. Indeed, we cannot even be sure if they were all using the same calendar, and if they were, whether it was the one declared by the rabbis.

Yet despite this uncertainty, there is also scattered evidence that during rabbinic times, Jews commemorated the new moon in a variety of ways. Some of these practices seem to continue the more ancient forms of celebration, without reflecting the rabbinic emphasis on the festival as a day on which the calendar is set.

The rabbis discuss in some detail the proper ritual observance of Rosh Hodesh in the synagogues and in liturgy.  As is usual when it comes to rabbinic literature, it is difficult to know whether these discussions are prescriptive (saying what they believe people should do) or descriptive (saying what people actually did).  A few texts, however, do seem more clearly to preserve actual Jewish customs for Rosh Hodesh, although we can never be sure how widespread they were.

The Recitation of Hallel

One such source concerns the recitation of Hallel, which according to tannaitic sources should be recited on eighteen specific festival days and one night;[25] they do not, however, specify Rosh Hodesh among them. The Babylonian Talmud, but not the Palestinian Talmud, notices this exclusion and relates the following anecdote(b. Ta‘anit 28b):

רב איקלע לבבל, חזינהו דקא קרו הלילא בריש ירחא. סבר לאפסוקינהו. כיון דחזא דקא מדלגי דלוגי, אמר שמע מינה מנהג אבותיהם בידיהם.
Rav once came {from Palestine} to Babylonia.  He saw that they recited Hallel on the day of the new moon.  He thought to stop them when he saw that they were skipping {parts of the complete Hallel}.  He said, ‘{I} learn from this: they have (i.e., are following) an ancestral custom {and know that it is not in fulfillment of a scriptural command}.’

The recitation of Hallel on the day of the new moon appears to have been rare in Palestine, and thus the Palestinian visitor to Babylonia was inclined to see the local practice as mistaken.[26] Once he saw that they were skipping parts of it, he inferred that they did not treat the recitation of Hallel on Rosh Hodesh as a Torah commandment, and thus held his tongue.

The Festive Meal

The Mishnah alludes to the practice of enjoying a festive meal (as in the biblical accounts) that appears to have been another popular custom, particularly when there was an intercalation.[27]  In the Palestinian Talmud, one amoraic rabbi suggests that a festive meal occurred also at the “sanctification” of the month, that is, the declaration of the new moon. It then continues with a story (p. Sanhedrin 8:2, 26b ):

רבי יוחנן הוה עליל לכנישתא בצפרא ומלקט פירורין ואכיל ואמ’ יהא חלקי אם מאן דקדש ירחא הכא רומשית
When Rabbi Yohanan would enter into the congregation in the morning he would gather crumbs and eat.  And he would say, ‘May my portion be with the one who sanctified the moon here last night.’[28]

These sources suggest that on the evening of the new moon – the night before Rabbi Yohanan arrived – there was some kind of meal in the “congregation,” typically understood as the synagogue.  The existence of a “new moon meal” (seudat rosh hodesh) is also mentioned in connection with the synagogue elsewhere.[29] There may have been some kind of liturgy or ritual around this gathering (as, perhaps, suggested by the later piyyutim), but we cannot be certain of this.

Women’s Abstention from Work

The Palestinian Talmud notes unsympathetically the practice of women refraining from working on Rosh Hodesh (y. Ta‘anit 1:6, 64c):

נשייא דנהגן דלא למיעבד עובדא בפוקי שובתא אינו מנהג
Women who have the custom of not working on Saturday night – this is not a custom.
עד דיתפני סידרא מנהג
{On Saturday evening} after prayers – this is a custom.
בתריי או בחמשתא אינו מנהג
On Monday and Thursday – this is not a custom.
עד דיתפני תעניתא מנהג
{On Monday and Thursday} after the fast – this is a custom.
ביומא דערובתא אינו מנהג
On the day of intercalation – this is not a custom.
מן מנחה ולעיל מנהג
{On the day of intercalation} from the afternoon prayers on – this is a custom.
מן מנחה ולעיל מנהג
On the day of the new moon – this is a custom[30]

Until the last clause, the list is well-ordered.  It mentions a female custom of abstaining from work on particular days and then immediately accepts a limited version of the abstention.  Did women really abstain from “work” (however they would have defined it) on Rosh Hodesh, and if so, why?

There is no further evidence of these female customs from late antiquity.  The custom of Jewish women observing the new moon in some special way, though, is attested in a work from the early Middle Ages that also attempts to find a reason for it.  The Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer connects it to the incident of the golden calf.  The Midrash recounts the following when Aaron asks for their gold jewelry (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 44):

שמעו הנשים, ולא רצו, ולא קבלו עליהן לתן נזמיהן לבעליהן, אלא אמרו להם לעשות שקוץ ותועבה שאין בו כח להציל לא נשמע לכם. ונתן להן הקדוש ברוך הוא שכרן בעולם הזה, שהן משמרות ראשי חדשים יותר מן האנשים. ונתן להם שכר לעולם הבא, שהן עתידות להתחדש כמו ראשי חדשים, שנאמר המשביע בטוב עדיך וגו’.
The women heard and refused to give their rings to their husbands, but said to them: ‘You want to make an abominable thing with no ability to save!’  They did not listen [to the women].  And God gave reward to the women in this world and the next.  And what reward did he give to the women in the next world and in this one?  That they are to be renewed like the new moons, as it is written, ‘who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s’ (Psalms 103:5).

This tradition does not state how the women were accustomed to “observe” the new moon, but it does link it back to a biblical story and might in the citation (“renewal”) refer to the menstrual cycle.  The idea that Jewish women have some special connection to the celebration of the new moon persists through the Middle Ages (and into the present).[31]

Power and Custom

The story of Rosh Hodesh in late antiquity is actually two stories.  It is the story of the calendar and the rabbinic use of it to assert a claim to power, both to non-rabbis as well as vis-à-vis rabbinic colleagues.  Such a claim is most likely connected to their attempt to position themselves as successors to the priests, whose ancestors controlled the Temple’s cultic calendar.  The extent to which anybody – especially the priests themselves –accepted such a claim is unclear.

It is also the story of lived religion, of ordinary Jews celebrating the appearance of the new moon.  Their customs may have been derived from biblical or other sources, but they may have instead arisen in a variety of other circumstances, including popular Hellenistic celebrations of the new moon.  Seen in this context, the modern Jewish appropriations of Rosh Hodesh, whether Hasidic or feminist and often in tension with rabbinic norms, looks at least a bit less modern.