Updated: Nov 1, 2021
The month of Nisan has slipped by, now that Passover has been over for more than a week and this week we have observed Rosh Chodesh Iyar, the new month of Iyar, on Monday and Tuesday. The Jewish calendar, as most of us know, is a lunar calendar, adjusted to the seasons of the solar year. Thus every month begins on the new moon, when the first light of the moon appears in the sky. Originally this was established by the testimony of witnesses who came to the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem to testify to having sighted the moon. The rabbis, skilled in the astronomy of that age, interrogated the witnesses to verify that what they saw was not a cloud, but indeed the moon. Afterwards the new month was proclaimed to the Jewish world so that people would know when to celebrate the holidays. Since those holidays not only mark historical events, but also are keyed to agricultural seasons, when the rabbis saw that, due to the eleven day difference between the solar year of 365 days and the lunar year of 354 days, the holidays were moving out of their proper season, they instituted periodically a leap month of Adar Sheni, the Second Adar, adding 30 days to put things back on track. Since the fourth century, however, instead of eyewitness testimony, the calendar has been determined by mathematical calculation and thus we have alternating months of 29 and 30 days. Whenever a month ends on the 30th day, it and the following day are observed as Rosh Chodesh, since there are actually 29 ½ days in a lunar month. That's the simple explanation. There are more complicated mathematical formulas involved which you can check out on the internet if you're interested in determining the precise moment of the new moon's appearance, the molad.
Rosh Chodesh is a kind of semi-holiday for us and, apparently in ancient times, our ancestors made a bigger production out of it. Nowadays, it is primarily celebrated with some liturgical additions to the service. Some make a point of having special meals for the day and, we are told, it is a special holiday for women, since they did not participate in the sin of the Golden Calf and were instrumental in the needlework of the Tabernacle, they were awarded these special days as their holiday, which some women's groups have reclaimed in recent years.
Liturgically, there are several changes to the daily or Shabbat service when it coincides with Rosh Chodesh. In the Shacharit Amidah we insert the prayer known as Yaaleh v'yavo into the blessing of Avodah, the third to the last blessing of the Amidah, that speaks of the restoration of the Temple worship. The Yaaleh v'yavo is also included in the Amidah on the evening before and at minchah, the afternoon service. This prayer is likewise added into the Birkat HaMazon, the blessings after meals, along with a brief blessing for the new month toward the end of those prayers. After the Amidah, we add the Hallel psalms in the same shortened version that we use on Chol HaMoed and the last days of Pesach. There is a special Torah portion that we read on Rosh Chodesh, calling four people to the Torah on a weekday. If Rosh Chodesh falls on Monday or Thursday, the Rosh Chodesh reading pre-empts the regular weekly reading. On Shabbat, we add the last part of that reading to the regular portion of the week as maftir. The reading describes the additional offerings, the Musaf sacrifices, brought on the new moon aside from the regular daily offering. Because of that Musaf offering, there is also a Musaf Amidah for Rosh Chodesh. Its opening three blessings and closing three blessings are the same as every other service. However, it does have a special Kedushat Hayom blessing, sanctifying the day and mentioning the Musaf offerings that were to be brought in Temple days. There are different versions of this prayer for weekdays and for Shabbat. At the end of the service, we add Psalm 104 to the Psalm of the Day, as I wrote several months ago.
The Yaaleh v'yavo is inserted into the middle of the blessing of R'tzei. Thus we begin by praying the opening words, “R'tzei Adonay Eloheinu...” “Find favor, Lord our God, in Your people Israel and their prayer. Restore the service to Your most holy House, and accept in love and favor the fire-offerings of Israel and their prayer. May the service of Your people Israel always find favor with You.” (The Koren Siddur) At this point we insert the Yaaleh v'yavo. While there are variations in different siddurim over the centuries, they seem to be rather minor and the prayer remains basically the same since Geonic times up until now. As in other places in the liturgy, the author employs a string of synonyms, after the initial addressing of God as “Our God and God of our ancestors.” A closer look at the eight verbs which follow seems to divide these words into two groups of four, first coming before God and then being accepted: “yaaleh v'yavo v'yagia v'yeraeh, may there rise, come, reach and appear and then v'yeratzeh v'yishama v'yipakeid, v'yizacheir, be favored, heard, regarded, and remembered before You our recollection and remembrance and the remembrance of our ancestors, and of the Messiah (the anointed one) son of David Your servant, and of Jerusalem Your holy city, and of all Your people the house of Israel.” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that zichron avoteinu, the remembrance of our ancestors, points to the past, zichron mashiach ben David avdecha, the remembrance of your Messiah the son of David your servant, points to the future, while the other remembrances, zichron Yerushalayim irecha v'zichron amcha beit Yisrael, the remembrance of Jerusalem Your city and of Your people the house of Israel, refer to the present day. All of these remembrances shall be “for deliverance and well-being, grace, lovingkindness and compassion, life and peace, on this day of Rosh Chodesh.” On other occasions the appropriate holiday name is inserted. When the reader chants this prayer aloud in the repetition of the Amidah, the next three phrases each call for an “Amen” from the congregation. “Remember us on it Lord our God for good. Recollect us for blessing. Deliver us for life.” As the prayer concludes, we ask, “In accord with Your promise of salvation and compassion, spare us and be gracious to us; have compassion on us and deliver us, for our eyes are turned to you because You, God, are a gracious and compassionate King.” This then leads into the concluding line of the R'tzei, “V'techezena eineinu, and may our eyes witness Your return to Zion in compassion.”
In Birkat HaMazon, Yaaleh v'yavo is inserted into the third blessing at the same point as we insert the weekly prayer for Shabbat. When Rosh Chodesh falls on Shabbat, we first add the insertion for Shabbat and then the Rosh Chodesh addition in accordance with the rule that the more frequent occurrence is mentioned first. Near the end of Birkat HaMazon, we add the prayer, “May the Merciful One renew this month for goodness and blessing.”
When the Musaf for Rosh Chodesh is repeated aloud by the reader, it is customary to chant it to the nusach, the traditional melody, for the holidays, thus creating a festive mood that had already been established by the chanting of Hallel. After the Kedushah, we begin with the special Kedushat Hayom prayer for the new moon.
Issachar Yakovson in his Netiv Binah on our liturgy, divides the prayer into five sections. It begins by defining the purpose of Rosh Chodesh as a time for atonement (z'man kaparah), and as a remembrance before the Lord to save us from “the hand of the enemy” (miyad sonei). There are various explanations of the reason for atonement on Rosh Chodesh, some associated with matters of ritual purity. Others however, see the new month as a kind of mini-Rosh Hashanah, an opportunity each month to seek divine forgiveness for the sins we may have committed during the previous month. There is even a custom among the pious of fasting on the eve of the new moon, a Yom Kippur katan, a minor Yom Kippur. The enemy mentioned in the prayer, we're told is that old enemy, the Yetzer HaRa, the inclination to do evil, which we struggle with at all times.
The second part of the prayer, as on festivals, is a petition for the restoration of the Temple worship.”May You establish a new altar in Zion, and may we offer on it the New Moon burnt-offering, and prepare goats in favor. May we all rejoice in the Temple service, and may the songs of David Your servant, be heard in Your city.”
This leads into the third section in which we quote the actual requirements for the Musaf offering on Rosh Chodesh as described in the Book of Numbers. “The additional offering of this New Moon day we will prepare and offer to You with love according to Your will's commandment, as You have written for us in Your Torah.” What follows is the quote from Numbers 28 about a burnt offering of two young bulls, one ram, and seven yearling lambs without blemish. These are accompanied by meal-offerings and wine libations, and in addition, a male goat for atonement. Once again, we're reminded that this day is a time for atonement from our sins.
Part four presents a petition to the Almighty for the renewal of this month in twelve expressions, one for each month of the year. We ask God to renew this month for good and blessing, joy and gladness, deliverance and consolation, sustenance and support, life and peace, pardon of sin and forgiveness of iniquity. During leap year, when we add a 13th month, we add a 13th request as well, for atonement of transgression. Why that request in particular? It is thought that since the court could err in its calculations when the rabbis added a month, and thus throw all the holidays out of their proper season, we ask God to atone for our sins in advance.
The fifth section is the conclusion: “For You have chosen Your people Israel from all nations, and have instituted for them rules for the New Moon. Blessed are You, Lord, who sanctifies Israel and the New Moon.”
When Rosh Chodesh falls on Shabbat, we replace the usual Shabbat Kedushat Hayom prayers with a Rosh Chodesh version which resembles in some ways, the Yom Tov Kedushat Hayom, incorporates portions of the Shabbat version, and ends with the requests we saw in the weekday Rosh Chodesh addition. Yakovson divides it into four sections. We begin with an acknowledgement of Shabbat. “Ata yatzarta olamcha mikedem...” “Long ago You formed the world completing Your work on the seventh day. You loved us, You favored us, raising us above all languages. You made us holy through Your commandments, brought us near, O our King, to Your service...You gave us in love...Sabbaths for rest and New Moons for atonement.” Again, Rosh Chodesh is seen as a day of atonement for the sins we may have committed in the past month. As the prayer continues, it begins to sound like the Musaf for Yom Tov, “Because we and our ancestors sinned against You, our city was laid waste, our Sanctuary made desolate...we can no longer fulfill our obligations in Your chosen House...because of the hand that was stretched out against Your sanctuary.”
In the second section, we pray that we might be led back to our land where we might offer the sacrifices due on this day, the regular daily offerings, the Sabbath offerings and the additional offerings for Rosh Chodesh. At this point, we quote the passages from the book of Numbers which give us the specific offerings due on Shabbat and then on Rosh Chodesh.
The third section on Shabbat is simply the paragraph of Yism'chu b'malcutecha, which we often sing as part of the Musaf on Shabbat. “Those who keep the Sabbath and call it a delight shall rejoice in Your kingship.”
The final paragraph of this prayer begins with the request that we make every Shabbat, that our rest be acceptable to God. On Rosh Chodesh we add, “and renew for us the coming month”. Here, once again, are the twelve specific requests that we saw in the weekday version, along with the thirteenth request added during the leap year. The conclusion reads: “For You have chosen Your people Israel from all nations; You have made known to them your holy Sabbath, and instituted for them rules for the New Moon. Blessed are You, Lord, who sanctifies the Sabbath, Israel and the New Moon.” As on Yom Tov, Shabbat and Israel come first and only afterwards the New Moon which, like the dates of the holidays, is established by the Jewish court, the Sanhedrin of old.
The observance of Rosh Chodesh each month reminds us of the ongoing, repeating cycle of life, the waxing and waning of the moon, which mark the days of our lives. It also, as we've seen, provides an opportunity each month, to reflect on the days just past, to examine our words and deeds, atone for our sins, and resolve to make a fresh beginning as we begin a new month. Rosh Hashanah comes only once a year, but we need not wait twelve months to examine our lives and repair our relationships. Every day is a new beginning and, certainly, the beginning of a new month is an opportunity for rebirth and renewal that we should not miss. May the new month of Iyar bring blessing and goodness to us and to all people.