Thoughts on the Blessing of the New Month
Cantors like to tell the story of the occasional shul-goer who turned up one week in the synagogue. That week happened to be the Shabbat before the new moon. After the haftarah was chanted, the cantor came forward and sang a magnificent rendition of the Birkat HaChodesh, the Blessing of the New Moon, praying for all good things in the new month about to begin that week. Following the service this congregant approached the chazan and complimented him on this beautifully chanted prayer and told him, “Cantor, that piece was so lovely. You need to do it every week.”
This story is actually not so far off the mark. After all, the opening passage of the Birkat HaChodesh, this blessing for the new moon, the part cantors love to embellish, was actually lifted from a Talmudic discussion in which various rabbis propose prayers to be recited at the conclusion of the Amidah. The prayer we say, “Elohai n'tzor l'shoni mei-ra, My God, guard my tongue from evil,” by Mar the son of Ravina, was among them. Other prayers have found other locations in our prayerbook. However, the prayer suggested by Rav, the third century Talmudic authority, to be recited at the conclusion of every Amidah was the same Y'hi ratzon prayer that is now used to introduce the blessing for the new moon. So Rav said this prayer not just every week, but three times every day! We have simply inserted a short phrase to connect it with the approaching new moon, “May it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our ancestors to renew unto us this new month for good and blessing.”
As we know, the Jewish calendar is a combination of the lunar and solar calendars. Our months begin in accordance with the new moon, but our years are adjusted to the solar calendar so that our holidays come in their proper seasons within a range of some thirty-odd days. When we get too far out of synch, we add another 30-day month every two to three years so that Pesach doesn't come in the winter and Rosh Hashanah doesn't arrive in July. Originally, this calendar was determined by observation of the moon. Witnesses would appear each month before the Sanhedrin, the high court in Jerusalem, to testify to sighting the first light of the new moon. After proper examination, the court would proclaim a new month and the word would go out throughout the Jewish world. This process was known as Kiddush HaChodesh, the sanctification of the month. Even after the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis attempted to continue this practice wherever the Sanhedrin sat until the year 360 C.E. At that time the patriarch Hillel son of Rabbi Yehudah Nesiah, “sanctified all the months until the end of time.” He had noted that the official rabbinic ordination necessary for this process had declined to such a point, that he was fearful that Kiddush HaChodesh would not be able to continue properly. So instead the calendar was set by mathematical calculations instead of observing the moon so that anyone who knew the formula could figure out when the new moons appeared and when to observe the holidays.
Birkat HaChodesh, this blessing of the new month, the announcement of Rosh Chodesh, is not to be confused with the Kiddush HaChodesh, the sanctification of the month, of ancient times. Like many of our customs, it is not clear when this practice of announcing the new moon on the Shabbat preceding it was introduced. There is mention of such an announcement in the Geonic (post-Talmudic period) by Rav Amram Gaon, but he did it on Rosh Chodesh itself which doesn't seem terribly helpful. Our current practice, however, is attested to by numerous early works of Jewish law from the 12th to 14th centuries, in Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and Austria among other places. Those authors however could only attribute it to “earlier authorities” not identified.
This week, we offer this prayer on the Shabbat preceding the new moon of Av, the month in which we observe the major fast day of Tisha B'Av, the ninth of Av, the date on which both Temples were destroyed and various other calamities occurred to the Jewish people. In some places, it was the custom not to recite this blessing for the month of Av. However the prevailing practice is to do so, but to call the month Menachem Av, Av the Comforter, alluding to the rabbinic tradition that even though we commemorate tragedy and destruction during this month, the rabbis believed that the Messiah was (or will be) born on Tisha B'Av; redemption will come from this month as well. The Shabbat after the fast, we chant the verses from Isaiah that begin “Comfort, comfort my people.” And for the six weeks after that we continue with haftarot of consolation and comfort until Rosh Hashanah.
For an entirely different reason, we do not announce the month of Tishri, the month of the High Holidays, on the Shabbat preceding Rosh Hashanah. The rabbis say that everyone knows when Rosh Hashanah is coming from the prayers added during the month of Elul and the shofar blowing during the month and all the preparations for the holiday. There is no need for a formal announcement. On the other hand, they were concerned not to alert the Satan, the Adversary, the chief prosecutor, that the Day of Judgment was coming. We do all we can to confuse the Satan at this season. That practice of omitting Birkat Hachodesh on the Shabbat before Tishri continues to be observed.
As for the text of this prayer, there is considerable variation among the different Jewish communities. In place of the prayer of Rav which is used in the Ashkenazic rite, Sephardim offer a different series of prayers very similar to the y'hi ratzon prayers traditionally said on Mondays and Thursdays after the Torah reading. The Yemenite version is similar. The Italian rite as usual is unique and differs from both the Ashkenazic and Sephardic rites. Chabad omits the opening prayer and goes directly to the next paragraph of the Ashkenazic rite.
I will stick with the Ashkenazic version since it is the one we utilize in our services and in most American congregations. Though the rabbis remind us that this is not actually Kiddush HaChodesh, nonetheless it is customary to rise and remain standing throughout this prayer as we would have done for the sanctification of the month by the Sanhedrin. A Torah scroll is brought forward as we begin. We open with the prayer of Rav modified as mentioned above. Most noticeable in this prayer is the repetition of the word “chayim” life. Eleven times it is mentioned in this petition. We ask for long life, a peaceful life, a life of goodness, a life of blessing, a life of sustenance, a life of physical vitality, a life of reverence for Heaven and fear of sin, a life free from shame and reproach, a life of abundance and honor, a life in which there is love of Torah and fear of Heaven, a life in which the desires of our hearts our fulfilled for good. This prayer covers most of the things that we might wish for in the new month and the cantor's chanting is often filled with emotion as he reflects on the needs of the community voiced in this prayer.
After this introduction, some congregations have the gabbai announce the time of the molad, that is the precise hour and minute that the new moon will appear. Generally this is based on the clock in Jerusalem rather than local time. Many congregations dispense with this announcement.
The reader now takes the Torah and he addresses God as “the One who performed miracles for our ancestors, redeeming them from slavery to freedom.” We offer our prayer for redemption in the new month, “May He redeem us soon and gather our dispersed from the four corners of the earth.” Every day we pray for redemption and certainly for our ancestors who suffered various persecutions and hardships over the centuries the beginning of a new month brought with it hope once more for the ultimate redemption. The prayer concludes, “Chaverim kol Yisrael.” Though “chaverim” can mean friends, it is probably a deeper concept here, that all Israel is united, joined in one fellowship. This could be more aspirational than actual, but one can hope.
At ths point, the prayer leader announces the date of the new moon, that is the observance of Rosh Chodesh which can be one or two days. For example, “The new month of Menachem Av begins on Wednesday. May it bring blessing upon us and all Israel.” This reminds us that we should make the appropriate adjustments in our daily prayers on that day or days, adding the Hallel and Musaf and other insertions into the prayers. If there is a congregational minyan, the Torah would be read on those days as well. There are also traditions that some communities follow for women's observances on Rosh Chodesh.
After the reader announces the date of the new moon, the congregation repeats it after him and then recites the final prayer of Y'chadsheihu, and the reader chants it after them: “May the Holy One renew [this month] for us and all the people of Israel for life and peace, for joy and gladness, and for deliverance and consolation.” After each pair in the blessing the congregation says Amen. I follow the custom of the cantor in the congregation of my youth who always sang Y'chadsheihu to a melody associated with the holidays in that coming month. I don't have a melody for Cheshvan or Tammuz. So I sing a standard melody for them. However for Kislev and Tevet, months that Chanukah overlaps, I use Maoz Tzur (Rock of Ages). For Sh'vat, in honor of Tu Bishvat, the New Year of the Trees, I sing to the melody of Hashkediyah Porachat (The Almond Tree is Blossoming). For Adar, it's Shoshanat Yaakov for Purim, for Nisan, Adir Hu for Pesach, and for Iyar, Hatikvah for Israel's Independence day. When I get to Sivan, I've used an old song about bringing the firstfruits on Shavuot, “Saleinu al k'teifeinu” (Our baskets on our shoulders). Skipping Tammuz, this week for Av, I will use the melody of Eli Tziyon, a well-known elegy chanted on Tisha B'Av. Finally for Elul, I anticipate the arrival of the High Holidays by singing Y'chadsheihu to the melody for the evening service on Rosh Hashanah.
At a time like this we are indeed in need of God's blessings and look to the Almighty for relief and redemption from this current plague. We pray that the new month of Menachem Av will truly bring comfort to the world as we strive to meet the challenges we face during these challenging times.