On many calendars in America the lunar cycle is noted. This is strange because most people have no need to know when the moon is full or new. Who cares? However, to the Jews this information is vital since the Hebrew calendar is defined largely by the cycle of the moon. Each month of the Hebrew calendar is one lunar cycle. The beginning of each cycle is called “Rosh Chodesh,” the head of the month.
It is known in Kabbalah that there are twelve different spiritual influences that come down to earth during the year; each month has its own influence. For example, Tishrei, the first month of the calendar, comes in the fall and has an influence of judgment. Justice and accountability are in the air then, most notably on the first day of Tishrei, known as Rosh HaShana, or the Day of Judgment. And it’s not merely a coincidence that the astrological sign for this month is Libra, the scales of justice. Often the astrological sign hints to the spiritual influence.
It is not only in Tishrei that the first day is especially significant, although Rosh HaShana is the only major holiday on the first of the month. But in every month the first day brings down the influence from the spiritual realm for the rest of the month. This is part of the reason why Rosh Chodesh, the first day of each month, is considered a minor holiday with more intrinsic holiness than either Chanukah or Purim. It’s a monthly holiday that most Jews are oblivious to.
Rosh Chodesh also acts as an atonement for transgressions of the previous month. Therefore people use the day before Rosh Chodesh each month as an opportunity to introspect, soul search, and assess the spiritual path they are on. Some people fast, pray for forgiveness and put extra emphasis on repentance. This day is referred to as “Yom Kippur Katan,” the little Yom Kippur.
The day of Rosh Chodesh itself is celebrated by some people by dressing nicer and having a special meal. The traditional morning prayer service is longer, and includes a special reading from the Torah, a recitation of Psalms, and an additional meditation.
Women in particular often refrain from work on Rosh Chodesh. Our tradition states that the holiday of Rosh Chodesh was designated for women. The spiritual underpinnings of this designation go back to the sin of the Golden Calf. The women at that time refused to give their jewelry to be melted into the calf so the men took the jewelry by force. The idea behind the choice of a calf in particular to worship was that they wanted to tap into the power of the astrological sign of Taurus. The women wanted no part of this transgression and in the merit of clinging to God, and shunning the temptation to succumb to the astrological idolatry of the Calf, they were given the holiday of Rosh Chodesh. It would have made more sense to match up this twelve-month holiday with the twelve tribes, but tribal affiliation is associated with the men who showed a weakness toward astrology so they lost the designation of the holiday that has a connection to the astrological forces.
The small amount of time indicated in the Torah between the giving of the commandment to calculate the new moon and the sin of the golden calf highlights this connection. Rosh Chodesh was the first commandment the Jewish people received as a nation, and was given to them on their way out of Egypt. The importance of this holiday is also shown by the fact that it was one of the three laws of the Jews that the Greeks banned during the Second Temple period. What is it that makes this commandment unique?
In order to perform the mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh you have to calculate carefully the lunar cycle and match it up to the solar year. This required a very sophisticated understanding of astronomy. The calendar had to be flexible to keep the major holidays falling out in their appropriate seasons. At the time of the exile the sages fixed the calendar into the foreseeable future. As a sign of the expertise the sages had at that time, the Hebrew calendar, which is a luni-solar calendar, has never since needed to be adjusted. In contrast, the standard secular calendar, known as the Gregorian calendar, which only needs to follow the solar year, needed to be adjusted in the 1500’s because it was about two weeks off!
But even the astronomical expertise needed to perform the mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh is not its most monumental aspect. This mitzvah puts all the holidays with all the connected commandments, not to mention the spiritual influence we mentioned earlier, into the hands of man. It’s as if God said, “I want you to be a partner with me in defining the spiritual reality of time.”
God created time, and then gave man a part in carving out the importance of time. That is what we celebrate every month, our humble partnership with the Infinite Being.