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Moonbeams: A Hadassah Rosh Hodesh Guide

Moonbeams: A Hadassah Rosh Hodesh Guide

by Carol Diament (Editor)

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This hands-on "idea book" focuses on Rosh Hodesh, the festival of the new moon, as a source of spiritual growth for Jewish women. A complete sourcebook which will initiate or rejuvenate women's study groups, it is also perfect for women preparing for bat mitzvah, those seeking to expand their Jewish education, or for anyone interested in learning more about Rosh


This hands-on "idea book" focuses on Rosh Hodesh, the festival of the new moon, as a source of spiritual growth for Jewish women. A complete sourcebook which will initiate or rejuvenate women's study groups, it is also perfect for women preparing for bat mitzvah, those seeking to expand their Jewish education, or for anyone interested in learning more about Rosh Hodesh observance and what it has to offer. Set up to guide readers through nine months of study and contemplation during each new moon, it can be used for spiritual exploring on your own, or as a group workbook. The study texts, discussion questions, outline of a Rosh Hodesh service, Bible readings, poetry, suggested readings, and more combine to offer readers a bounty of information for learning about and incorporating this inspiring part of Judaism into their lives. Selected Contents: • The History and Observance of Rosh Hodesh • Kippah, Tallit, and Tefillin • Claiming a Jewish Feminist Heritage • Ba'a lot Teshuvah • Women and Israeli Law • Women Rabbis

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Rosh Hodesh, the celebration of the new moon, has been reinvigorated as a women's holiday in Judaism. For contemporary women who gather together for monthly prayer and spirituality, Diament's practical guide offers a specific nine-month course of study. The topics for each month--many tying in to the holidays that fall during that month--cover an engrossing range of subjects: Jewish prayer garments, modesty, Jewish self-hatred, medical ethics, feminism, women and Israeli law, women rabbis and ba'alot teshuvah (women who "return" to Orthodox Judaism). Diament, national education director of Hadassah, the international women's Zionist organization, acknowledges that some of these issues carry more urgency among Orthodox women than among the book's intended non-Orthodox audience, but, she asserts, "many Jews view Orthodoxy as a world apart," and "it is important... to gain access to that world and better understand it." That, she concludes, will help readers acquire insight into their own Jewish practice and thought. Each section begins with a personal essay, followed by a multidimensional selection of texts from classic to contemporary, then questions and activities. Although this handbook is geared to groups that affiliate with Hadassah, it can provide direction for women's study groups of all kinds. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
This is an innovative guide to Jewish experience and practice for women, using the festival of the new moon as a springboard. Editor Diament, National Jewish Education director at Hadassah, has prepared an excellent volume of texts, discussion questions, services, and readings for women preparing for bat mitzvah or renewing their engagement with their Jewishness. The choice of readings is excellent, and the work is notable for centering its observations in ritual, which is crucial to the understanding of the Jewish tradition. For most collections where there is a strong interest in Judaism or feminism. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

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Turner Publishing Company
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The History and Observance
of Rosh Hodesh

I am sitting in synagogue on a Shabbat morning, in part savoring the peaceful pause from a hectic week, in part worrying that I don't have enough cholent to serve everyone at lunch. The people sitting nearby are whispering in quiet conversation, keeping an eye out to make sure that the rabbi doesn't notice them. The Torah and Haftarah readings are over and we have just recited the Aramaic transitional prayer Yekum Purkan. I am looking forward to the next few minutes, when we will return the Torah to the ark and meditatively recite the silent Amidah of the musaf service. But wait! Why isn't the cantor launching into the singsong Ashrei? What is going on? All of a sudden the realization hits: Rosh Hodesh, the mini-festival that marks each month's new moon, is coming up this week. That means that we recite an additional prayer today: Birkat HaHodesh.

    Rosh Hodesh is a symbol of renewal. At the end of its monthly cycle, the moon becomes visually obliterated, only to re-appear as a tiny, luminous sliver of light as it commences a fresh, new cycle. Likewise, we have the opportunity to take stock of our lives and revise our behavior, our commitments, our goals. We, too, have the power to start over.

    Everyone rises; a hushed silence pervades the air. The cantor holds the Torah scroll for all to see. With pomp and fanfare, the cantor declares that a new moon will be "born" at the moment when the moon is hidden between the sun and the earth. (Six hours after themolad, the moon's birth, a crescent of light will reflect off of the moon, making it visible.) The cantor informs the congregation whether this Rosh Hodesh will last for one day or two. (When the preceding month is 30 days, Rosh Hodesh is observed for two days; and when the preceding month is 29 days, Rosh Hodesh is observed for one day.) The cantor is quite specific about the time of the molad, down to the exact heilek (part of a minute). (The lunar cycle is 29 days, 12 hours, and 793 halakim, and each heilek is equal to 3 and 1/3 seconds; so an entire lunar cycle is equal to 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, and 3 1/3 seconds). The cantor concludes the prayer by requesting that God bless the new month and grant the people of Israel life and peace, joy and gladness, deliverance and consolation. Everyone in the congregation responds, "Amen." Only then do we begin the melodious Ashrei.

    Birkat HaHodesh is the modern commemoration of the new moon. Today, though, as feminist Judaic scholar Blu Greenberg points out, if you "randomly ask one hundred Jews about this special day that comes eleven times a year, ninety of them will offer a blank stare. There are far more Jewish bird-watchers than there are moon-watchers." But in ancient times, before the Jewish lunar calendar was fixed, the sighting of the new moon was cause for grand festivity alongside grave seriousness. Since every Jewish community was obligated to observe holidays at the same time, all Jewish communities needed to agree on dates, and dates were determined based on the sighting of the new moon.

    During the Second Temple period, the new month began when at least two reputable witnesses observed the first sliver of moon. The witnesses were called before the beit din, the rabbinic court in Jerusalem, and the judges called each witness separately to testify about the precise location and appearance of the moon. If both gave identical testimony, the beit din declared the arrival of Rosh Hodesh. Then sacrifices were offered and incense was burnt. Special prayers were chanted, the shofar was blown, and a celebratory meal was eaten. The news of the moon's appearance was communicated to Jewish communities throughout Israel and the diaspora by setting fires on the hilltops of Jerusalem, with each Jewish community that observed those fires then lighting its own fires to alert neighboring communities. Toward the end of the Second Temple period, the beit din instead sent messengers to outlying towns and villages to alert them of the appearance of the moon, because the Samaritans had begun to deliberately set fires at incorrect times in order to mislead the Jews. By the middle of the fourth century, the rabbis had established a fixed calendar, and the examination before the beit din and the sending of messengers to publicly proclaim the new moon was discontinued.

    Today we enjoy no festive meal nor do we blow the shofar on Rosh Hodesh. We do, however, continue to celebrate Rosh Hodesh with prayer. Besides reciting Birkat HaHodesh on the preceding Saturday, we recite a special musaf service on Rosh Hodesh itself. In addition, the Kiddush Levanah (sanctification of the moon) ceremony takes place outdoors on a clear night soon after Rosh Hodesh (usually on the first Saturday night that follows). We observe the new moon festival eleven times a year; we don't celebrate Rosh Hodesh for the month of Tishrei, which coincides with Rosh Hashanah, since the new year celebration incorporates the new month.

    God first commanded us to observe the new moon just as we were ready to flee from the enslavement of Egypt. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the nineteenth-century German scholar, noted that since we would soon be liberated from slavery, we could appreciate the moon's emergence from darkness to light. Through the moon's renewal, God is telling the people of Israel: "This is to be the model for your own conduct! Even as the moon renews itself by the law of nature, so you, too, should renew yourselves, but of your own free will." God also commanded us to count the months, so that we could always calculate the amount of time that our people have been free.

    Rosh Hodesh has long been considered a special holiday for women. There are a number of reasons. First, according to legend, the holiday was a reward given to the women of Israel because they refused to surrender their jewelry for the creation of the golden calf. Because of their righteousness, the women were exonerated from working on Rosh Hodesh. Second, many people have pointed out that the menstrual cycle is similar to the monthly cycle of the moon. (The English word "menstruation" derives from the Latin word for "monthly.") Third, Penina Adelman, author of the first modern Rosh Hodesh ritual guide for women, points out that the words Roshei HodshiM, heads of the months, contain the same letters that form the word ReHeM, womb.

    Fourth, the status of the moon has often been compared to the status of women. The Talmud recounts a legend that the moon and the sun were originally of equal size and brightness, but the moon asked how two could rule equally; God responded by making the moon smaller. In ancient texts, woman likewise has a lesser status and is subservient to man. Furthermore, the Zohar, the authoritative work of the mystical tradition, frequently likens the moon to the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, which mystics consider the feminine aspect of God. Only when the world is redeemed will the Shekhinah reunite with the masculine aspect, the Kadosh Barukh Hu, the Holy One Blessed is He, and only then will the moon's light intensify.

    Rosh Hodesh has long been sacred to women. From the sixteenth to the early twentieth century, the women of Eastern Europe wrote special Rosh Hodesh tekhines—personal prayers in the Yiddish vernacular. Over the past three decades, Rosh Hodesh observance has been revived by religious feminists. The book Miriam's Well: Rituals for Jewish Women Around the Year by Penina Adelman, first published in 1986, presented the experiences of one of the first women's Rosh Hodesh groups, and provided a template for creative Rosh Hodesh rituals. Adelman describes, for example, an "anointing ritual ... which invokes the messiah in each individual"; creating a small model of the gallows so that participants can hang "the Hamans of women's lives—sexual harassment, low pay, the beauty industry"; and "group wailing" to recall the wailing women in the Book of Jeremiah. In addition to feminist groups focusing on personal spiritual growth, like those that began in the seventies, a wide variety of Jewish women—feminist and non-feminist—now meet to celebrate Rosh Hodesh. Some groups are sponsored by synagogues, others by non-denominational organizations, and a few meet independently. Activities range from reciting the traditional liturgy and sharing a meal to discussing Jewish ethics and working for social change. Some groups, like those following Hadassah's Moonbeams guide, set aside Rosh Hodesh for Jewish study.

by Leora Tanenbaum


Genesis 1:14-18

    In the first Book of the Bible we read of the creation of the moon.

    God said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate day from night; they shall serve as signs for the set times—the days and the years; and they shall serve as lights in the expanse of the sky to shine upon the earth." And it was so. God made the two great lights, the greater light to dominate the day and the lesser light to dominate the night, and the stars. And God set them in the expanse of the sky to shine upon the earth, to dominate the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that this was good.

Exodus 12:1-2

    Immediately prior to the exodus from Egypt, God commands the Israelites to mark the months of the year.

    The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.

Numbers 10:10

    The Book of Numbers briefly describes the celebration of Rosh Hodesh.

    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.

Numbers 28:11-15

    This passage from the Book of Numbers is chanted during the traditional synagogue morning service each Rosh Hodesh.

    On your new moons you shall present a burnt offering to the Lord: two bulls of the herd, one ram, and seven yearling lambs, without blemish. As meal offering for each bull: three-tenths of a measure of choice flour with oil mixed in. As meal offering for each ram: two-tenths of a measure of choice flour with oil mixed in. As meal offering for each lamb: a tenth of a measure of fine flour with oil mixed in. Such shall be the burnt offering of pleasing odor, an offering by fire to the Lord. Their libations shall be: half a hin of wine for a bull, a third of a hin for a ram, and a quarter of a hin for a lamb. That shall be the monthly burnt offering for each new moon of the year. And there shall be one goat as a sin offering to the Lord, to be offered in addition to the regular burnt offering and its libation.

Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 2.2-4

    The Mishnah describes how torches were lit to provide notification of the sighting of the new moon.

    Originally they used to light beacons (to convey the news of the new moon to the Jews in the diaspora of Babylonia). When the Cutheans (Samaritans) adopted evil courses (and lit beacons on the thirtieth day, so as to mislead the Jews in Babylonia), they made a rule that messengers should go forth. How did they light the beacons? They used to bring long poles of cedar and reeds and olive wood and flax fluff which they tied to the poles with a string, and someone used to go up to the top of a mountain and set fire to them and wave them to and fro and up and down until he saw the next one doing the same thing on the top of the second mountain; and so on the top of the third mountain. Whence did they carry the chain of beacons? From the mount of Olives in Jerusalem to Sartaba, and from Sartaba to Grofina, and from Grofina to Hauran, and from Hauran to Beth Baltin. The one on Beth Baltin did not budge from there but went on waving to and fro and up and down until he saw the whole of the diaspora (the district of Pumbedita in Babylonia) before him like one bonfire. (On seeing the beacon fire, the inhabitants used to light torches.)

Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 42a

    The Talmud associates Rosh Hodesh observance with the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence.

    Rabbi Aha ben Hanina also said in the name of Rabbi Assi in Rabbi Yohanan's name: Whoever pronounces the benediction over the new moon in its due time welcomes, as it were, the presence of the Shekhinah. For one passage states, "This month" (Exodus 12:2) while elsewhere it is said, "This is my God, and I will glorify Him" (Exodus 15:2). ["This" here connotes something that could be pointed at with one's finger, and the use of "this" in the two verses suggests that the one who praises God at the periodic renewal of the moon, gives witness to the revelation of divine glory as manifested in natural phenomena.]

Babylonian Talmud, Hullin 60b

    The Talmud recounts a legend of the moon becoming smaller than the sun.

    Rabbi Shimon ben Pazzi pointed out a contradiction [in the account of the creation of the sun and moon]. One verse says, "God made the two great lights" (Genesis 1:16), and immediately the verse continues, "The greater light ... and the lesser light." The moon said unto the Holy One, blessed be He, "Sovereign of the Universe! Is it possible for two kings to wear one crown?" He answered, "Go then and make yourself smaller." "Sovereign of the Universe!" cried the moon. "Because I have suggested that which is proper must I then make myself smaller?" He replied, "Go and you will rule by day and by night." "But what is the value of this?" cried the moon. "Of what use is a lamp in broad daylight?" He replied, "Go. By you, Israel shall reckon the days and the years." "But it is impossible," said the moon, "to do without the sun for the reckoning of the seasons, as it is written, 'They shall serve as signs for the set times—the days and the years' (Genesis 1:14)." "Go. The righteous shall be named after you [righteous people shall be named "the Small" after the moon, which had become the small light] as we find, Jacob the Small, Samuel the Small, David the Small. On seeing that it would not be consoled, the Holy One, Blessed be He, said, "Bring an atonement for Me making the moon smaller." This is what was meant by Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish when he declared, "Why is it that the male goat offered on the new moon is distinguished in that there is written concerning it 'unto the Lord' (Numbers 28:15)? Because the Holy One, Blessed be He, said, 'Let this male goat be an atonement for Me for making the moon smaller.'"

Midrash, Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer 45 (circa 750)

    Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer recounts legends from the time of Creation until the wanderings of the children of Israel in the desert.

    The women heard about the construction of the golden calf and refused to submit their jewelry to their husbands. Instead they said to them: "You want to construct an idol and mask which is an abomination, and has no power of redemption? We won't listen to you." And the Holy One, Blessed be He, rewarded them in this world in that they would observe the new moons more than men, and in the next world in that they are destined to be renewed like the new moons.

Midrash, Exodus Rabbah 15:6 (900-1000)

    Exodus Rabbah is an exegetical and homiletic work on the Book of Exodus compiled in the years 900-1000, including material from much earlier periods.

    You find that if the moon does not appear in the sky at night, the world is so dark that a man cannot walk about even within the city, but as soon as the moon appears in the sky, all rejoice and walk about. So it was in the days of Ahasuerus who decreed that Israel should be destroyed, slain, and made to perish; but Esther came and brought light to Israel, for it says, "The Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honor" (Esther 8:16).... Should you inquire why Esther is compared to the moon, the answer is that just as the moon renews itself every thirty days, so did Esther say, "But I have not been called to come in unto the king these thirty days" (Esther 4:11).

Midrash, Exodus Rabbah 15:9 (900-1000)

    The rabbis of Exodus Rabbah comment on the commandment in Exodus 12:2 to mark the months.

    We may illustrate by the parable of a king unto whom a son was born, whereupon he made a joyful celebration; but the son was taken captive and spent a long time in captivity. On his release, the king fixed an anniversary. So, too, prior to Israel's descent into Egypt, they counted by years; but after they had gone down to Egypt and become enslaved there, God performed miracles for them, and they were redeemed; and then did they begin to count the months, as it says, "This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months" (Exodus 12:2).

Rashi (1040-1105) on Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 22b

    Rashi, Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of France, is the foremost commentator on the Bible and on the Talmud. Here he discusses a passage from the Talmud about the public reading of the Torah on weekdays, holidays, and new moons.

    "New months." There is no absolute prohibition against work, yet women do not perform work on those days.... I learned from my aged teacher, may his memory be for a blessing, that this commandment was given to them [women] because they did not submit their jewelry for the golden calf.

Tosafot on Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 22b (12th to 14th centuries)

    The Tosafot (literally additions) are commentaries to the Talmud, as well as commentaries to Rashi's Talmud commentaries, written in medieval France and Germany. In commenting on Rashi's notes on Megillah 22b, the Tosafists (authors of the Tosafot) repeat the passage on women and the new month from Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, chapter 45. In commenting on the Talmud passage about the public reading of the Torah, the Tosafists use even stronger language than Rashi on women's observance of Rosh Hodesh.

    "And when there was no prohibition against work as on new months, four read." ... There is no requirement that we celebrate. It is said that on Rosh Hodesh an additional sacrifice is required, yet performing work is permitted.... It is permitted that men work, but women are forbidden to work because they did not submit their jewelry in the making of the golden calf.

Zohar Bereishit, pages 19b-20a (circa 1300)

    The Zohar, the Book of Splendor, is the central work of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. The main portion of the Zohar is a symbolic interpretation of the Five Books of Moses. To non-initiates much of the Zohar is obscure, as the great scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem observes, "It is hardly possible at first contact with the world of kabbalistic symbolism to escape a sense of bewilderment." The Zohar gives each word of Torah layers of meaning above and beyond the literal meaning, thereby enriching and deepening Jewish religious dedication. The Zohar attempts to penetrate the nature of God through a complex system of correspondences between the created world and the divine.

    In addition to esoteric knowledge that enables the Jew to spiritually perceive the nature of God, the Zohar includes material from earlier legends, allegories, and homilies. The selections below discuss the female demons Lilith and Naamah, and their connection with the new moon.

    "God said, 'Let there be lights'" (Genesis 1:14). The word for "lights" (meorot) is written defectively, as if curses (me'erot), for the reason that the children's disease, croup, was through them created. For after the primordial light was withdrawn there was created a "membrane for the marrow," a klifah, and this klifah expanded and produced another. As soon as this second one came forth she went up and down till she reached the "little faces" [the cherubim residing in Heaven]. She desired to cleave to them and to be shaped as one of them, and was loath to depart from them. But the Holy One, Blessed be He, removed her from them and made her go below. When He created Adam and gave him a partner, as soon as she saw Eve clinging to his side and was reminded by his form of the supernal beauty, she flew up from thence and tried as before to attach herself to the "little faces." The supernal guardians of the gates, however, did not permit her. The Holy One, Blessed be He, chid her and cast her into the depths of the sea, where she abode until the time that Adam and his wife sinned. Then the Holy One, Blessed be He, brought her out from the depth of the sea and gave her power over all those children, the "little faces" of the sons of men, who are liable to punishment for the sins of their fathers. She then wandered up and down the world. She approached the gates of the terrestrial paradise, where she saw the cherubim, the guardians of the gates of Paradise, and sat down near the flashing sword, to which she was akin in origin. When she saw the flashing sword revolving, she fled and wandered about the world and, finding children liable to punishment, she maltreated and killed them. All this is on account of the action of the moon in diminishing her light. When Cain was born this klifah tried for a time without success to attach herself to him, but at length she had intercourse with him and bore spirits and demons. Adam for a hundred and thirty years had intercourse with female spirits until Naamah was born. She by her beauty led astray the "sons of God," Uzza and Azael, and she bore them children, and so from her went forth evil spirits and demons into the world. She wanders about at nighttime, vexing the sons of men and causing them to defile themselves. Wherever these spirits find people sleeping alone in a house, they hover over them, lay hold of them and cleave to them, inspire desire in them and beget from them. They further inflict diseases on them without their being aware—all this through the diminution of the moon. When the moon was restored, the letters of meorot (lights) were reversed to form imrat (word), as it is written, "the word (imrat) of the Lord is pure, He is a shield to all who seek refuge in Him" (Psalms 18:31). That means, He is a shield against all those evil spirits and demons that wander about the world at the waning of the moon, unto those who hold fast to their faith in the Holy One, Blessed be He....

    When the moon was in connection with the sun, she was luminous, but as soon as she separated from the sun and was assigned the charge of her own hosts, she reduced her status and her light.

    "God made the two great lights" (Genesis 1:16). The word "made" signifies the due expansion and establishment of the whole. The words "the two great lights" show that at first they were associated as equals, symbolizing the full name Tetragrammaton Elohim.... The word "great" shows that at their creation they were dignified with the same name [and] ascended together with the same dignity. The moon, however, was not at ease with the sun, and in fact each felt mortified by the other. The moon said, "Where do you pasture your sheep?" (Song of Songs 1:7). The sun said, "Where do you rest them at noon? (Song of Songs 1:7) How can a little candle shine at midday?" God thereupon said to her, "Go and diminish yourself." She felt humiliated and said, "Let me not be as one who veils herself" (Song of Songs 1:7). God then said "Go follow the tracks of the sheep" (Song of Songs 1:8). Thereupon she diminished herself so as to be head of the lower ranks. From that time she has had no light of her own, but derives her light from the sun. At first they were on an equality, but afterwards she diminished herself among all those grades of hers, although she is still head of them; for a woman enjoys no honor save in conjunction with her husband. The "great light" corresponds to Tetragrammaton, and the "lesser light" to Elohim, which is the last of the degrees and the close of the Thought....

    It is fit and proper that two lights should rule, the greater light by day and the lesser light by night. The lesson we derive is that the male rules by day to regulate his household and to bring food and sustenance into it. When night arrives, the female takes command, and she rules the house, as it is written, "She rises while it is still night and supplies provisions for her household" (Proverbs 31:15)—she and not he. Thus the dominion of the day belongs to the male and the dominion of the night to the female. Further it is written, "and the stars" (Genesis 1:16). As soon as the wife has given her orders and retired with her husband, the direction of the house is left to the maidens, who remain in the house to look after all its requirements. Then when day comes the man again duly takes command.


Meet the Author

Carol Diament, PhD is National Jewish Education Director at Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America.

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