Why New Moons Matter

This is quite a holiday weekend. Americans everywhere look forward to July 4th, with its barbecues and fireworks, picnics and parades. Not to be outdone, our neighbors to the north celebrate Canada Day about the same time (“1867, July ONE, Canada became a do-min-ION”). And we Jews? We keep our respective national holidays (July 1 or July 4), but squeezed between the two mega- days of national consciousness for Canada and the United States is a specifically Jewish holiday as well: Rosh Chodesh: the new moon, the first day of the month — in this case, the month of Tammuz.

Americans do not celebrate new months; they dread them, as the day that rent and mortgage payments are due. Months are arbitrary, corresponding to nothing astronomical. We once had only ten of them; two more (July and August) were added by Julius and Augustus Caesar. Jews, by contrast, regard months as having significance. Our year is solar, but our months adhere to the waxing and waning of the moon. Holidays often fall on moon days: the new moon (Rosh Hashanah) or the full moon (Passover, Purim, and Sukkot).

Nowadays, the new moon is marked mostly just by relatively arcane liturgical customs that are noticed only by regular synagogue goers. But Jews in antiquity took the new moon seriously. According to the Yerushalmi, women observed it as a holiday. Ex post facto, the Rabbis judged it “acceptable” and gave it a midrashic rationale — but I doubt the women cared. The moon appealed to them as a natural symbol for their own monthly cycles. According to the Mishnah, they also danced on the full moon of Av, and “spun yarn by moonlight.” I suspect they were doing more than spinning yarn. This was probably part of a larger set of women’s rituals that the Rabbis knew about but neither investigated nor controlled. It was what women did: outside their purview.

It wasn’t just women who celebrated new moons, however. In medieval Erets Yisra’el, Jews marked them with a full Kiddush, the prayer we say to inaugurate Shabbat and holidays (like Pesach and Rosh Hashanah). The new moon Kiddush dropped out of use by the time of the Crusades, but we still have its wording, which is worth looking at for what it teaches us about Jewish values. It praises God for revealing the “secret of the moon’s renewal,” for “appointing people of wisdom who can determine the times of the new moons and holy days,” and for “calculating the tiniest divisions of time” that produce the calendar.

Astronomy was considered the queen of the sciences back then. What we have here, therefore, is a holiday thanking God for running the universe according to the natural laws of science, and then giving us scientists to figure out what those laws are.

What a spectacular idea – not at all like the usual holiday fare. Both American Independence Day and Canada Day celebrate the establishment of national entities. Each of them celebrates national freedom – secular parallels to Passover and Chanukah, or to the French Bastille Day, for that matter. Other holidays that turn up everywhere recall tragedy: Yom Hashoah for Jews, 9/11 (still in the making) for America. Sometimes we memorialize our war dead: Remembrance Day in Canada, Memorial Day in the States, Yom Hazikaron in Israel. Thanksgiving for food and well-being is common also: Sukkot and Shavuot come quickly to mind – and Thanksgiving Day itself, of course. Religions also mark our relationship to God: for Jews, the High Holidays, and the month of Elul leading up to it; for Christians, it is Lent, which culminates in Easter.

But science? What religion stops regularly to thank God for the laws of the universe? Where else do you find a religious culture dedicated to the awe one feels when contemplating the “starry sky above,” that philosopher Immanuel Kant saw as the ultimate source of spirituality? It is no accident that so many rabbis over the years have been scientists as well; or that so many Jewish scientists have found no conflict between their science and their Judaism.

I come from Canada, originally. I might phone home this year to wish my relatives a good Canada Day. I will certainly be out myself celebrating July 4. But I will not lose sight of Rosh Chodesh, squeezed innocently away between the two. Blessed is God who designed a universe replete with mathematical beauty; blessed is God who gave us minds to calculate the equations by which it works; blessed is God who revels in our mastery of scientific secrets.

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2 responses to “Why New Moons Matter

  1. Larry,
    Let’s hear it for full moon, too–especially the one that will appear in a few days. Tu b’Av is not given the recognition in North America that it should receive. And you omitted it from your list of full moon holidays.
    But Tu b’Av, the last holiday of the year, is a holiday of love, and the world clearly needs more love.
    Best wishes,
    Roger

    • Roger,
      I am sorry to be getting to this so late, but I am still learning the ropes of blogging, and somehow forgot to check for comments. It was good to see yours. Yes, I did omit Tu B’Av, because it is not an official holiday of the rabbis, but a custom of the people. The rabbis mention it once — in the Mishnah, I believe — because they do not oppose it, even though they do not advocate it either. Jews back then, as now, kept a variety of customs that had only semi-official status. This one seems to have been a holiday not so much of love, as what we would call, loosely, “lust” — that is, it was a kind of Sadie Hawkins Day, where women attracted men with a show of sexuality. The rabbis describe the event, but are careful to add that the women recited biblical verses to inform their would be suitors that they should look beyond physical beauty alone. One suspects that this is a rabbinic gloss on what was a less
      are spiritualized display of sexual attraction then the rabbis would have wanted. In any event, I by no means minimize it, and prefer a physical display of attraction to a physical display of repulsion.

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