By Cindy Mindell ~
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Riverdale, N.Y. She is also the director of Tel Shemesh, a website and community celebrating earth-based Jewish traditions, and the co-founder of Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute, a training program in women’s spiritual leadership. Hammer was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2001 and holds a PhD in social psychology from UConn. She is also the author of “The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons” (Jewish Publication Society, 2006) and “Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women” (Jewish Publication Society, 2001).
Hammer will be scholar-in-residence at Temple B’nai Abraham in Meriden over the weekend of Dec. 9, teaching on women in the Bible and Midrash. She spoke with the Ledger about the laws and traditions surrounding Rosh Chodesh and her work in Jewish women’s spirituality.
What is the significance in Judaism of Rosh Chodesh, the new moon?
A: The Jewish calendar is rooted in the cycles of the moon. Each month of the year is a lunar month, beginning on the new moon and ending when the moon is dark. Rosh Chodesh, the new moon, is celebrated as a minor holiday by all Jews with special prayers and Torah readings. Sometime during the first two weeks of the month, often at the end of the Sabbath, Jews recite a blessing over the moon in gratitude for having been given the cycles of time. In the last week of the month, on the morning of the Sabbath, Jews announce the name and date of the coming month both as a welcome and a reminder to the community. Some Jewish traditions refer to the last day of the month, the dark of the moon, as Yom Kippur Katan, a little day of atonement, and regard it as a day of fasting and penitence. Then the new moon of the next month begins. When the moon dies we contemplate our own mortality, and at the birth of the moon we celebrate our potential for rebirth.
In biblical times, Rosh Chodesh was a festival, and priests offered special celebratory sacrifices. Today, Rosh Chodesh remains a minor holiday for all traditional Jews, marked by the reciting of special Psalms and sections of the Torah.
What is the significance of Rosh Chodesh for women?
A: The connection between women and Rosh Chodesh is probably because of women’s monthly cycles: in societies without artificial light, women ovulate at the full moon and menstruate at the new moon, so the spiritual connection is very clear. According to both the Talmud and mystical tradition, the new moon is a time to celebrate the reappearance of the Shekhinah, the feminine Divine presence. This is one reason that, from Talmudic times, Jewish tradition has designated Rosh Chodesh as a special holiday for women. In the Middle Ages, Jewish women did not work on Rosh Chodesh. Instead, they held feasts, charity collections, and even gambling parties with one another – or, sometimes, they saved their laundry to do on Rosh Chodesh! Recently, Jewish feminists reclaimed the holiday and created women’s Rosh Chodesh circles with new rituals, Torah study, sharing on a monthly topic, and other practices.
The tradition offers three reasons for this. The one I like best goes as follows: when the Israelites in the wilderness gave their most beautiful materials for the making of the mishkan, the dwelling place of God’s presence, coming from the same word as Shekhinah, women donated more than men. The Torah says that “the men gathered upon the women,” implying that the women were more quick to come to give the Shekhinah their treasures. Therefore, women refrain from weaving, spinning, and sewing on Rosh Chodesh in honor of their generosity and zealousness.
Another midrash credits women with faith in the oneness of God. This legend comments on the story of the Golden Calf, when the Israelite nation made and worshipped a golden statue of a calf while Moses was receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai: The women heard about the making of the Golden Calf and refused to give their jewelry to their husbands. Instead, they said to them: “You want to construct an idol, a molten form which is an abomination? We won’t listen to you!” And the Holy One of Blessing rewarded them in this world that they would observe the new moons more than men, and in the next world they are destined to be renewed like the moon. This midrash suggests when the Israelites are afraid God had abandoned them, the women have faith that God’s presence will return.
The third story explaining the connection between women and the new moon is perhaps the most telling. According to the Talmud, the moon starts an argument because she and the sun are the same size. The moon said to God, “Sovereign of the Universe, can two kings share a single crown?’ God replied: “Go and make yourself smaller.” “Sovereign of the Universe,” she said to him, “because I made a proper claim before you, am I to make myself smaller?” He said to her, “Go, and you will rule over both the day and the night.” She said, “What good is a lamp in broad daylight?” He said, “Go! Israel shall use you to count the days and the years.” The moon went on complaining. On seeing that the moon would not be consoled, the Holy One of Blessing said, “Bring an atonement for me for making the moon smaller.” Hence the sin-offering of the new moon was offered in the Temple.
Rosh Hashanah, the new year and festival of the rebirth of the world, falls on the new moon. Like the new moon itself, Rosh Hashanah is a time of celebrating the Shekhinah’s presence among us and of beginning again.
Rabbi Jill Hammer will be scholar-in-residence from Dec. 9-11 at Temple B’nai Avraham in Meriden. For more information and a full program of events call (203) 235-2581 or visit www.meridentemple.org.