HMS 5764-4; Rosh Hodesh and Heshvan

Lessons in Memory of my brother Dale Alan Konigsburg

October 20, 2003

Number 5764-4 Rosh Hodesh and Heshvan

From ancient times, Judaism has functioned on a Lunar Calendar. Many of our holidays and holy days begin during one phase of the moon or another. Pesach and Sukkot are always on the full moon, Rosh Hashana on the New moon. Ten days after the new moon of Tishre, comes Yom Kippur. Everything is determined by the phases of the moon. It should be no surprise that the new moon, when the moon first appears in the sky after disappearing from the sky just a few days before, marks the beginning of the month. It was not a formal holiday, but a festive day none the less. There is a custom that the beginning of the month, called Rosh Hodesh, should be a special holiday for women. This is in honor of their internal monthly cycle and because of their special merit for not joining the men in the desert who worshiped the golden calf.
The celebrations of Rosh Hodesh as a special day for everyone, comes, I think, from the way the month was declared in ancient times. The calculations of the calendar were well know to the sages in Ancient Israel, but they still preferred to have testimony that the new moon had indeed appeared in the sky. People would sit out on the hillsides looking for the first sight of the moon, then they would run to the court in Jerusalem to testify that they had indeed seen the new moon. They would be carefully cross examined, shown a variety of pictures of the moon to make sure they were not mistaken. And if two witnesses agreed that the new moon had appeared, the Sages would declare the new month and start the count to the next holiday. They would also interrogate witnesses who appeared later, not because they needed them, but because they did not want them to give up coming to the court thinking that it was already too late.
The problem is that the moon takes about 29 ½ days to circle the earth. You can’t have a half day so some months have to have 29 days, and some have 30. The pattern is to alternate 29 and 30 day months. There is some variation and adjustments that do need to be made from time to time to prevent Yom Kippur from falling on a Friday or a Sunday (when fasting would be too difficult) and to keep Hoshana Rabba off of Shabbat (when it would be forbidden to beat the willow branches). Since alternating 29 and 30 day months leaves a deficits of 11 days a year, The Jewish calendar corrects this by adding a 13th month seven times during a 19 year cycle. The entire calendar today is determined by mathematical calculations and not by personal observance. We can predict to the day when a holiday (or a parsha for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah) will occur, with all the adjustments already made.
Since there were special sacrifices offered in the great Temple of Jerusalem, we recite a speical Musaf service for Rosh Hodesh. We also do an abbreviated version of Hallel in the morning service. The months of a Jewish Year are Tishrei, Heshvan, Kislev, Tevet, Shevat, Adar (and Adar II in Leap Years), Nisan, Iyar, Sivan, Tammuz, Av and Elul. There are actually four new years in Judaism. The first of Elul is the new year for taxes, Tishrei marks the creation of the world, Nisan is the month of our liberation from Egypt and of the Spring rebirth and Shevat 15, the full moon of Shevat) is the new year for Trees.
Heshvan, the month that will soon begin comes after a full compliment of holidays in Tishrei. It is the only month with no special prayers or holidays. Because it is so plain, it is given the title, MarHeshvan, (Mr. Heshvan) as a special mark of blessing from G-d.

Next week: Shabbat

Mailbox: In last weeks edition of HMS I noted: “Yizkor, the memorial service, is the main ritual of Shemini Atzeret” Cantor Linda Shivers in Portland OR reminded me that this is not quite true. The mail ritual of Shemini Atzeret is Geshem, the prayer for rain. It would not be wise to pray for rain when we are still living in our Sukkot, so as soon as Sukkot is over, we recite Geshem, a piyyut that serves as the beginning of a prayer for rain that will begin with the Musaf and continue until Pesach. The prayer is for rain in Israel so we don’t need to bring an umbrella to synagogue with us. Geshem is also a prayer for the “blessing of rain” the actual prayer for rain is added to the Amidah in the diaspora beginning on Dec. 4 or 5, but that is another lesson for another day. Thank you Cantor Shivers for your important reminder.

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