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What is Rosh Hodesh?

“And in your new moons you shall present a burnt offering to God: two young bullocks, and one ram, seven he-lambs of the first year without blemish” (Numbers 28: 11-15). “Also in the day of your gladness, and in your appointed seasons, and in your new moons, you shall blow with the trumpets over your burnt offerings; and they will be a memorial for you before your God. I am the Lord your God” (Numbers 6:6).

Rosh Hodesh, literally translated as “the head of the month,” is the celebration of each new month of the Hebrew calendar.  In the Babylonian Talmud (BT Hagigah 18a), Rosh Hodesh is mentioned as a holiday when one is allowed to perform work (unlike the Sabbath, for instance). However, elsewhere in the Talmud (BT Megillah 22b), Rosh Hodesh is cited as a holiday on which people did not work, and therefore could remain in the synagogue for a longer Torah reading service. The contradiction is resolved by the medieval talmudic commentators’ explanation that men were permitted to perform work on Rosh Hodesh, but women were not (see Rashi and Tosafot on BT Megillah 22b).

Rashi explains the tradition of women not working on Rosh Hodesh by attributing it to the following midrash (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer: 45):

At the time of the sin of the building of the Golden Calf in the desert, while the Jews were waiting for Moses to descend from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments, Aaron told the Israelite men to take the golden rings from the ears of their wives and children and bring them to him for the idol. The next verse tells us that the Israelites took the rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron.

The midrash (interpreting “Israelites” in the latter verse to mean the Israelite men) finds this problematic and resolves the conflict by explaining that the women refused to hand over their earrings toward the building of a powerless idol. Thus, the women were rewarded with the holiday of Rosh Hodesh-in this world, in that they alone do not perform work on the first day of the new month; in the world to come, in that they will in the future be renewed as is the new moon.

One possible explanation for the cryptic comment in the midrash about future renewal for women would connect it to another midrash (BT Hullin 60a):

When G-d created the sun and the moon, the two great lights, the moon said to the Holy One, “Sovereign of the Universe! Can two rulers wear one crown?” God answered: “Go then and make yourself smaller!”  Simeon ben Lakish declared, “Why is it that the he-goat offered on the New Moon [for a sin-offering] is distinctive in that there is written concerning it, ‘unto the Lord’?” Because the Holy One said, “Let this he-goat be atonement for Me [for My sin] in making the moon smaller.”

If one understands the moon to represent women and the sun to represent men, the connotation here is that women’s lesser social status is due to a “sin” that G-d is now atoning for.  This, coupled with the verse in Isaiah 30:26 prophesizing that in the world to come “the light of the moon shall become like the light of the sun,” hints at a future time when women will be considered equal to men.

In the Jerusalem Talmud (Ta`anit 1:6), the tradition of women not performing work on Rosh Hodesh is listed as an authentic tradition. The Mishneh B’rurah (no. 417) quotes the Jerusalem Talmud and, like Rashi, attributes this tradition to the women not having participated in the sin of the Golden Calf.

The Shulkhan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, the Laws of Rosh Hodesh, Section 1, says that one is permitted to perform work on Rosh Hodesh, but that there is a “good” tradition for women not to do so.

Today, there are still women who do not work on Rosh Hodesh, particularly when it comes to household chores, such as laundry and cleaning. However, the most popular way in which women have reclaimed this women’s holiday in our time is by forming Rosh Hodesh groups. In these groups women celebrate together, whether through prayer, ritual, study, or discussion of relevant topics.

Because of these traditions, Women Of the Wall chose Rosh Hodesh as the day to gather as a women’s prayer group and celebrate, through prayer at the Wall and reading the special portion for Rosh Hodesh from the Torah scroll.  Women Of the Wall is proud to be part of the process of women reclaiming traditional practices and reshaping them in a way that expresses their own spirituality.