Drash on Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei (HaChodesh)
Rabbi Nicole Roberts
North Shore Temple Emanuel, NSW
This Shabbat is the last before the Hebrew month of Nisan begins and is known as Shabbat HaChodesh. On Shabbat HaChodesh, we read of an event that took place shortly before the Israelites departed Egypt and left servitude behind: God told Moses and Aaron: HaChodesh hazeh lachem rosh chodashim. Rishon hu lachem l’chodshei ha’shanah — “This month shall be for you the first of the months. It is the first of the months of the year for you” (Ex. 12:2). The word chodeshmeans month and is related to the word chadesh — “new.” Life was starting afresh for the Israelites, as they prepared to take their first steps toward freedom. Equipped with a calendar, their Jewish life could now begin, guided by the lunar rhythm, punctuated by each new moon.
However, the Israelites were not exactly given a calendar; they were only told which was the first day of the first month of the year—the first new moon. Then, they would have to do the math. Our tradition teaches that God gave humanity the responsibility to declare the official start of every new month that followed, which in turn would impact the dates on which the festivals were to be celebrated each month. No pressure!
At one point in Jewish history, taking this responsibility seriously meant that witnesses who had spotted the new moon—a sliver of a crescent in the sky—had to bring testimony to the Jewish court. Upon the testimony of two witnesses, word would then be disseminated from Jerusalem to the diaspora that Rosh Chodesh (the new moon/new month) had arrived. From hilltop to hilltop, fires would be ignited to spread the word far and wide, until one day – in an ancient form of malware – Rosh Chodesh hackers disrupted this technology, intentionally causing confusion by kindling fires on the wrong dates. Politics and ideology were at play in this deception, as other sects wished to control the Jewish calendar in accordance with their own calculations and understanding of scripture.
A new system of spreading the word was implemented: runners would carry word from city to city, but this could be a dangerous journey with traps and marauders along their way. Eventually, through astronomical calculations, the lunar cycle was better understood and a set calendar instituted. But the sages always viewed the ability to influence the religious life of the community through control of its calendar as a powerful delegation of Divine responsibility to humanity. Rosh Chodesh and its rituals were taken seriously by our forebears, and it all began with the verse, “This month shall be… the first of the months of the year for you.”
Rosh Chodesh—the start of each new Hebrew month—was important enough to the sages that in midrash (Pesikta Rabbati) they declared it equal in significance to Shabbat and the festivals. Tradition has us herald the soon arrival of each new month (except Tishrei) on the shabbat beforehand, with birkat ha’chodesh (blessing of the month), in which we express our hopes for peace, prosperity, success, and health. When the new month itself arrives, we recite birkat ha’levana (blessing of the new moon). Birkat ha’levana takes place outdoors with the moon in plain view, during its waxing phase (the first 14 days of the lunar month). Customs include waiting until motzaei shabbat (Saturday night) to recite it, waiting until the end of Yom Kippur in Tishrei, and waiting until after the ninth of the month during Av (Tisha b’Av).
When reciting birkat ha’levana, we take care not to bless the moon itself; rather, we bless God who created it and who instructs the moon to renew itself each month. Just as God delegated to humanity responsibility for the calendar, so God delegates to the moon the power of renewal. God does not micromanage creation, but empowers us, partnering with all creations, human and celestial, to make the world go ‘round.
For those feeling inspired to utter a blessing at the next new moon, the following words from Talmud were made for the occasion:
Praised are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who created the skies with Your word, and all heaven’s host with Your breath…You are the true Creator who acts faithfully, and has told the moon to renew herself. It is a beautiful crown for the people who were carried by God from birth and are destined to be renewed, that they might proclaim the beauty of their glorious and majestic Creator.