The Status of Rosh Chodesh in the Torah
The Torah lists Rosh Chodesh together with all the other holidays on which we offer additional sacrifices (Musafim) in honor of the day’s sanctity. Our Sages derive from a verse in Eichah (1:15) that Rosh Chodesh is also called mo’ed (an appointed time) like all the other holidays. In Temple times, they used to blow trumpets on Rosh Chodesh, as written in the Torah:
“On the day of your gladness, and on your appointed times, and on the beginnings of your months, you shall sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and over the sacrifices of your peace offerings” (Numbers,10:10).
Due to the sanctity of Rosh Chodesh, a custom developed to go out and greet one’s rabbi, similar to the custom on the Sabbath of saying “Shabbat Shalom” to him. There is also a custom to prepare festive meals on Rosh Chodesh.
A wonderful expression is used by the Torah when describing the goat that was sacrificed on Rosh Chodesh, calling it “a sin offering for the Lord” (Numbers, 28:15). The Talmud (Chulin 60b) explains that in the beginning, God created two great luminaries in the sky, the sun and the moon. The moon, however, made a claim to the Master of the World:
“How can two kings share the same crown?”
hoping that God would diminish the sun so that it, the moon, could reign supreme. God, however, said to the moon:
“Go and reduce yourself.”
The moon replied:
“Because I made a justified claim before You, I have to reduce myself?”
God consoled the moon by saying that the Jews would reckon the months according to its cycle, and that the righteous would be called by its name. But the moon was not consoled, so the Holy One Blessed Be He said:
“Bring atonement for Me, for I diminished the moon.” This is what is written:
“And one kid of the goats for a sin offering for the Lord.”
This passage contains a very profound concept. On a simple level, the reduction of the moon symbolizes the deficiencies existing in creation, including the descent the soul undergoes upon arrival to this world, and all the failures that man experiences during his lifetime. All these failures and deficiencies are prerequisites for subsequent growth, because ultimately, coping with hardships helps one reach higher heights, as Rabbi Abahu said in the Talmud:
“The purely righteous cannot stand where penitents stand” (Berachot 34b).
For the time being, however, people commit sins which cause great pain in the world. Therefore, in order to relieve the pain and repair the flaws, God commanded us to sacrifice a goat as a sin offering. This is the purpose of Rosh Chodesh, to show us how a new beginning sprouts from the moon’s reduction, which happened as a result of sin and accusation. Therefore, Rosh Chodesh is a good time for repentance, new beginnings, and profound joy. However, until the world is redeemed from all its deficiencies, the joy of Rosh Chodesh is not completely revealed.
The Meaning behind the Blessing of the Moon
In the ‘Blessing of the Moon’ (Birkat HaLevanah), we thank God for creating the moon, and for the benefit we receive from its light. Many attach special honor to this blessing, because it alludes to deep concepts concerning the Jewish people. We will explain some of these ideas:
Of all the heavenly bodies, the moon is most similar to us. Just as a person’s life is filled with ups and downs, so too, the moon waxes and wanes. In the middle of the month, it appears full, but as it nears the end of the month it dwindles and disappears. And just as Adam paid dearly for giving in to his pride and desires when he ate from the Tree of Knowledge , so too, the moon was not satisfied with being originally the same size as the sun, wanting instead to rule over it. As punishment for the moon’s arrogance, God reduced its light and created the lunar cycle in which its light decreases every month, eventually disappearing from the sky. However, unlike man, who diminishes and eventually dies, the moon is part of the heavenly hosts, fixed, everlasting, and constantly regenerates itself. The Jewish people have the exact same qualities. On the one hand, they lead normal human lives, which include ups and downs, with good inclinations as well as evil ones. Yet their connection to faith and God is everlasting. Therefore, unlike other nations, Am Yisrael endures forever. Thus we are reminded of Israel’s immortality in Birkat HaLevanah when we see the moon reappear and grow stronger every month.
Moreover, not only do we manage to survive despite all the hardships, we actually advance to a higher level as a result of each crisis and setback. King David, whose kingdom is compared to the moon, taught us how to transform each setback into an impetus for greater development. Our Sages tell us that David was the least esteemed of his brothers, growing up in the fields amongst the sheep, but he matured and grew from each experience. Even after his difficult fall in the episode of Bathsheba, he didn’t give in to despair. Rather, he repented completely, to the point where our Sages say that “he established the yoke of repentance” (Mo’ed Kattan 16b). David transformed the regrettable incident into a catapult of tremendous self-improvement, setting an example for all generations. We learn from him the ways of repentance and its power of renewal. By virtue of his repentance, David’s kingdom is everlasting, just like the moon which always rejuvenates after its decline.
This is why we say in the Kiddush Levanah ceremony:
“David, King of Israel, lives and endures.”
Likewise, the Jewish people, as well, grow from every setback, rectifying all their sins and blemishes, until they will eventually be privileged to perfect the world through God’s sovereignty. At that time, the moon, which symbolizes our situation in the world, will also return to its perfected state, when its light will be as bright as the sun’s. Thus, we beseech God in Birkat HaLevanah:
“It (the moon) should renew itself like a crown of glory for those borne from the womb (the people of Israel), who will eventually renew themselves like it and glorify their Maker for the sake of His glorious kingdom.”
Some have a custom to add the following request:
“May it be Your will, Lord my God and God of my forefathers, to repair the moon’s defect, that there be no deficiency in it. Let the light of the moon be like the light of the sun and like the light of the seven days of Creation, as it was before it was reduced, as it says, ‘The two great luminaries’ (Genesis, 1:16).
And may the following verse be fulfilled through us: ‘They shall seek the Lord their God and David their king’ (Hoshea, 3:5). Amen.
This article appears in Rabbi Melamed’s highly popular series of books on Jewish law, “Peninei Halakha:Z’manim”, and was translated by Rabbi Moshe Lichtman. Other writings by Rabbi Melamed can be found here: http://en.yhb.org.il/