Rosh Chodesh, the New Month, is especially meaningful to women. It is also noted that women are like the moon in that they, too, have a monthly cycle of renewal.
Rosh Chodesh, Hebrew for “New Month” and the name for the first day of every month in the Hebrew calendar, is marked by the birth of a new moon. It is considered a minor holiday. While there is no true requirement to rejoice on Rosh Chodesh or to eat a festive meal as we do on most other holidays, it is considered meritorious to do so. It is forbidden to grieve on Rosh Chodesh, and one may not fast. Indeed, a bride and groom who follow the custom of fasting on their wedding day (as most Ashkenazim and some Sephardim do) should not fast if their wedding takes place on Rosh Chodesh.
Rosh Chodesh is especially meaningful to women. It is explained that women’s attachment to Rosh Chodesh is meant to recall their unwillingness to contribute their jewelry for use in the construction of the Golden Calf. As a reward for this conduct, God assigned Rosh Chodesh to women as His personal gift to them. Originally, the 12 months of the year were intended to correspond to each of the 12 tribes. Due to the sin of the Golden Calf, however, this association was taken away from the tribes and given to all the women of Israel instead. It is also noted that women are like the moon in that they, too, have a monthly cycle of renewal.
As such, it has become customary for women to refrain from weaving, spinning and sewing on Rosh Chodesh in honor of their pious female ancestors. Some authorities include laundering, as well. However, routine housework needed for the day is permitted. In some families, candles are lit in honor of Rosh Chodesh. In Yemen, it was customary to light candles in the home and synagogue, and in Algiers, gold coins would be placed inside the candles for good luck. In Europe, it was common for women gather and recite prayers on Rosh Chodesh, and some women collected charity for the poor. Those who were engaged to be married would receive gifts from their grooms on Rosh Chodesh.
Rosh Chodesh Nissan (a month that falls in March-April) is inherently more connected to women as it is the anniversary of the death of Miriam the prophetess. Some women also designated Rosh Chodesh Nissan as the day to begin the Passover preparations. Rosh Chodesh Tevet (December-January), which falls during the last days of Chanukah, was associated with the Chanukah heroine, Judith and referred to as Chag Habanot, the Girls’ Holiday. Rosh Chodesh Kislev (November – December) has special meaning for the Jews of Ethiopia, as the preceding day is the holiday of Sigd, a community celebration which includes women reaffirming their dedication to Jewish tradition.
The Sabbath before Rosh Chodesh is known as Shabbat Mevarchim, the Sabbath of Blessing. A prayer for the upcoming month is recited after the Torah-reading service. In some chasidic communities, the entire book of Psalms is read before the morning service.
It is interesting to note that in the Torah, only four months of the year are referred to by name:
Aviv – first month – literally “spring” (Exodus 12:2, 13:4, 23:15, 34:18 Deut. 16:1);
Ziv – second month – literally “light” (1 Kings 6:1, 6:37);
Ethanim – seventh month – literally “strong” in plural, perhaps referring to strong rains (1 Kings 8:2); and
Bul – eighth month (1 Kings 6:38).
These are believed to be the original Canaanite names for the months. Today we use the Babylonian names for each of the Jewish months of the year.