In Hebrew, Rosh Chodesh means, literally, "head of the month" or "first of
the month." Rosh Chodesh is the first day of any new month. If a month is
30 days long, then the 30th day is treated as part of the Rosh Chodesh for the
next month, and the Rosh Chodesh for next month extends for two days (the
30th of the earlier month and the 1st of the later month).
In ancient times, Rosh Chodesh was a significant festival day. At that time,
the new months were determined by observation. Each month began when the
first sliver of moon became visible after the dark of the moon. Observers
would watch the sky at night for any sign of the moon. If they saw the moon,
they would report their sightings to the Sanhedrin, which would interrogate
them to make sure that they were not mistaken. Where in the sky did the
moon appear? Which direction was it pointing? If two independent, reliable
eyewitnesses confirmed that the new moon had appeared and described it
consistently, the Sanhedrin would declare the new month and send out
messengers to tell people when the month began.
The day after the moon appeared was a festival, announced with the sounding
of the shofar, commemorated with solemn convocations, family festivities and
special sacrifices. The importance of this holiday in ancient times should not
be underestimated. The entire calendar was dependent upon these
declarations; without the declarations, there would be no way of knowing
when holidays were supposed to occur.
In later days, however, the calendar was fixed by mathematical computation.
After the destruction of the Temple, sacrifices were no longer available.
Accordingly, the significance of this festival has substantially diminished.
There are some slight changes to the liturgy for Rosh Chodesh, including the
addition of part of Hallel after the Shemoneh Esrei, and some additional
Torah readings, but that is about the only observance of Rosh Chodesh today.
It remains a custom in some communities for women to refrain from work on
Rosh Chodesh, as a reward for their refusal to participate in the incident of
the Golden Calf. See The Role of Women.
The shabbat before Rosh Chodesh is known as Shabbat Mevarekhim, which
means "the sabbath of blessing." After the Torah reading in the shabbat
service, the prayer leader holds the Torah scroll, recites a blessing hoping for
a good month, then announces the day of the upcoming week when the new
month will begin and the name of the new month.
Shabbat Mevarekhim is not observed during the month of Elul to announce
the beginning of the month of Tishri, the month in which Rosh Hashanah (the
Jewish New Year) occurs. The common-sense explanation of this omission is
simply that the month of Tishri is anticipated throughout the month of Elul
with increasing intensity as Rosh Hashanah approaches, making a formal
announcement of the date unnecessary. However, a Chasidic tradition teaches
that God himself blesses the first of Tishri, the anniversary of Creation, and
gave the privilege of blessing the rest of the months to the Jewish people.
Note that Shabbat Mevarekhim is not necessarily the last shabbat of the
month. In a 30-day month, the 30th is part of Rosh Chodesh for the next
month. If the 30th falls on shabbat, it is the last shabbat of the month, but
Shabbat Mevarekhim occurs on the 23rd, which is the last shabbat before