New Moons Matter
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New Moons Matter

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is a professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

Shabbat candles: 4:49 p.m.
Torah: Exodus 6:2-9:35;
Numbers 28:9-15
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24
Havdalah: 5:51 p.m.

Before cell phones, we bought paper calendars — things you hung on a wall or put in your pocket or pocketbook. They gave us pictures of time.

No one knows what time actually is, after all. Time is something we live through, grow older in, but what is it?

Our calendars tell us, through the tacit decisions behind their organization.

That annual calendar you bought, for example, was organized in double-page spreads, called weeks. Each double page had seven days. The pages were blank but for the dates and days, and numbers down one side corresponding to hours.

The whole point of this calendar was to fill in as many lines as you could with appointments, as if life were a game in which the person who dies with the most appointments wins.

This “for-appointments-only” calendar derives from our implicit understanding of time as a commodity that can be “saved,” “lost,” “spent” or “wasted.” By this secular calculus, “wasting time” is a sin for which we get chastised, because  “time is money.”

Money, however, is fungible; funds set aside for one purpose are interchangeable with funds set aside for another. So, too, is time, according to this model. Every day, every hour, is the same as any other. Time is empty, just an arbitrary number on the left side of the calendar page, demanding an appointment to give it value.

Not so the Jewish calendar, which you don’t have to buy because funeral homes and kosher butchers give them out for free. While secular calendars come empty, Jewish calendars come loaded: changeable times of sunset (for lighting candles); names for each week (drawn from the weekly Torah reading); and a plethora of days that are colored to show their importance. They are most certainly not all alike.

The most usual colored day is Shabbat, the only day in the week with a name. The others, “Day One” “Day Two” and so on (in Hebrew), are just numbered upward, leading to Shabbat. The point of this calendar is not to list appointments (for which there is no room anyway) but to get to the colored days when business appointments are actually prohibited!

The Jewish calendar divides the secular from the sacred, reminding us that the fullness of life requires them both.

Most interesting is another colored day that occurs each month: Rosh Chodesh, “the new moon” (a new month). When it falls midweek, Rosh Chodesh is easily passed over. This week, however, the new month — Shevat — coincides with Shabbat, allowing us to stop and give Rosh Chodesh its due.

Unlike those pocket secular calendars that are divided by weeks, Jewish calendars display whole months: each page begins with Rosh Chodesh. Secular months are arbitrary, unattached to actual lunar phases. Jewish months are really lunar; new moons matter.

Jewish law considers them half-holy days, not altogether days of rest (like Shabbat). However, Talmudic tradition in the Land of Israel recognized that women (whose monthly cycle roughly mirrors the cosmic one) could properly refrain from work on Rosh Chodesh, if they liked. And Jews there once thought enough of Rosh Chodesh to provide it with its own evening Kiddush. These are home observances, not public ones, and I wish we still had them.

Acknowledging the newness of every moon and month reminds us of the grand possibility of starting our own lives over again. We regularly associate that message with Rosh HaShanah, but Rosh HaShanah is just one new moon of many. Every new moon invites us to turn over a new page in the calendar, the point being that we can simultaneously turn over a new page in our lives.

I love Rosh HaShanah’s message of life renewed. But some months are so bad, I’d rather not wait a whole year for Rosh HaShanah to return. And our calendar says I don’t have to. I just watch for the next new moon, bid the month past a happy “Good riddance,” and start my life all over again. 

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, co-founder of Synagogue 3000, and professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries” (Jewish Lights), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

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