The moon waxes to a full, bright circle; then it wanes until it disappears. In the Hebrew calendar the new moon is not the invisible one, but the first thin curved line to appear the blue daytime sky. It sets just after the sun sets, and the first day of a month begins.
The book of Leviticus/Vayikra prescribes offerings at the altar for annual holidays, for Shabbat every week, and for morning and evening every day. But the new moon is not singled out for its own monthly celebration until the book of Numbers/Bemidbar.
And on your days of rejoicing, and at your appointed times, and on the beginnings of chadesheykhem, you shall blow trumpets over your rising-offering and over your slaughter-sacrifices of your wholeness offerings. (Numbers/Bemidbar 10:10)
chadesheykhem (חָדְשֵׁיכֶם) = your months. (A form of the noun chodesh, חֺדֶשׁ = month, new moon. From the root verb chadash, חָדַשׁ = renew.)
New moon at the altar
What offerings are prescribed for the new moon? We find out in this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas.
And at the beginnings of chadesheykhem you shall offer a rising-offering for God: two bulls of the herd, and one ram, and seven yearling lambs, unblemished. (Numbers 28:11)
(I refer to an olah (עֺלָה) as a “rising-offering” because the Hebrew word comes from the verb alah (עָלָה) = rose, ascended, went up. What rises in an olah is smoke, when the animal is completely burned up for God.)1
Each animal is burned with its own measure of fine flour mixed with oil,
…a rising-offering of soothing scent, a fire-offering for God. And their libations2 shall be wine, half a hin for a bull, and a third of a hin for the ram, and a quarter of a hin for a lamb. This is the rising-offering of chodesh in chadesho for the chakeshey the year. And one hairy goat for a guilt-release offering3 for God … (Numbers 28:14)
chadesho (חַדְשׁוֹ) = its renewal. (From the root verb chadash.)
chadeshey (חָדְשֵׁי) = months of, new moons of. (Another form of chodesh.)
What we learn about the observance of the new moon in the book of Numbers is that there must be a rising-offering on the altar with a specific combination of animals, grain products, and wine; and that a trumpet is blown when the offering takes place.
New moon at the table
When King Saul becomes insanely jealous of his young general David, he orders David killed. David talks with Jonathan, his best friend and Saul’s son and heir.
And David said to Jonathan: “Hey, chodesh is tomorrow and I should definitely sit with the king to eat. But let me go, and I will hide in the countryside until the third evening.” (1 Samuel 10:5)
Jonathan urges his beloved friend to flee, and the two young men work out the logistics.
This passage is famous for Jonathan’s declaration of love and allegiance to David. But it also shows that at the time of King Saul (around the 11th century BCE) the observance of the new moon included an obligatory feast at the king’s table for his officers.
New moon with a prophet
The woman of Shunem makes a room on the rooftop of her house where the prophet Elisha can stay whenever he visits the town. When her son dies suddenly, she lays him on Elisha’s bed, then goes out and asks her husband for a servant and a donkey so she can hurry to Elisha.
But he said: “Why are you going to him today? It is not chodesh and not Shabbat.” And she said: “Peace!” And she saddled the donkey … (2 Kings 4:23-24)
The woman tells no one that the boy has died, and she talks Elisha into coming back at once with her. The prophet miraculously brings her son back to life.
This story indicates that during the reign of King Yehoram of the northern kingdom of Israel (9th century BCE), travelling prophets conducted ceremonies for their followers on the sabbath every week, and on the new moon every month.
New moon outdoors
After the Roman army destroyed the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, it was never rebuilt as a Jewish temple, and animal offerings gradually ceased for Jews.4 The old method of worship was replaced by prayers and good deeds.
Only a few centuries after the fall of the second temple, Jews were going outside to look at the moon during the week when it grew from a new moon to a half moon, and reciting a blessing. The Talmud says that blessing the new month at the proper time is like greeting the face of the divine presence (Shekhinah), so one should say the blessing while standing. The full blessing, according to the Talmud, is:
Blessed are you God, our God, king of the universe, who by his word created the heavens, and by the breath of his mouth all their hosts. He set for them a law and a time, that they should not deviate from their task. And they are joyous and glad to perform the will of their owner; they are workers of truth whose work is truth. And to the moon he said that it should renew itself as a crown of beauty for those he carried from the womb, as they are destined to be renewed like it, and to praise their Creator for the name of his glorious kingdom. Blessed are you, God, who renews the months. ((Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 42a)5
This formal prayer (in Aramaic) praises God for the creation of an orderly universe including the moon, the monthly renewal of moonlight, and an undefined renewal of human beings. The focus is on the heavenly bodies, personified.
New moon in the synagogue
For centuries, Jewish congregations were led outside once a month to look at the moon and recite the blessing above. This communal blessing happened right after the havadalah ceremony concluded the Shabbat that fell during those seven days.
But as more and more Jews went home after morning Shabbat services instead of staying with their rabbi all day through havdalah, a new custom arose to observe the new moon.
Now the morning Shabbat services before each new moon include an extra section of prayer and blessing in the Torah service. First the congregation chants the following prayer (in Hebrew):
May it be your will God, our God and God of our forefathers, shetechadeish for us this chodesh for goodness and for blessing. And may it give to us a long life, a life of peace, a life of goodness, a life of blessing, a life of right livelihood, a life of bodily health, a life full of awe of heaven and fear of wrongdoing, a life without shame or disgrace, a life of wealth and honor, a life of love of Torah and awe of heaven, a life of fulfillment by God of all desires of our heart for the good. Amen, selah!
shetechadeish (שֶׁתְּחַדֵּשׁ) = to renew. (A form of the verb chadash in “Prayerbook Hebrew”.)
The focus here is on blessings for humans. In a traditional Jewish prayerbook, prayers that ask God for blessings tend to be thorough.
Next the service leader holds the Torah scroll and announces which day the new moon will appear in the coming week, saying a shorter prayer before and after the announcement.6
If the new moon is scheduled to appear at the end of Shabbat, the traditional service adds a reading of the scene between David and Jonathan mentioned above.7
New moon in women’s circles
A more recent practice is for a circle of Jewish women to gather on the evening of the new moon, the first day of each Hebrew month, to conduct their own rituals. These have not been codified, but rosh chodesh (“beginning of a month”) groups are increasingly popular in America.
Celebrating the new moon follows the same trajectory as many other Jewish observances in history. In the Torah, the new moon is an occasion for a special offering at the altar, presided over by priests. After temple worship was replaced by communal prayers, rabbis developed different ways of celebrating the new moon, starting with a concrete act (saying a blessing outside while looking at the moon) and changing to a more abstract prayer in the synagogue. Finally, in the last half-century, liberal Jews have been developing their own innovative celebrations.
The gravity of the moon still creates the tides in our world. The changing moon still strikes many human beings as beautiful and awe-inspiring. Thanking God for the moon helps us to remember that like everything else in nature, it is a gift; we did not make it.
And in Hebrew the new moon, chodesh, also signals renewal, chadash. Something new is possible for all human beings, every month and every minute, from birth to death. We are never as stuck as we think.
- See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1.
- See my post Emor: Libations.
- Here chataat (חַטָּאת) means an offering to remove guilt for a misdeed.
- Samaritans, descendants of the Israelites in the northern kingdom of Samaria, still sacrifice sheep on Mount Gezirim for Passover.
- sefaria.org , translation from Aramaic by William Davidson.
- After that, the congregation anywhere outside of Israel recites another blessing.
- 1 Samuel 20:18-42.