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Rosh Chodesh (New Moon), Women’s Holiday

Author: Rav Duvdevani of Bet Shemesh, Tevet 5765/Dec 2004

Does the custom have sanctity or is it idolatrous?

The beginning of each new month, Rosh Chodesh, has always had a special status, special sacrifices and, later, a special Musaf service. It has long standing, historical links with women and we have a number of references to the custom that women do no work on Rosh Chodesh. In this talk, Rav Duvdevani examined sources that reflect the views of our Sges on a minhag, a custom, that is special to women.

Eliahu Schatzi, writing in the 16th century in Kudsha, a place where half the Jewish population were Karaites, criticises the custom of women not working on Rosh Chodesh. The text accuses them of ‘adding to the Law’. It was thought that this minhag was connected to past idolatrous practices relating to the dark, moonless beginning of the month.

The Jerusalem Talmud (Tractate Ta’anit 1,6), on the other hand, sees the minhag as accepted and legitimate, comparing it to the custom of not working on other days, such as days when the ‘eruv’, the Sabbath boundary, was fixed, a custom it rejects.

Hezekiah DaSilva, in the 17th century, confirms that the women’s custom is ‘a good minhag’.

Other scholars also saw a connection to the phases of the moon, but of a very different kind. The renewal of the moon was seen by them as a symbol of the renewing relationship of a wife to her husband. (16th century R.Yehoshua Valk on Tur, Orach Chayim 417,1) . It was for this reason, we learn, that the Rosh Chodesh was given to women (Sefer Or Zaru’a, 2)

Several texts take this connection further and link the Almighty’s releasing Rachel, wife of Jacob, from her barrenness, to this renewal of the woman’s relationship with her husband. ‘Roshei CHodashim Le amecha natati, I gave the New Moon to your people’ indicates the link, where the initials in the phrase spell the name RaCHeL. (R.Chayim Vital; also R.Yosef Chayim David Azulai). An even earlier hint linking Rachel and the moon appears in the second of Joseph’s dreams (Genesis, 37), where the sun (Jacob), the moon (Rachel) and eleven stars (the brothers) are seen as bowing down to Joseph.

That the women’s connection to Rosh Chodesh is clearly Biblical is seen in 2Kings, (ch.4), the story of the Shunamite woman, whose son is brought back to life by Elisha. When the woman runs to call Elisha, her husband comments: ‘Why do you go to him [Elisha] to-day? It is neither New Moon nor Sabbath’ (v.23). The inference here is that the Shunamite, like other women, usually went to learn Torah on those days. Indeed, the custom that men listen to the teachings of their Rabbis on those days is seen to be based on that same verse (Tractate Sukka 27B), the Shunamite woman being the model for the men’s attendance.

A number of Midrashic sources give a more spiritual explanation for the gift of Rosh Chodesh to women: the fact that they refused to give their jewellery when Aaron made the golden calf (Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer). neshei dor ha midbar kesherot hayu, the women of the desert generation were ‘kosher’, worthy (Vayika Rabba, ch 2). The Almighty gave the Rosh Chodesh to women, writes R. Yosef of Bagdad; the woman is the foundation on which the world is built, the ‘even’, the foundation stone, as we see from the verse in Hallel ‘even maasu ha bonim, hayeta le rosh pina, the stone rejected by the builders has become the chief cornerstone’.

An early Ashkenazi source, the Ravan, (Seder Rosh Chodesh) adds that women did give their jewels towards the building of the Tabernacle. It was their merit that they ‘had no part in the sin of the golden calf, lo hayu be oto ha chata’. One should compare that phrase, Rav Duvdevani explained, to the women’s obligation on Chanuka when ‘they were part of the miracle, hayu be oto ha nes.’Rosh Chodesh was originally given to the whole people; after the sin of the golden calf it became the gift special to women.

It is clear from the sources examined that the minhag of women not working on Rosh Chodesh was accepted. Our Sages saw the women’s special day, the Rosh Chodesh, as the reward for denying their jewels to the golden calf and offering them for the Tabernacle. That their reward was the renewing New Moon was seen as being the appropriate symbol of their function in the renewal of life.