Sermon – Should we keep two days of Rosh Chodesh?

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 8 July 2011

Just before Hallel in last week’s over-long Shabbat morning service, which included a half-hallel and an extra Torah reading, I made a throwaway comment about the Reform practice of keeping two days of Rosh Chodesh.

Over the course of the last week, a number of people have contacted me to challenge what I said.  Their main thrust has been that the origins of the 2 days of Rosh Chodesh is different to the Orthodox practice of two days of festivals, and that therefore, well simply, I was wrong to even hint that keeping two days should be something we re-examine in our community’s practice.

What this speaks to most strongly is not the point at hand, but the danger of throwaway comments.  Because, of course, I do know the origins of the 2 days of Rosh Chodesh, that keeping this is different to the Orthodox practice of two days of festivals, but I still think that I am, well simply, at least a bit right.

So, this morning, with your permission, I would like to explore this in a bit more detail.

First, to acknowledge that the origin of a two day Rosh Chodesh is different to the Orthodox diaspora practice of a two day festival.  The latter is a hangover from the age in which the calendar was determined by observation of the moon.  In the pre-calendar age, the appearance of the new moon each month was attested by witnesses at the Sanhedrin.  Once their testimony was deemed credible, fires were set on the hilltops to announce the new month to neighbouring communities who, in turn, passed the message along. This system included an element of doubt about exactly when a festival would fall – hence an extra day in case.  The system was also inefficient, and once the centre of Jewish life moved outside Israel, it was no longer fit for purpose.  So a set calendar was introduced in the time of Hillel II in the mid fourth century.  At that time, astronomical calculations replaced the practice of calling witnesses before the Sanhedrin. Since that time, it has been possible to calculate the Jewish calendar well into the future on the basis of scientific calculations. This removed the doubt about the exact date of festivals, thus removing the need for the second day.

The two day Rosh Chodesh, however, comes not out of doubt about the calendar out from the very science itself – from the nature of the lunar calendar.  The lunar month is not exactly 30 days long.  A complete revolution of the moon around the earth actually  takes 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, 3-1/2 seconds. As the day in our calendar begins at sundown, regardless of when the exact moment of new moon happens, it is necessary to either add or subtract a half a day from each calendar month. For this reason, Hebrew months alternate between 29 and 30 days in length, with the precise moment of the new moon falling in between. A 30-day month is called “malei” (full) and a 29-day month is called “chaser” (defective). In any year, certain prescribed months are male and some are full.  Two months are sometimes malei and sometimes chaser. When a month is 30 days in length, the Rosh Chodesh immediately following is celebrated for two days because the 30th day of the month past is counted as Rosh Chodesh and the first day of the subsequent month as the second day of Rosh Chodesh.

So they are different.  But what my throwaway comment referred to was not the length of months per se but the marking of the 30th day of a month with new moon ritual – with hallel and an extra scroll. And I would suggest that the urge to mark a 2 day Rosh Chodesh with ritual does come from the same place as the 2 day festival once did.  It comes out of what I would call a keep-at-all-costs tendency in Jewish life – the need to make sure that we keep something in just the right way… Not to accidentally miss the precise moment.  This in turn reflects a paradigm of Jewish life in which God cares terribly whether we do the right thing in exactly the right way at exactly the right moment.

And I have to say, the need to exactly hit a moment in time is not something that drives me.  I don’t believe it is fundamental in Reform Jewish life.  My understanding of Rosh Chodesh is far more symbolic – it marks the progress of the year, it ties us into Jewish time in an age when we think almost exclusively in secular – and often in Christian time. I do think it is important. But I don’t feel an obligation to keep it in a specific way because of the vagaries of the calendar.

And when it coincides with Shabbat I believe we are presented, as we so often are, with competing values – the marking of Rosh Chodesh comes into tension with the need for the service to not become a burden on the community.  I would suggest that when it is not the first day of a new month, the balance of the equation is not in favour of marking the day with hallel and a second scroll because the symbolic power of the ritual is outweighed by the effect on the congregation.  On a Shabbat like last week, I would have been content to recite the prayer for Shabbat Mevarachim – the shabbat that blesses – proclaiming that the new month of Tammuz began the next day – which, of course, it really did. Only the next day could one really say: Today is the first day of the new month. This would, granted, take us into a sphere in which our practice is slightly out of step with that in other parts of the Jewish world, but that is sometimes the case.

All this is a bit controversial.  I apologise for having brought it up in a way which was utterly unsuited to the purpose.  But it is fundamental to our form of religious life that these are the conversations that we have.  That we truly consider the values that inform our practice so that we reaffirm their meaning for ourselves. That we ask the questions. And I will continue to do so – but I will make an important ‘note to self’ – to do it in sermons not in throwaway remarks.