The New Moon (the start of every Jewish month) is the most pivotal date in the Jewish Calendar. Without the New Moon, we could not have any of the Jewish Holidays. All the Jewish Holidays revolve around the date of the New Moon. The New Moon tells us which day is the first of the month.
Nowadays we use a set calendar to tell us when the New Moon is celebrated, and thus when all the other days of that month will occur. It was not always like that, and it will not always be like that.
In order for the new month to begin, the Sanhedrin (highest Jewish Court) must declare “Rosh Chodesh.” (The Sanhedrin does not exist today, for technical reasons, but someday it will be reinstated, either after the Messiah comes, or just before the Messiah comes.) Rosh Chodesh literally means “Head of the Month.” This refers to the minor holiday of the first day (or the first two days, depending) of the new month.
When the Sanhedrin declared the new month, that day was Rosh Chodesh, and it was therefore a minor Holiday, with specific levels of holiness attached to it. The Talmud therefore refers to that process as “Sanctifying the New Moon.”
Rosh Chodesh was declared only after two witnesses came to the Sanhedrin and testified that they had seen the new moon (a little piece of the moon beginning to show) during the previous night. If no witnesses showed up by the thirtieth day of the month, Rosh Chodesh was declared on the thirty-first day (the previous month will therefore have thirty days), and all the dates of the coming month were thus set.
If there were Holidays during that month, this declaration also determined which days were Holidays, and therefore which days were holy.
When the Sanhedrin realized that Constantinius, the Christian Caesar, was going to disband the Sanhedrin, one of the most important things they did was to calculate all the New Moons until the year 6,000 of Creation (which corresponds to 2240 C.E.), and made the proper declarations for all of them. Thus today we have holiness on each Rosh Chodesh, and on each Holiday, just as has always been since Hashem gave us those Commandments.
There is a beautiful Midrash that talks of the role of the People of Israel in the world, as shown from the Sanctification of Rosh Chodesh, or “Making the New Moon Holy.” (In Hebrew, i.e., in Judaism, the two are the same. The Hebrew word for “holy” also means special, or exclusive.)
When the Sanhedrin sanctified a new month, what blessing did they make? Some Rabbis say that the blessing recited was “Blessed are You Hashem, Who renews the months.” Other Rabbis say that the blessing recited was “Blessed are You Hashem, Who makes the months holy.” Other Rabbis say that the blessing recited was “Blessed are You Hashem, Who makes the Children of Israel holy.”
Because if the Children of Israel do not sanctify the moon, it does not
become holy at all!
Don’t be surprised by this, because Hashem made Israel holy, as it says
“And you shall be holy to Me, for I, Hashem, am holy…” (Leviticus 20:26). And since the Children of Israel are holy and special to heaven, whatever they make holy is truly holy.
Do you want to understand this? Take a lesson from the Serving Vessels in the Holy Sanctuary. Moses sanctified the Tabernacle. Who sanctified all the
Tabernacle’s Vessels? You might think that Moses did. But actually, what
happened was that a priest would bring a simple mundane cup or other vessel, and put something holy in it, and the cup would automatically become holy. It worked the same way as when Moses sprinkled sacrificial blood on the Altar, and it became holy; or when he poured a wine libation, or performed any aspect of the Holy Temple Service with any mundane vessel, and it thereby became holy.
Now, if a simple, mundane cup becomes holy when it is filled with something holy, all the more so the Children of Israel, who are themselves holy, should have the ability to make the month holy!
The Holy One, blessed is He, said, “I am holy. I Myself make things
holy. I will make Israel holy, and they will fill the world with holiness by
declaring Me holy. Therefore, the Torah says, “And you will be holy to Me, for I, Hashem, am holy…(ibid),” and “I am Hashem Who makes you holy” (Leviticus 20:8).
That is what King David means when he says “You are holy; You are
enthroned by the praises of Israel” (Psalms 22:4)
And when did Israel begin to sanctify the months? In Egypt, as it says “This month shall be the first month for you…” (Exodus 12:2).
— Midrash Shmos Rabbah, 15:24
This is a fascinating and revealing Midrash. In this Midrash we see the great spiritual power that is granted to the children of Israel. As many Rabbis explain, the Torah says “This month shall be the first month for you.” That is, we, Israel, and only Israel, are the ones with the ability to make the New Moon holy. We, therefore, are the ones who make the Holidays holy.
That explains why some of the Rabbis said that the blessing for Sanctifying the New Moon was “Blessed are You Hashem, Who makes the Children of Israel holy.”
But it goes deeper than that. What is the effect of our bringing holiness into the world? It serves to keep the universe in existence.
The Torah says “This is what Hashem says: Were it not for the fact that My covenant is observed day and night, I would not have set the rules of heaven and earth” (Jeremiah 33:25). In other words, it is our observing the covenant, the Torah, that keeps the world in existence.
How does Hashem keep the world in existence? By continuously renewing it. For this reason we find that Hashem is constantly described as He Who makes the world, in the present tense, and less often as He Who made the world, in the past tense. For example, King David says, “Who makes the great lights, for His kindness is forever” (Psalms 136:7). And it says, “Who hangs the sky like a curtain, and stretches it over our heads like a roof so we can live underneath it” (Isaiah 40:22). Every moment that the world merits it, Hashem renews the universe.
That explains why some of the Rabbis said that the blessing for Sanctifying the New Moon was “Blessed are You Hashem, Who renews the months.”
And that explains why some of the Rabbis said that the blessing for Sanctifying the New Moon was “Blessed are You Hashem, Who makes the months holy.” The existence and renewal of the universe depends on our bringing Hashem’s holiness into the world.
And so that is the sequence of things. First Hashem makes us holy. Then we make the world holy. Then Hashem renews the world again.
This applies to three aspects: People, Time and Place. We, as the Children of Israel, can bring holiness to ourselves; to the holy times, like the Jewish Holidays (which we often refer to as the “seasons”); and to holy places, like synagogues and places of Torah study, but most importantly, to our own homes.
And in this way, the Holidays differ from the Sabbath. The holiness of the Holidays comes through us. Hashem makes us holy, and we bring holiness to the world, but the holiness of the Sabbath comes directly from Hashem, and not through us. The holiness of Shabbos was set into a permanent cycle when Hashem created the very first Shabbos. That very same holiness is repeated each and every Shabbos of the year. We attain holiness through our observance of Shabbos, but we do not control the holiness of Shabbos.
This is why we say, during Kiddush every Shabbos, “Blessed are You, Hashem, Who sanctifies the Shabbos.” This highlights the fact that Hashem directly sanctifies Shabbos. But on the Holidays we say “Blessed are You, Hashem, Who sanctifies Israel and the times.” This highlights the fact that Hashem sanctifies the times through Israel.
And on a Holiday that occurs on Shabbos, we reflect both those concepts, and we say: “Blessed are You, Hashem, Who sanctifies the Shabbos, Israel, and the times.” In other words, Hashem sanctifies the Sabbath, and through Shabbos, sanctifies Israel. And then we, Israel, have the ability to sanctify the times. We take the holiness that Hashem gives us, and we bring it into the world, and we thus sanctify the times, meaning the seasons of the year.
This is what the Midrash means when quoting King David, saying, “You are holy; You are enthroned by the praises of Israel.” G-d cannot change, and G-d does not change. We cannot make G-d holy, but we can bring G-d’s holiness into this world, and that is indeed our purpose in life.
You are probably wondering: how exactly do we make the world holy? What is it we do that brings holiness into the universe?
We study Torah, and we perform the Commandments, of course. But there’s another point to it as well.
Do you know that the Talmud says (BT Gitten 45b; Maimonides, Laws of the Foundations of the Torah, 6:8; see also BT Chullin 13a) that if a heretic (a Jew who denies even one teaching of the Torah or Talmud) writes a Torah Scroll, that Torah Scroll is invalid. Not only is such a Torah Scroll invalid, but it may never be used, and it must be burned!
Yet that seems a little strange. The words and letters are all the same as in any other Torah Scroll. Let’s say a heretic writes a Torah Scroll while a believer watches over his shoulder. Everything is written perfectly and conforms to all the Laws of Torah Scrolls. Every letter is shaped according to the Laws of how the letters must be shaped. Why is this Torah Scroll invalid?
The answer is because a person who denies the truth of the Torah cannot impart holiness, and thus the Torah Scroll is not holy. This person has created a problematic thing — a Torah scroll that is not holy!
And holiness is our reason for existence. Everything a Jew does should be premeditated, and performed with the intention of fulfilling Hashem’s will to the greatest possible level of holiness. This is why many people recite, before performing many of the Mitzvos, this little formula: “I am hereby prepared and ready to fulfill the Commandment of…”
The Torah tells us, “So that you remember, and you will perform all My commandments, and you will be holy to your G-d” (Numbers 15:40). So, how we keep the Commandments determines our own holiness.
When we observe Shabbos properly, we become conduits of holiness, and we transmit holiness to the Holiday. Therefore, each Holiday takes holiness from Shabbos, and especially from the Shabbos that precedes that Holiday. Hassidic teachings tell us that the Shabbos of each Holiday is therefore given a greater level of holiness commensurate with the upcoming Holiday, so that we can impart to that Holiday the special holiness that belongs to that Holiday. And as a result, the Shabbos that precedes a Holiday is always a very special and important time. How we observe that Shabbos will effect our relationship with that Holiday!
So what does this have to do with the moon? Why was this blessing recited particularly over the Sanctifying of the new month?
There are a few reasons, among them the basic fact that when we sanctify the new moon we then know when the Holiday will be. If we did not declare a new month, there could be no day on which to hold the Holiday.
But as usual, it goes deeper than that.
The phases of the moon teach us a very important lesson. No one is so perfect that they never fall, that they never sin, that they are never diminished. As the Torah teaches us, “The righteous can fall even seven times, and rise again; but the wicked stumble with evil” (Proverbs 24:16). The righteous fall, but they get up again. That’s what makes them righteous. Everyone has high moments and low moments, and sometimes those “moments” can last a while. The moon also declines every month. But the moon never gives up. The moon comes right back and starts all over again!
This is the power of the Children of Israel. When we fall, we can get back up again. No matter how many times we are diminished, no matter how many times we sin, and no matter how many times we may be oppressed and embittered, we can always get back up again.
And don’t think that getting back up again can be done overnight. It takes the moon two weeks of steady growth to become full again. The moon appears to get a little larger every night, not all at once.
As Jews, our purpose in life is to let our holiness continue to grow and shine. We can accomplish this only by growing slowly and steadily. And if we fall, we start again.
And when the Messiah comes, the Talmud teaches us, the moon will no longer get smaller each month. The moon will then be made as big as the sun, and it will shine as bright as the sun.
When the Messiah comes, there will be only growth.
These are some of the lessons we can learn from the New Moon.
(This article was inspired primarily by a work called Bais Aharon on Torah and Serving Hashem, composed from talks given by Rabbi Aharon II of Karlin, 1802-1872.)