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Rosh Ha-shana and the Sanctification of the Months

  • Rav Yehuda Shaviv

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Special Holiday Shiur
Yeshivat Har Etzion


by Rav Yehuda Shaviv


The sanctification of the new month (kiddush ha-chodesh) and the declaration of the start of the month - according to the testimony of two witnesses who had personally witnessed the new moon - is a very profound and lofty subject; profound both from the point of view of its content as well as in qualitative terms. However, Chazal did not see fit to set aside a separate masekhet (tractate) specifically to discuss this subject, but rather included their treatment of it within masekhet Rosh Ha-shana. Moreover, even a cursory review of the masekhet reveals that the subject of kiddush ha-chodesh is not an appendix added on to the main theme, but rather represents a considerable portion of the masekhet itself. Even its location is not at some remote place near the end, but rather in the opening chapters. Hence, a person who seeks to learn about Rosh Ha-shana and takes out that masekhet to study will find... a discussion of kiddush ha-chodesh!

In other words, this is a sort of introduction to the day of Rosh Ha-shana. Could this be the key to it? It certainly is the key, literally; for so long as the beginning of the month cannot be determined, we cannot tell when the first day of the seventh month falls, and we cannot celebrate Rosh Ha- shana. But it seems that this key holds greater qualitative significance.


We have already stated that the discussion pertaining to kiddush ha-chodesh is a lofty one, and this subject should be included in the Torah's injunction to "Blow the shofar on the day of the new month, on the concealed day of our celebration" (Tehillim 81:4) - it is concealed and hidden.

This is interesting, for the above verse is usually explained as referring to a contraction of the light of Rosh Chodesh when that day is superimposed on a festival - i.e., Rosh Ha-shana. "Which festival is it in which Rosh Chodesh is concealed? It is Rosh Ha-shana" (Rosh Ha-shana 8), and Tosafot (ibid. 8b) record the words of Rabbi Meshulam in his debate with Rabbi Tam, stating that the Mussaf (additional prayer) of Rosh Chodesh is not to be mentioned in the course of the Rosh Ha-shana prayers. (The same law is brought in the Arukh, s.v. Chodesh.) This topic requires a separate discussion.

All this pertains to the day of Rosh Ha-shana, but in the night - when we neither blow the shofar nor recite Mussaf - it may well be that the Rosh Chodesh theme features in a central role.

We learn that many Jews used to go out on the night which by their calculation was supposed to be Rosh Ha-shana; they would walk outside in the dark looking for the new moon in order to be able to give testimony. Even if this doesn't describe an actual mitzva (commandment) which was to be fulfilled on Rosh Ha-shana, it certainly describes a procedure which was followed on that festival. From this point of view the mishna follows the order of events on Rosh Ha-shana in chronological order: first what they did at night (looking for signs of the new moon), and thereafter what they did in the day (blessing of the new moon, shofar and mussaf) - just as is the case in other tractates (Pesachim, etc.).


However, this connection is made clearer as regards kiddush ha-chodesh (sanctification of the new month), since this was subject to the control of man and not God.

Our sages were certainly aware of when the moon was due to appear, and by their calculations they knew when the new moon would be. "And they would calculate the passage of the moon every month, and they knew whether or not it would be seen, according to what their exact calculations revealed" (Rambam, Commentary on the Mishna, Rosh Ha-shana 2:7). It is a well-known fact that for many hundreds of years the dates of every Rosh Chodesh have been known with great accuracy. However, at the same time, when it was possible to determine Rosh Chodesh according to the testimony of two Jewish eye- witnesses, they still did this. Not only that, but when the Beit Din received testimony and declared the date of Rosh Chodesh, even if they had made a mistake, their declaration remained valid and the new month was duly sanctified and counted.

This demonstrates the principle that everything here depends on the determination made by Israel - mortal beings.


Even if we are able to accept this idea as regards all the other months - albeit with some degree of trepidation - when it comes to the month of Tishrei we are awestruck. Can it be possible that the King of Kings is sitting on His throne of glory, and the masses of His armies are meant to be coronating Him, as it were, and everything is ready for the coronation ceremony and the call to judgement, and everything is waiting for... not for a sign from the King of the universe, but rather for the arrival of two Jews to come and testify that they have witnessed the new moon!? And so long as they have not yet arrived and Israel have not yet been able to sanctify the new month, there is - as it were - no Kingship and no judgement, and the whole world has to wait, even if it means until the next day!


Indeed, there can be no kingship without our coronation of God from down below. Only the sighting of the new moon here on earth serves as a sign and symbol to the beholders - and to all of Israel - that there exists the possibility of renewal, that there can be light that comes after complete darkness. Only then can we coronate the King of Kings and present ourselves for judgement, for we know that He has put an end to the darkness, and that that which was is not necessarily that which will be, and change - even a complete turn-about - is possible. The path to teshuva exists.


Only when we discover the path of teshuva is the Kingship of God complete, for so long as there are sins and sinners, they represent a diminishing - as it were - of the scope of God's glory and the perfection of His Kingship. "By means of teshuva everything returns to Godliness" (Rav Kook, Orot Ha- teshuva 4:2). The person who repents even brings back with him the dark days of sin, days which were devoid of Godliness, and he returns them and offers them to the King of the universe. He grasps his iniquities and changes them into merit. The purity of his soul at that moment turns towards the past and shines on his past deeds and desires, cleansing and purifying them.


The renewal of the moon represents good tidings - it represents the renewal of man; renewal of the individual and of the community, "For they are destined to renew themselves like her", the renewal of the kingship of Israel and of the Kingship of heaven - which is crux of Rosh Ha-shana.


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