On a warm August evening in 1997, I attended my first Rosh Chodesh group in Jerusalem to celebrate the cycle of the new moon. I entered the candlelit apartment, filled with women I had never met and immediately felt at home.
The aroma of eggplant frying in olive oil, garlic and lemon beckoned me to peek into the tiny cubicle of a kitchen where three women worked shoulder-to-shoulder preparing food.
Stuffed grape leaves, hummus and bowls of dried fruit and nuts lined the counter top. My stomach confirmed what my mind already knew: I had come to the right place.
We gathered together in a circle as evening settled over the Old City of Jerusalem. We were a mixture of faces, cultures and generations.
To my right sat a small Moroccan woman with a nose ring; to my left a silver-haired woman with a British accent. Sunburned and freckled, I sat in the middle wearing bib overalls and a University of Arizona t-shirt.
We began the evening with the ancient Jewish ritual of acknowledging our lineage through our mothers.
I introduced myself as Amy, daughter of Elise, daughter of Jeanette, daughter of Sol. And then, as if pulled in by the power of the moon itself, we began telling our stories.
Woman by woman, we peeled away the top layers of our defenses to uncover the history of our lives.
Long after the last candle had burned out, we sat together talking, listening, laughing and crying. No one wanted to leave the sanctity of that room; no one wanted to break the sacred ties we had created between us.
Rosh Chodesh (Hebrew for “head of the month”) is not a “new age” concept but a very ancient one. In the First Temple period, before the Jewish lunar calendar was fixed, it was a holiday of great significance because the dates for all other holidays were based on the sighting of the new moon.
The new moon’s appearance was communicated to Jewish communities throughout Israel and the Diaspora by setting fires on the hilltops of Jerusalem, starting a chain reaction so that each community lit its own fire to alert its neighbors. On the New Month, sacrifices were offered, incense was burned, special prayers were chanted, festive meals were eaten and the shofar was blown.
Rosh Chodesh has traditionally been identified as sacred for the women of Israel.
According to tradition, the holiday was given to the women because they refused to surrender their jewelry for the making of the Golden Calf.
As a result of their righteousness and faith, they were given a sort of “Sabbath holiday.” They celebrated by eating festive meals together, lighting candles and refraining from work.
Traditions pertaining to Rosh Chodesh have changed since the days of sacrifices and feasts. The holiday is observed 11 times each year (we skip it during the month of Tishrei, because Rosh Hashanah celebrates the new year as well as the new month) and is celebrated by reciting special blessings and prayers in synagogue.
From the 16th to the early 20th century, women of Eastern Europe wrote special, personal prayers on the sighting of the new moon called tekhines, expressing their innermost feelings and hopes.
The emergence of the feminist movement in the late 1960s inspired Jewish women to create new venues to discuss and explore their relationship to Jewish ritual, prayer, spirituality and community.
Rosh Chodesh groups have blossomed and become a part of mainstream Judaism for women of all ages, including teens.
Today, over 300 groups such as “Rosh Chodesh: It’s a Girl Thing!” and “A Taste of Rosh Chodesh” have been launched in congregations, day schools and teen programs throughout North America.
Information on Rosh Chodesh programs in Denver and Boulder:
Sierra Shaffer, firstname.lastname@example.org, 303-320-6185; or Moving Traditions Colorado Director Melanie Gruenwald, email@example.com.