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B'Midbar/Numbers 28:11 And on the firsts of your months, you shall offer a burnt-offering to the L-rd: two bulls, sons of the herd, and one ram, seven year-old male lambs, without blemish.
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This week's text discusses the sacrifices to be brought in the temple on the occasion of Rosh Khodesh - literally "the head of the month" - the New Moon festival each month. Unlike the weekly Shabbat and the major mo'edim, appointed times through the year, Rosh Khodesh does not appear in the list of festivals in Vayikra 23, although its existence is taken for granted as all the mo'edim are dated by their day within a certain month. Even the minor festivals, such as Purim and Hanukkah are dated within the months of the calendar. We need to know when the first of each month occurs so that we can celebrate Pesach and Sukkot on the right day! DonAbravanel points out that "on your new moons" means "all the new moons of the year" as verse fourteen explicitly says; "had it said merely 'on the new moon' it could haven been interpreted as referring to the special new moon, the new moon of Nisan." Chizkuni clarifies that "for each new moon of the year" (B'Midbar 28:14, NJPS) does not refer to any arbitrary day during the month, but "the renewal of the moon", adding that "this offering can be presented only on that day, not on any other."
In spite of living in a world that works on a solar calendar, the Jewish calendar is lunar - it is based upon the regular twenty nine and a half day cycle of the moon. During that time the moon changes from being a tight crescent to a full round orb, then back to a tight crescent facing the other way and finally a day without the moon being visible before the next new moon is seen. The use of the moon as a calendar is first established for the Israelites as we left Egypt.HaShem said to us, "This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you" (Shemot 12:2, NJPS) and then gave the instructions for the first Pesach, Passover, starting with the selection of a lamb, or kid, "on the tenth of this month" (v. 3, NJPS). Thereafter, we find that the calendar numbers from that point: "On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai" (19:1, NJPS). The festivals listed in Vayikra 23 are all dated that way: "In the seventh month, on the first day of the month", "the tenth day of this seventh month", "on the fifteenth day of this seventh month" (v. 24,27,34, NJPS).
OvadiahSforno tells us that "the ancient Israelite custom was to regard the new moon day as a holy day during which special sacrifices were brought." Jacob Milgrom reports that "in early Israel, it was an important festival"; it is mentioned by Isaiah (Isaiah 1:13-14), included as a "festive season" by Hosea (2:13) and is cited as the day when Saul's hatred against David was disclosed to Jonathan (1 Samuel 5:34). It was observed as a rest day like Shabbat (Amos 8:5) and was considered a good day to visit a man of G-d (2 Kings 4:23). The Torah says that silver trumpets were sounded over the burnt offerings "on your joyous occasions -- your fixed festivals and new moon days -- you shall sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being. They shall be a reminder of you before your G-d: I, the L-RD, am your G-d" (B'Midbar 10:10, NJPS), while the Psalmist calls for the blowing of the shofar: "Blow the horn on the new moon, on the full moon for our feast day" (Psalm 81:4, NJPS).
Milgrom also comments on the quantity and type of the Rosh Khodesh offerings, suggesting that "the importance of the New Moon is reflected in its sacrificial inventory: it equals the number of offerings on other important festivals." Thomas Dozeman agrees: "The quantity of the sacrifice on New Moon indicates its importance in the priestly calendar. It equals the number of offerings for Pesach and Shavuot."1 Drazin and Wagner point out that "even today Rosh Khodesh retains a special status; additions are made to the prayer service and grace after meals on this day each month." Liturgically, Judaism still remembers this day as being significant. Rosh Khodesh starts each month and therefore synchronises all the other festivals or fast days in that month for the whole of the Jewish world. The other major mo'edim are, to that extent, dependent on Rosh Khodesh. Rosh Khodesh takes the role of an alarm clock each month for the days of holiness that follow, allowing us to prepare and be ready. Rosh Khodesh is a day for worship, now and in the future. In the new heaven and new earth, says HaShem, "And new moon after new moon, and sabbath after sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship Me -- said the L-RD" (Isaiah 66:23, NJPS). It must be important, since He says it again in the very next verse to end the book: "And new moon after new moon, and sabbath after sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship Me -- said the L-RD" (v. 24, NJPS).
On a further note, Dennis Olson observes that "the sacrifices at these appointed times function as markers of points of crossing, boundaries and transitions that are deemed dangerous but manageable through proper ritual observance and sacrifice. These observances of time and its boundaries provide the people with a way of participating in G-d's ongoing creation of order in the cosmos."FootNote(2) The darkness of the night when there is no moon could be a dangerous time for travelling, for those tending sheep, for those at sea; the return of the moon's light would be a time for rejoicing, heralding another month of safety by moonlight. RabbiHirsch takes a slightly more esoteric note, commenting that "Rosh Khodesh eternally beckons, raising [us] afresh to the sanctifying and healing Light of the proximity of our G-d out of the misery of darkness away from Him into which we may have sunk, such is the call which we are to received at the sight of every new moon." Rosh Khodesh provides a regular opportunity to be reminded of G-d's permanent call to renewal and awakening, to connect again with our Master, Yeshua, and to choose again to walk in His light and His ways.
The darkening of the moon appears in a number of prophetic predictions such as this one, concerning the judgement of the nations by HaShem in the Valley of Jehoshaphat: "Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the winepress is full. The vats overflow, for their evil is great. Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining" (Joel 3:13-15, ESV)). Yeshua too used the sign of the moon when talking about His own return: "Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory" (Matthew 24:29-30, ESV).
How is Rosh Khodesh regulated? Does everyone simply see the moon for themselves and order their calendar according to what they have seen? No, that way lies complete chaos! Abraham Bloch reports that "the prerogative of proclaiming Rosh Khodesh originally belonged to the high priest",3 although the Sages of the Talmud tell us that Elisha performed this function in the northern kingdom, while King Hezekiah is alleged to have done this in Judea (b. Sanhedrin 12a). In Second Temple times, Rosh Khodesh was proclaimed by the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem when they received two reliable reports of the sighting of the new moon. Eliyahu Kitov says that when Messiah comes, "an ordained Sanhedrin will again exist and sanctify the months based on the testimony of witnesses,"4 but in the meanwhile we live with a calendar calculated using the rules set in place by a special Sanhedrin convened by Hillel ha-Nasi in the years following the codification of the Mishnah and declared holy in advance.
It would, seem, both in the synagogue and certainly in the church, that Rosh Khodesh is the neglected feast. Relegated to a few prayers in the synagogue liturgy and completely ignored by the church, its significance for our day has been forgotten. Rav Sha'ul explains why we should recover and reinstate a significant observation of Rosh Khodesh in both contexts: "Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Messiah" (Colossians 2:16-17, ESV). Rosh Khodesh is a shadow, a pointer to Messiah, made in His image. We should use Rosh Khodesh as a monthly reminder of Yeshua's return and a call to reconnect with Him. As each month passes until He returns, we should be reminded of the coming judgement and the need to share His good news and invitation with people who don't know Him. We should blow trumpets or the shofar during our times of worship to remind G-d that we are still here and haven't forgotten His commandments. Some congregations remember Yeshua in matzah and the fruit of the vine at or after Rosh Khodesh. We should regulate our lives not by the sun, using the solar calendar that the world uses, but by the moon - G-d's calendar of renewal - as we reflect Yeshua's glory.
1. - Thomas B. Dozeman, "Numbers" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 823.
2. - Dennis T. Olson, Numbers, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), pages 170-171.
3. - Abraham P. Bloch, The Biblical and Historical Background of the Jewish Holy Days (New York, Ktav, 1978), page 193.
4. - Eliyahu Kitov, The Book of Our Heritage tr. Nachman Bulman, revised edition, (Jerusalem, Feldheim, 1997), page 216.
Further Study: Ezekiel 45:17; Luke 21:25-28; Romans 14:10-13
Application: Have a think about how can you start keeping Rosh Khodesh regularly and being ready for Yeshua's return. Speak to the Master about it today and ask where you should start.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2022
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