Going Against the Tide on Rosh Chodesh

hero image
Change Arrows
05 Feb 2019

When I was a kid, my mother would try to make Rosh Chodesh a Thing: we would often have a nicer dinner and eat it in the dining room. As I got older, I tried to remember on my own to make Rosh Chodesh special somehow, maybe wear something other than a jean skirt, but over the years found it hard enough just to remember everything in davening and bentching.

Several months ago, though, a friend reintroduced me to the topic. Once I’d looked up a few sources, I resolved anew to make Rosh Chodesh a Thing.

The Tur (Orach Chaim 417) says there is no prohibition of melacha on Rosh Chodesh, except for a minhag among some women, which he cites from the Yerushalmi. There is of course much discussion about all that, before and after the Tur – such as whether there is any halachic value in male avoidance of melacha, and the extent of what a woman with such a custom should or should not do. But the basic idea that there is such a custom among women, with ancient roots and that should be taken seriously, is clear. The Tur also quotes a midrash to explain how women came to have this connection with Rosh Chodesh:

Aharon made a determination within himself. He said: If I say, “give me silver and gold,” they will bring it immediately. Rather, I will tell them “give me the earrings of your wives, your sons, and your daughters” – and immediately the matter will be nullified…

The women heard, and they were not willing and did not accept on themselves to give their earrings to their husbands. Rather, they said “To make a disgusting abomination, that has no power to save, we will not listen to you.”

And the Holy One, blessed be He, gave their reward in this world, that they guard the new moons more than the men do. (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer chapter 45)

There is so much to say about this midrash, but what really caught my attention was the wording used to describe the women’s reaction. As soon as they heard, they were so emphatically opposed that the midrash needs two phrases to express their opposition, and then makes a point of quoting their own words about it as well. “They were not willing” sounds to me like it could have been simply that they didn’t feel like doing what was suggested to them, but “did not accept on themselves” (לא קבלו עליהן) perhaps adds a little more nuance, suggesting that there was something handed to them – not just a request, maybe, but a command – that they did not accept. After all, don’t we use that language when talking about our nation’s acceptance of mitzvot?

That connotation is further supported by how they phrased their refusal: “To make a disgusting abomination … we will not listen to you.” It’s important to realize, first of all, that this was not just about the women wanting to keep their shiny jewelry. The midrash is telling us they might well have listened and handed it over if it were for a good use. (Consider another famous midrash about women donating pretty things: they happily gave their mirrors to be used in the Mishkan!) And second, though I’m no expert in ancient gender roles and expectations, I get the sense from this wording that there was some expectation of acquiescence underlying this whole episode – but instead, they refused.

This wording made me think about how hard it is to go against the tide. Maybe we tend always to vote our party line, and it would be easy to just continue in that habit – but when faced with a particular issue or individual, we take a stand: “No, for this, I will not just listen!” Maybe we’re used to telling our kids they can’t do something, but circumstances change and we realize it’s time to say “yes.” Even physical habits, like “hold onto the thing in your hand,” can be hard to overcome. Sometimes when crossing the street with my kids, I coach myself: If a car comes speeding along out of nowhere, drop the bags and grab the kid. I practice releasing my fingers in my mind.

How hard must it have been for the women of that time to let go of habits and expectations, to say No! To do this, we will not listen.

But maybe it’s not so surprising. After all, the same generation of women, according to a number of midrashic texts, were the ones who resisted trends before the desert and Har Sinai too, urging their husbands not to give up hope but to live their lives as well as they could and find the courage to produce another generation despite devastating circumstances. Because of the righteous women, our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt.

I don’t know why it would have been the women more than the men; that’s not my interest here. I’m simply noting that a segment of the population managed repeatedly to go against the tide, to resist natural reactions to terrifying circumstances and take a stand with integrity. No, we will not give up on our people and our continuity, even when the future seems hopeless. No, we will not be swayed by the fear that Moshe is lost, and betray the G-d Who just did so much for us; your “disgusting abomination…has no power to save!”

One segment of the population was able to see clearly through the fog of terror of losing Moshe, through the fog perhaps of general expectations, and say No. For this, we will not listen.

And because they wouldn’t yield, they were given a gift: “to guard the new moons.”

Funny; it sounds more like a job than a gift. What does it mean to guard the new moons?

I’m sure I’m not the first to suggest a connection here between steadfast faith and the waxing and waning of the moon. The moon seems to disappear each month – like hope seemed to disappear in Egypt, like Moshe seemed to disappear up the mountain – but we have faith that it will come back. We “guard” it: we watch, because we know it will come back. (Cf. Rashi on Bereishit 37:11: “and his father guarded the matter” – “he was waiting and looking ahead, when it would come…”) So maybe this isn’t a reward per se, but a recognition: You were the ones who guarded faith through those years in the desert; you were the ones to guard faith at Sinai; you will be able to continue to guard faith through the ups and downs of each month, each stage of life, into the future.

It may have been a promise to the women, but the midrash offers a message for all, to keep the faith and do what each situation calls for even against the current.

And the custom developed that women in particular commemorate this message by avoiding melacha on Rosh Chodesh. I wish I could say I maintain this practice completely; I wish I could even say I knew for sure which activities to avoid. I find it comforting that halachic writers refer to various minhagim, suggesting there’s no one universal standard I should be upholding, but also a little sad that I’m not aware of a specific longstanding family minhag that I could preserve.

My mother did teach me to make Rosh Chodesh special, though, and I’ve renewed my efforts to do so. Except that I’d rather go out to eat (when possible), or just take something from the freezer and stick it in the oven, than work harder to cook something nicer. The friend who got me thinking about this framed the minhag in terms of the importance of giving ourselves a break sometimes; my first reaction was that that wasn’t what the midrash was about, but now I think there might be something to it. In addition to being easier (well, depending on the kids and the restaurant), I like to think of creating that break as going against the grain. The very notion of doing something differently on Rosh Chodesh, and even specifically not doing something we typically do, seems like a nice reminder not to get swept up in the habits of our lives but to think critically and drop the normal when the normal needs dropping.

Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.