Welcome to “Share a Prayer” a quick look at a prayer that is found in our daily, Shabbat or Holy Day Prayer Service. Often during the course of the service we encounter some real gems that we don’t have time to reflect upon; this will give us an opportunity to select one prayer and take a closer look at it.
Any great magician will tell you that the best place to hide something is in plain sight. This is especially true with the Birchat Ha Hodesh, the Blessing of the New Month that is recited in the synagogue on the Shabbat before the first day of each Hebrew Month; except Tishrei, the first month which begins with Rosh Hashanah. While most of us see this prayer when it comes around, not all of us realize the hidden significance it has in our tradition and its relevance to our modern lives.
The Hebrew calendar, unlike its secular counterpart, is based on the cycles of the Moon. Thus, in order to be sure that all festivals and sacred occasions are observed on the proper date, it is vital to know precisely when, based on the appearance of a new moon, the new month begins. In ancient times, before the advent of the printed calendar, the ruling rabbinic authority known as the Sanhedrin was empowered to determine and proclaim the official beginning of each lunar month. After a lengthy process of hearing testimony from witnesses who claimed to have seen the new moon, the court would announce the new month by lighting a series of signal fires on mountain tops. Incidentally, because of the complexity of this process and the length of time it may take for the news to spread, the custom arose that is still in effect today, to observe two days of each holiday outside of Israel in order to make sure we don’t make an error and celebrate on the wrong date. Soon after the establishment of a fixed calendar by the renowned sage Hillel in 358 C.E, the proclamation of the new month shifted to the blessing recited in the synagogue on the Shabbat preceding Rosh Hodesh; Birchat Ha Hodesh.
The prayer begins with a text originally said after the recitation of the Amidah (similar to the Elohai N’tzor that we talked about last time) by the great 3rd century Talmudic sage known as Rav. Rav’s petition asks for a month filled with such blessings as a life of peace, a life of prosperity, a life of health, a life of love of Torah and a life of freedom from sin. A request that the miraculous deeds of the past be extended to our time to provide freedom and fellowship for all of our people, introduces the official announcement of the day on which the new month will begin. Following the actual proclamation, there is an expression of hope that the new month will bring about a renewal in all of Israel of life, peace, salvation and comfort.
Our Jewish tradition views each Rosh Hodesh as a mini Rosh Hashanah. In fact there are those who observe a “Yom Kippur Kattan”, a “small Day of Atonement”, in conjunction with certain months. For us this means that not just once a year but each month we are afforded the possibility of a process of reflection, introspection, change and renewal. Thus it is only fitting to mark the New Month with some fanfare and to pray that we are all granted a life full of peace, health, prosperity – a life full of all the Blessings contained in the Birchat Ha Hodesh.