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Reflection on Rosh Chodesh and Hanukkah
Douglas Aronin
December 26, 2003

What was it that provoked the Hasmonean revolt that is the central story of Hanukkah? We are told in the first book of Maccabees that Antiochus, the king of the Syrian Greek (Seleucid) empire, prohibited the Jews from observing three mitzvot: brit milah (circumcision), Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh (the New Moon). It was those prohibitions that provoked the rebellion whose successful conclusion we celebrate on Hanukkah.

Why did the Syrian Greeks choose those particular mitzvot to suppress?

The first two prohibitions are easy to understand. Circumcision is not only the most visible (and indelible) sign of the Jews' covenant with God, but it was also a direct challenge to the Hellenistic belief in the perfection of the human body. Shabbat, then as now, was the foundation of Jewish life, a constant affirmation that God created the universe (which contradicted the Aristotelian belief in the eternity of matter) and a frequent interference with full Jewish participation in the rhythm of Hellenistic culture.

But why Rosh Chodesh? To Jews today, Rosh Chodesh is more an afterthought than a momentous event. For the most part, we don't really celebrate Rosh Chodesh, but merely acknowledge it by making some changes in our tefillot (prayers) on that day. Indeed, if not for the practice of announcing the day of Rosh Chodesh in shul on the previous Shabbat, many of us would probably forget it entirely. Was Rosh Chodesh a more significant observance in the time of the second Temple, or is there some other reason that the Hellenists chose Rosh Chodesh as one of the key Jewish practices that they wanted to prohibit?

In at least one respect, the observance of Rosh Chodesh in Temple times did differ from its observance today. In those days there was no fixed calendar, and the Sanhedrin, meeting in a chamber on the Temple Mount, heard witnesses testify to the sighting of the new moon. Only after hearing the witnesses confirm the New Moon's appearance would the Sanhedrin proclaim the beginning of the new month.  Only then would Jews know when Rosh Chodesh fell, and thus when the holidays that fell during the ensuing month would be celebrated.

So why did the Syrian Greeks try to ban the observance of Rosh Chodesh? Most likely because they realized that it was Rosh Chodesh that enabled the Jews to live in their own timeframe, rather than in the timeframe of the Hellenistic society around them. And by waiting each month for the Sanhedrin to proclaim the arrival of the new moon, the Jewish people demonstrated that the ultimate authority over the rhythm of their lives lay not with the rulers of the Greek empire but with the teachers of Torah.

Rosh Chodesh symbolizes God's never-ending role in the lives we lead as Jews.  Although we now use a fixed calendar, the Jewish ideal of how to mark the passage of time is epitomized by the manner in which we once determined the day of Rosh Chodesh: we looked heavenward for the first appearance of the New Moon, the first tiny hint that the moon's natural cycle of renewal had begun. Rosh Chodesh is a constant reminder that the rhythm of our lives -- even that part which is tied to the cycles of nature -- is in God's hands.

It is hard to ignore the indelible connection between Rosh Chodesh, which serves as the foundation of the Jewish calendar, and Hanukkah, which celebrates the Jewish victory in the battle for the right to maintain that calendar. After all, at least one of the days of Hanukkah (two this year) is also Rosh Chodesh Tevet.

The juxtaposition of Rosh Chodesh and Hanukkah reminds us that the ongoing story of Jewish life involves both God's role and ours. It is God whose guidance we seek in determining the rhythms of our lives, but the battle to dominate the lives of the people He has chosen is very much a human endeavor.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons that the Rosh Chodesh we celebrate during Hanukkah is the only on which we recite the full Hallel (instead of the abbreviated version we recite on every other Rosh Chodesh): only when we, like the Maccabees, accept our responsibility in the eternal battle to preserve God's place in our world can we experience fully the joy in God's gifts that the monthly renewal of the moon is intended to symbolize.

As we recite in Hallel on both Hanukkah and Rosh Chodesh: "The heavens are the heavens of the Lord, but the earth He has given to mankind." (Psalms 114:15) The heavens to which we look for the New Moon are always His, but making His presence felt on the earth He has given to mankind is our job.

Chodesh tov and chag urim sameach.