Rosh Chodesh, the celebration of the new moon is a special holiday that is important for Am Yisrael. It is the first mitzvah given to the Jews in Egypt before they left. Let’s learn more about it.
This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you. — Shemos 12:2
Rosh Chodesh (the first day of the Hebrew month) is a good time for renewal, and it therefore brings a special sense of joy. But the joy of Rosh Chodesh is not expressed outwardly as is the case with Jewish holidays. The reason for this is that while it is true that on Rosh Chodesh we are granted an “opening” to renew ourselves, we must nonetheless make the effort to enter this opening in order to absorb the sanctity of Rosh Chodesh and to continue forward in this spirit for the remainder of the month.
Is there an obligation to eat a festive meal on Rosh Chodesh?
Rosh Chodesh belongs to that category of festive days which call for joy, as it is written, “Also in the day of your gladness, and in your solemn days, and in the beginnings of your months, you shall blow with the trumpets over your burnt offerings, and over the sacrifices of your peace offerings” (Numbers 10:10), and the Prophets explain that it was the custom for people to hold a festive meal on this day (see 1 Samuel 20).But there is no explicit commandment to be joyful with food and drink. Therefore, Jewish law concludes that while one who has a special meal in honor of Rosh Chodesh indeed fulfills a Torah commandment, it is nonetheless not obligatory to do so (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 419:1).
The Commandment to Eat a Special Rosh Chodesh Meal
The essence of the commandment is for a person to bestow honor upon Rosh Chodesh by adding a special dish to those which he is accustomed to eating every day. The commandment to add a special food in honor of Rosh Chodesh applies even when Rosh Chodesh falls on the Sabbath (Mishnah Berurah, Orach Chaim 418:2, 419:1-2).
And even though there is no obligation to eat bread as part of the Rosh Chodesh meal, one who does so fulfills a commandment (Shaarei Tziyun 418:1).
According to Sefer HaYere’im (227) one is obligated to be joyful on Rosh Chodesh by eating meat and drinking wine. However, all other authorities say that while there is no such obligation, one who does this fulfills a commandment. Therefore, those who are strict in their observance eat meat and drink wine on Rosh Chodesh. It is also a good idea to set the table in a respectable manner in honor of the Rosh Chodesh meal (Ben Ish Chai, Vayikra 10).
Even when Rosh Chodesh falls on a Friday, one fulfills a commandment by adding a special food to his meal in honor of Rosh Chodesh. This meal should be eaten relatively early so that one not spoil his appetite for the Sabbath evening meal.
When should the commandment be fulfilled?
When Rosh Chodesh lasts for two days, there is a commandment to have special Rosh Chodesh meals on both days.
The commandment applies primarily to the daytime. Regarding nighttime, some say that there is no need to have a special meal (Magen Avraham, Mishnah Berurah 419:2). On the other hand, there are those who hold that while the commandment indeed applies primarily to the daytime, one who has such a meal at night also fulfills the commandment (Rama MiPano 79; Eshel Avraham Botshatsh).
Mourning and Fasting Forbidden
It is forbidden to grieve on Rosh Chodesh, and therefore it is forbidden to fast (Shulchan Arukh 418:1). Whoever refrains from eating on Rosh Chodesh for even a short period of time with the intention of fasting has perfomed a transgression. However, if by chance a person did not have an opportunity to eat for a few hours, this is not a problem (Beur Halakha 418, s.v. “Rosh Chodesh Asur”; Kaf HaChaim 3). Strictly speaking, even if one only eats fruits, he is not considered to be fasting and therefore has committed no offense. Such a person has simply not fulfilled the commandment to eat a special meal in honor of Rosh Hodesh.
It is forbidden to do something on Rosh Chodesh which will cause grief. Therefore, one may not eulogize the dead on Rosh Chodesh. If the deceased was a Torah Scholar, it is permitted to eulogize him in his presence (Shulchan Arukh 420:1; Mishnah Berurah 1; Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 401:5).
Visiting the Cemetery on Rosh Chodesh
It is customary not to go to the cemetery on Rosh Chodesh in order to avoid causing grief. Relatives of a deceased person whose yearly or thirtieth-day memorial falls on Rosh Chodesh should visit his grave on the day before Rosh Chodesh. If they are unable to visit on the day before Rosh Chodesh, they should go afterward. However, it is permissible to visit the graves of the righteous on Rosh Chodesh, for this does not involve grief or bereavement.
A Special Sacrifice
The Torah employs a most peculiar expression to describe the goat which is offered as a sacrifice on Rosh Chodesh – “a sin offering for God.” The idea underlying this matter is explained in the Talmud (Chulin 60b):
“Initially, God created two great illuminating planets: the sun and the moon. But the moon came before God and asked, ‘How is it possible for two kings to rule under one crown?’ The moon intended to have God diminish the size of the sun so that it be able to rule alone. However, the Almighty said to the moon, ‘Go diminish yourself.’ The moon responded, ‘For making a good point before you, I have to diminish myself?’ God comforted the moon by declaring that the People of Israel would count the months according to the moon. In addition, the righteous will be named after you. However, the moon was not consoled by this. God said to Israel, ‘Bring an atoning sacrifice for Me because I diminished the moon.’ Therefore it is written, ‘There shall be one goat as a sin offering for God’ (Numbers 28:15).
The Meaning of Rosh Chodesh
This matter is most profound. Very plainly, though, we can explain that the diminishing of the moon is an expression of creation’s deficiency, the fall which the soul experiences on its way to this world, and all of the falls man experiences in this world. All of these falls and deficiencies are for the sake of ascending. By facing the difficulties we eventually merit reaching a higher level. In the words of Rabbi Abahu, “[Even] the completely righteous do not stand in the place where penitents stand” (Berakhot 34b).
However, in the mean time, the Almighty has commanded us to sacrifice the sin offering. This, then, is the central theme of Rosh Chodesh: to demonstrate how a new beginning sprouts up via the diminishing of the moon which was caused by sin and disparagement. Therefore, Rosh Chodesh is a good time for renewal and repentance, and it contains deep joy. However, until the world is redeemed from all of its shortcomings, the joy of Rosh Chodesh remains somewhat hidden and does not reveal itself completely.
The Custom to Recite Hallel on Rosh Chodesh
It is a Jewish custom to recite Hallel (special verses of thanksgiving) on Rosh Chodesh. Strictly speaking, there is no obligation to recite this prayer on Rosh Chodesh, for one is only obligated to recite Hallel on those days which are called “mo’ed” and on which it is forbidden to perform labor. And while it is true that Rosh Chodesh is called “mo’ed,” it is nonetheless permitted to perform labor thereupon. Therefore, there is no obligation to recite Hallel on Rosh Chodesh.
However, the people of Israel have made a custom of reciting Hallel on Rosh Chodesh in order to give expression to the sanctity of the day, for via the sanctity of Rosh Chodesh it is possible to ascent to the level of reciting Hallel before God. And in order that it be clear that Hallel is recited on Rosh Chodesh as a custom and not as an obligation, portions of two chapters of the Hallel are left out (From chapters 113 to 118 of Psalms, which constitute the body of the Hallel, 115:1-11 and 116:1-11 are left out).
Discrepancy Regarding the Blessing Over Hallel
Early authorities are at ends regarding the blessing over Hallel. According to Rambam and Rashi, because the recitation of Hallel on Rosh Chodesh is based upon a custom, we do not bless over it, for one is not allowed to bless over the performance of a custom. According to Rabenu Tam, Rosh, and Ran, we do bless over important customs like the reading of Hallel.
In fact, there are three opinions amongst early authorities: a) according to Rashi and Rambam a blessing is not recited over Hallel on Rosh Chodesh, b) according to many early authorities a blessing is recited over Hallel of Rosh Chodesh, and this is the opinion of Hilkhot Gedolot, Ritz Gi’at, Raavad, Rabenu Tam, Rosh, and Ran, c) according to Rav Hai Goan, Rabenu Chananel, and the school of Rabenu Yona, if Hallel is recited as a congregation, it is recited with Hallel, but without a prayer quorum no blessing is recited over Hallel.
The Custom in Practice
In practice, all three customs have been accepted by the Jewish people. The Ashkenazi custom to recite a blessing over Hallel on Rosh Chodesh is well known, and even if one recites the Hallel alone one blesses.
However, when it comes to the practice of Sephardic Jewry there are varying customs. Though in the past it was the custom of the Jews of Spain to bless over Hallel on Rosh Chodesh, in accordance with the opinion of Ran and Maggid Mishneh. However, today the consensus is that an individual does not recite a blessing, but in a congregation some hold that a blessing is made and others hold that a blessing is not made.
Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 422:2) writes that the custom of Sephardic Jewry living in and around the Land of Israel is to refrain from blessing. However, the custom of most Sephardic communities from North Africa (amongst them Morocco, Tunis, and Gibraltar) is to bless over Hallel when recited in a prayer quorum. The predominant custom is for the prayer leader to bless before and after Hallel thus discharging the congregation of this obligation. This was the practice in Turkey, and this was the opinion of Rabbi Moshe Chalfon HaCohen, rabbinic chief justice of Gibraltar (Brit Kehuna, Orach Chaim 200:5), and Rabbi Plaji (Kaf HaChaim 33), This opinion is also upheld by such works as Shlamei Chagiga pg. 224, Chesed Le’alafim 422:2, and Shaar Hamifkad. This custom was also followed in Tunis, as recorded in Shut Sho’el Venishal v. 2, pg. 60, and Shut Mikveh Hamayim v. 3, pg. 24. This custom is also supported by Rabbi Shalom Meshash (Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem) in Tevu’ot Shemesh, Orach Chaim 68, and he himself was accustomed to blessing quietly with the prayer leader. In practice, it is best for every ethnic community to continue practicing its own custom.
When Different Ethnic Communities Pray Together
When members of disparate ethnic communities pray together it is best that, even if the prayer leader’s personal custom is not to bless, one of the congregants whose custom is to bless over Hallel on Rosh Chodesh recite the blessings loudly before and after Hallel with the intention of discharging the congregation of this obligation. In this manner, Jews of North African origin are able to maintain their custom.
In such a situation even those who do not customarily bless over the Hallel should answer amen. By doing this they comply with the rulings of all authorities, for, as noted, most early authorities are of the opinion that one must bless over Hallel on Rosh Chodesh, and while it is clear that those who have the custom not to bless must maintain their custom (for they rely upon Rambam and Rashi and the custom of their fathers), when they pray with friends whose custom it is to bless, it is proper for them to hear the blessing and answer amen, thus complying with the opinions of all authorities. I heard this from our mentor the Rishon LeTziyon, Rabbi Mordecai Eliyahu (who sees no reason to be apprehensive of the position cited in Yachve Daat 4:31).
Reprinted from http://www.yeshiva.co/midrash/shiur.asp?id=4005