This Shabbat we turn over a new leaf on our Jewish calendars and make the transition from the end of the month of Tevet to the new month of Shevat.
In the normal course of life lived by the Gregorian calendar (That's the January, February one....), the only new month that is marked by more than "it's the first of the month, what bills are due?" is, of course, January . . . and that is by virtue of its place as the first month of the new year. Oh, and April, of course (April Fool's Day and "yikes! my tax returns are due in two weeks! . . . hmm, do you think there's some connection there?). The word "month" has its etymological roots in the word for "moon," which does reflect the thirty-ish day cycle from new moon to new moon which defines the thirty-six day duration of the month.
In our Jewish, lunar calendar, the beginning of each new month is an opportunity to pause for a spiritual refresher. Our liturgy is enhanced by an additional unit called "Hallel" ("praise"), a series of psalms bracketed with blessings focussing on our desire to praise God for the blessings in our lives, for God's redeeming acts and our hopes for the continuation of those blessings and ultimate redemption.
The significance of a thirty-day cycle has not been lost on the sages who have shaped our tradition, and so the beginning of each new month in our Jewish calendar is considered to be a semi-holiday for women. In some communities, women won't engaged in their most common "food, clothing, shelter" activities like sewing or knitting or even cooking and cleaning. There is also a lovely tradition of women coming together on the first evening of the new month to study together, eat together, sing together . . . whatever nourishes their souls.
This special day, the first day of the Hebrew month is called Rosh Hodesh. There is a familiar ring to this term, as we know that the beginning of the new Jewish year is called "Rosh Hashanah" . . . "rosh" meaning "head" or "beginning" or "top;" "shanah" meaning "year."
So, you've probably surmised that "Hodesh" means "month."
But the Hebrew word "Hodesh" has nothing to do with the moon, or the number thirty . . .
Of all languages, I'd say that Hebrew is one of the easiest to learn as a second language . . . there is a pretty logical and consistent structure. Not to say there aren't any exceptions, but way fewer than English, for example. Hebrew words are built around a three-letter root and words related by meaning to that root are formed by adding prefixes and suffixes and changing around the vowels on that three-letter root.
So, for example, our Hebrew word "Hodesh," (month) is based on the three-letter root: ח ד ש
You'll get a sense for the meaning associated with our Hebrew word for month by looking at other words that are formed from Hodesh's three-letter root, like:
חדש / hadash which means "new"
חידוש / hidush which means "innovation"
להתחדש / l'hit'hadeish which means "to renew"
So, woven into our Jewish concept of month is a sense of newness. A mini-clean-slate opportunity to gather our thoughts and our resources and our intentions and do a little better. An opportunity for a new perspective as the seasons change. A moment to appreciate the blessings in our lives, the proper functioning of our bodies, the significance of our friends in our lives. For women, a tradition-based appreciation of our gender.
Each חודש / hodesh / month of our Jewish year has its own special character, which is often drawn from the holidays or holy days that take place during that month. Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is a time for introspection. Kislev, the month in which Hanukah occurs, is a time to contemplate the power of light and the significance of Jewish identity. Nissan, the month in which Passover occurs, is a time for the appreciation of the renewal of life in the spring and our gratitude to God for redemption and inspiration.
Shevat, the month that begins this Shabbat (and it's just a coincidence that Rosh Hodesh falls on Shabbat this month) is a time to look forward to spring, to appreciate seasons, to renew our commitment to take care of the natural world created and entrusted to us by God. On the 15th of the month of Shevat, we pause to enjoy some of the foods indigenous to the Land of Israel which bring sweetness and sustenance to our lives in an evocative (and fun!) T'u Bishevat Seder.
This year, here at Torat Yisrael, we will celebrate these delicious and inspirational foods at our T'u Bishevat Seder on Friday, January 25th at 5:15 pm. We'll enjoy the food and songs and readings, and then enjoy a family-friendly Shabbat dinner, concluding the evening with our 7:30 pm Shabbat evening service and Oneg Shabbat. I hope you'll join us!
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.