The holiness of a new month
People often ask why religion matters. What is its value added? A very good answer is “religious metaphysics,” a view of the universe beyond physics — beyond science altogether. Science maps brain changes associated with doing good deeds, solving equations, or seeing beautiful sunsets. Religion tells us that goodness, truth, and beauty are realities worth having, not just because we like them but because they are holy (or sacred, a word meaning the same thing).
Holiness has no color, shape or form: It is not scientific. But it is real nonetheless — metaphysically real. Consider the new moon, for example.
The moon appears to circle the earth every 29 to 30 days, making new-moon day (Rosh Chodesh) the 30th or 31st. But without calendars, our ancestors relied on observation, so whenever the new moon appeared (the night of the 29th or the 30th), they declared it m’kudash, “holy.”
The Hebrew word for “holy,” however, is kadosh, not m’kudash. M’kudash is the passive form of the verb m’kadesh, “to declare [something] holy.” M’kudash (the passive) means “declared holy.”
When the new moon arrived, our ancestors said m’kudash — not “holy” but “declared holy,” the point being that holiness does not fully enter our lives without the human recognition of it.
Indeed, the Rabbis went so far as to establish a legal fiction that allowed them to overrule times when the new moon falls inconveniently. If Rosh Chodesh Tishrei (Rosh HaShanah) were to fall on Wednesday, for example, Yom Kippur day would fall on Friday, preventing us from cooking dinner for Shabbat that night. If Rosh HaShanah were to fall on Friday, Yom Kippur would follow immediately after Shabbat, preventing us from preparing the necessary pre-fast dinner. To avoid such inconveniences, the Talmud rules that of the two options (the 30th or the 31st), we choose not the more accurate date but the more advantageous one. New-moon holiness occurs when we say so, not necessarily when the new moon actually appears.
Holy time, in general, requires declaration. At the dawn of time, we say, God declared Shabbat holy. We greet Shabbat with the prayer that we call Kiddush (from the verb m’kadesh), our own declaration of the day’s holiness. With no declarations of their holiness, Shabbat becomes an ordinary Saturday and the first of every month is just another day.
Sometimes, holiness comes about through what philosophers call “performative language” where just saying something makes it so. Take marriages. The justice of the peace names a couple “husband and wife” — and they are. So, too, in Jewish weddings, one member of the couple tells the other, “You are declared holy unto me.” They announce their intent to be holy to one another — and they are. As such, they implicitly promise to treat each other altogether differently. What Shabbat is to ordinary time, their marriage is to all other relationships that each of them might have.
Metaphysics has a bad reputation and it deserves better. Physics describes the way the world operates. Aesthetics and ethics, equally real (we would all agree), investigate beauty and morality. Metaphysics summons us to yet another dimension, spirituality, and its recognition of the holy. Holiness is to spirituality as the good is to ethics and the beautiful to aesthetics.
The Hebrew month Kislev arrives this coming week, but if we are not careful, the new moon that heralds it can come and go unnoticed. Hence the importance of this Shabbat, which tells us to do the noticing. It is known as Shabbat M’varkhim (The Sabbath of Blessing), because it prepares us to acknowledge the new month’s arrival, and thereby to be blessed by its holiness: awe before the miracle of nature’s regularity; the opportunities peculiar to “this” month — but not the months before or after; and hope for a new beginning that every new month brings.
The whole point of religion might be its acknowledgement of metaphysical realities. The new month will happen on its own. But it takes religion to find the holiness in it.