RJ Winter 2000

Ritual: A Women's Circle Under a New Moon

by Marge Eiseman

How To Start a Rosh Hodesh Group
Ask the Author: The RJ Author's Forum
Rosh Hodesh Services from WRJ

"Whoever blesses the new moon in its time welcomes in the presence of the Shechina."
--Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 42a

This is the light of Rosh Chodesh:
It shines when the moon is dark.
This is the light of Rosh Chodesh:
We kindle it from our spark.
This is the light of Rosh Chodesh:
It links us to our past.
This is the light of Rosh Chodesh:
Our legacy and our task.
--Marge Eiseman

I turn my head, look into the eyes of the woman on my left, and say, "Hineni"--I am here, present and ready to be part of this sacred gathering. She nods, turns to the woman on her left, looks into her eyes, and says, "Hineni," and so we move around our circle, centering ourselves, calming ourselves, creating holy time. "Hinenu!" we cry to God. "We are all here."

In the center of our circle we've draped an extraordinary hand-painted round tallit over a table. On it glows a multicolored round candle. We hold hands, sing our song, "This is the Light of Rosh Chodesh," over and over again, standing still, then again as we circle to the left, to the right, and then curl inward and upward, forming an arc. We bless the new moon and thank the Source of All Life for allowing us to reach this new Hebrew month. After a few moments of sharing our recent trials and triumphs, we begin the month's program.

At the Rosh Chodesh Havurah of Congregation Sinai in Milwaukee, WI, we are living testimony to the power of Jewish women. We create, sing, play, teach, learn, and support one another--all in the framework of celebrating an ancient Jewish holiday and of marking the new moon as a day of rest for women.

In the lunar-based Jewish calendar, the new moon indicates a new month. That time is called Rosh Chodesh, or head of the month. It's a biblical commandment to observe and celebrate the new moon. "In fact," says Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen of Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel in New Haven, CT, "the very first mitzvah that the Jewish people were given had to do with observing Rosh Chodesh." The Talmud instructs women not to work on Rosh Chodesh as a reward for refusing to contribute their jewelry to make the Golden Calf.

In biblical and early talmudic times, before people depended on astronomical calculations to set the calendar, Rosh Chodesh was announced with great fanfare. When members of the high court gathered in Jerusalem, two reputable witnesses came to testify that they had sighted the appearance of the new moon. If their testimony was accepted, the court then proclaimed and sanctified the beginning of the new month. Women prepared and ate festive meals, lit candles, and studied sacred texts in honor of the new moon.

Today, Rosh Chodesh is celebrated in the temple with extra readings from the Torah and Haftarah and a special kiddush. And modern women are sanctifying the wonders of nature and passage of time represented by the phases of the moon with old and new rituals--writing new midrashim, creating new songs, and rediscovering their ancestors.

Our Rosh Chodesh havurah began fifteen years ago, when eight women congregants of different ages and life experiences embarked on a spiritual journey: Karen, 28, wife of the new rabbi; Kate, 32, in need of solace after two deaths in the family, her father-in-law and one of her newly born twin sons; Shirley, 55, a spiritual seeker; Linda, 37, a percussionist and new widow; and Gloria, 55, a Jewish Renewal devotee. Some of us who had been brought up in Orthodox homes had never held a Torah, and none of us had ever studied Jewish texts. We all felt a real hunger to deepen our understanding of Judaism, and to do so using a women's vocabulary, by calling upon the Shechinah, the feminine aspect of God. The very existence of a holiday created for women inspired us to look for role models in our tradition, gaining insights into the matriarchs and prophetesses in the Bible and Midrash.

Today, our Rosh Chodesh havurah includes fourteen women, four of them founding members. Each of us serves both as teacher and student. Every month, two members lead the evening with activities designed to stimulate mind, body, emotion, and spirit--and sometimes we forge connections in unique ways. At one meeting four years ago, someone asked, "Can you pray if you aren't sure you believe in God?" In response, Gloria asked us to pray in dyads (pairs). "Margie," she said, "come here. I want you to pray the Shema face to face with me." Modeling for the rest of the group, Gloria and I added our names to the Shema ("Sh'ma--Listen, Gloria!..."). By praying to the part of God that is in each of us, we transformed a theological question into a spiritual moment.

Two years ago, when the group was reading Miraculous Living by Rabbi Shoni Labowitz, group members Idy and Beth created another transformative program. As we walked into the social hall, we saw on the floor an outline in masking tape of a 25-foot-long, 20-foot-wide tree. As we sat in a circle on the "branch of compassion," each of us was given a piece of paper and told to write about a current problem. We put the papers into a hat and drew out one at a time in an effort to "find the light within the darkness, the gift within the problem." One woman wrote, "Can't talk to teenage daughter more than three sentences." A look of understanding flashed from everyone. Then came the responses: "But that means you get three sentences to be really pithy!"... "Choose your three sentences well. Each one is precious!"..."Talk really fast and see if you can get to four." Did we know whose problem it was? Yes. Was she able to see a potential gift in this problem? Much more than she would have thought. "Pithy! I get to be pithy!" she kept saying.

Face to face with Torah

In response to one woman's discomfort with the Akeda story (the binding of Isaac), we entered the world of Bibliodrama. At sunrise on the second day of Rosh Hashanah 5756 (1976), we met at the shore of Lake Michigan to welcome the new year. Shirley said it bothered her that we had to read this story of Isaac's near-death every Rosh Hashanah. We agreed that it was a troubling story and thought nothing more of it until the next meeting, when Shirley was in charge. "I want to read it again in English, and then let's act it out, okay?" she said.

I volunteered to be Abraham. A woman thirty years my senior played Isaac. Another said she would be Sarah, noting that just because the text omitted her doesn't mean she wasn't there! No one wanted to be God, but Kate said she'd be the voice of God, and Beth offered to be the angel. And so, with the echoes of Sarah's cries still in my ears, I trudged up the mountain to sacrifice Isaac. I feared that I was going mad. What kind of God would ask this of me? What about the promises? What about, in my real life, the struggle my own son was waging against leukemia? Had I faced madness when I heard my child had cancer? As I wielded the knife over Isaac, the angel whispered in a loud, panicky voice, "God, he's really going to do it!" Then the hand stopped me, the ram appeared, and it was over.

We sat in the darkened room for a while, thinking about what had motivated us to create our specific scripts. Then we discussed the story's deeper meaning. I still think it was meant to show the Israelites that we serve a God who absolutely forbids the sacrifice of children. (And my son is just fine, having been cancer-free for five years.) Who was being tested in the story? I still can't say. But I do know that I can never again read the Akeda without putting myself in the story.

A time to retreat

In addition to our monthly gatherings, for the past seven years we've held an annual winter weekend retreat in the Bayit (a wonderful old house restored as a bed & breakfast) at Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, WI. Our first year in 1994, we painted and decorated an 8-foot-round tallit; the following year, we fringed it with tzitzit and colorful strands. The third year, we created a ritual--weaving the elements of sight, smell, sound, touch, song, and dance--which opened all our future get-togethers, and each woman received a piece of colorful woven silk material to fashion a personalized atara (the neckband on a tallit) to wear with the group's tallit.

Most years, we create a Shabbat morning service to match the weekend's theme. The chairs are arranged in a circle with our round tallit in the center; in turn, each woman dons the group tallit and reads a few lines from the week's Torah portion. Everyone participates, regardless of her Hebrew knowledge. One woman, who knows no Hebrew, approaches the Torah, points to the first letter of the first word, and says, "What is this letter?" "Aleph," we tell her. She repeats it, and then reads her lines in English.

For most of us, Rosh Chodesh is a time each month when we immerse ourselves in the refreshing mayyim chayim (living waters) of our connections to each other and to God. We finish in a circle, praying for the healing of all our loved ones and ourselves, as we sing Debbie Friedman's "Mi Sheberach." After a final word from the leaders, we go our separate ways, the light of Rosh Chodesh glowing within us all.

Marge Eiseman, a teacher, mother, and songwriter from Milwaukee, WI, is the co-publisher of Jewish Heartland magazine.

How To Start a Rosh Chodesh Group

  1. Identify a core group of women. Some groups start with a Sisterhood program; others gather a few seekers and begin. Your rabbi, cantor, and/or educator may be able to help you identify women who might be interested in being part of a Rosh Chodesh group. Keep in mind that diversity of age, experience, and Judaic background is a plus.

  2. Begin with structure, intention, and ritual. Come to the first meetings prepared with a short program and some ritual objects like candles and the intention (kavanah) to create a group feeling. A good way to begin is to ask the women to introduce themselves by their Hebrew names, and share one or two things they do well (e.g. singing, dancing, reading Hebrew, etc.). You might ask each participant to answer two questions: "Who are you as a woman?" and "Who are you as a Jew?" In the next few meetings, you can study the month's holidays and foods, and give the women a chance to get to know one another.

  3. Create group and member guidelines. Decide whether you wish to create a "closed" or "open" group. At Sinai, we have chosen a closed group. We set our limit at 16 women, and recruit by invitation when our number reaches 13 or 14. The invitation is conditional for both sides--and must be agreed upon in advance by the group. Some groups are open and regularly publicize their meetings in the temple bulletin; others hold an open meeting in autumn but accept no additional participants until the following fall. Expectations should be clear. If intimacy is a goal, be up front about expectations for regular attendance. Shared leadership means shared ownership, and it takes work to create a long-lasting group.

  4. Be flexible about meeting times. It would be ideal for meetings to be held on Rosh Chodesh, but it is not always feasible. After attempting unsuccessfully to meet on Rosh Chodesh, our group decided that regular attendance was more important than strict adherence to the Jewish calendar. Our Rosh Chodesh Havurah meets on the second Wednesday of every month at 7:30 p.m.

  5. Explore a variety of resources for inspiration. Some recommended resources are:

    Miriam's Well: Rituals for Jewish Women Around the Year by Penina V. Adelman (2nd edition, 1996, Biblio Press, NY)
    Rosh Chodesh Guide: Resources for Sisterhood Study and Celebration by Rabbi Lenore Bohm (published by Women of Reform Judaism, available on-line through www.wrj.org)
    The Feminine Face of God by Sherry Ruth Anderson & Patricia Hopkins (Bantam Books)
    She Who Dwells Within by Rabbi Lynn Gottleib (Harper Collins)
    Miraculous Living by Rabbi Shoni Labowitz (Simon & Schuster)
    The Book of Blessings by Marcia Falk (Beacon Press)
    "Something New Under the Moon," a column by Marge Eiseman in Jewish Heartland magazine

  6. Send the message: This is for you. Encourage each member of your group to come to every meeting ready to share, to learn, and to grow--and every woman will be enriched.

Rosh Chodesh Services from Women of Reform Judaism

A number of Women of Reform Judaism Sisterhoods have produced their own materials and services to observe Rosh Chodesh. Holy Blossom Temple Sisterhood in Toronto, Ontario celebrates the new moon with Rosh Hodesh, a traditional liturgy (readings on creation, revelation, redemption, and other themes) accompanied by modern poetry and prayers. The Touro Synagogue Sisterhood of New Orleans, LA has its own liturgy, Rosh Hodesh Adar--songs, creative readings, and a birthday blessing--all celebrating the relationship of women to nature and to God. Central Synagogue Sisterhood's Rosh Hodesh Group in New York City offers Healing Service, a ritual that includes meditations from literary sources and Sisterhood members' compositions which can supplement Rosh Chodesh gatherings and other occasions.

To order any of the above services, please contact Patty Irizarry, Women of Reform Judaism, (212) 650-4060, fax (212) 650-4059, e-mail pirizarry@uahc.org.

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