My Bat Mitzvah Sermon by Zara Berman
My Bat Mitzvah date falls on Rosh Chodesh which is celebrated each new month. So, why do we celebrate Rosh Chodesh? The Jewish calendar is based on the Moon. With the New Moon, the new month begins. This is the reason why I read the paragraph from the Book of Genesis about the creation of the Sun and the Moon. Rosh Chodesh is not a festival, however it is historically connected to women.
Why does the Jewish calendar change every year?
Jewish holidays occur on the same dates every year in the Hebrew calendar, but the dates vary in the Gregorian one. This is because the Hebrew calendar is a lunisolar calendar (based on the cycles of both the sun and moon), whereas the Gregorian one is only based on the sun. The Jewish calendar is synced to the moon so the first day of the month is a new moon and the 15th day of the month is a full moon.
The problem with the lunar calendar is that it is 10 or 11 days short of the solar, Gregorian calendar. In order to keep up with the seasons, every three years or so (or seven times within a 19 year period), we add a whole extra month: Adar 2. Adding an extra month helps prevent Passover from occurring in the winter and Chanukah from occurring in the Autumn. This is why we joke saying - Oh, Chanukah is early this year, or other years, it’s late.
We use the cycles of the moon to determine months and holidays but do a little adjusting with leap years to keep holidays and right seasons. In ancient times, people had to look up at the sky to check for the new moon. However, what did people do if the sky was cloudy? The Rabbis asked two witnesses who would testify to the Sanhedrin, a Jewish court, to testify each month when they saw the new moon. Once this was accepted, Rosh Chodesh was declared. This news travelled via hilltop fires for different communities to see. Today, instead of lighting hilltop fires, it is customary to light candles.
Groups of women have set up Rosh Chodesh groups who meet around the time of the new moon to study, pray and talk. Everyone in the group is given an unlit candle. A single participant lights her candle from a central flame. Then she passes the flame to the next person in the group, until all the candles are lit. Through this ritual, we recall both the ancient bonfires of the Jewish people and the light of hope and warmth that we pass from one person to another.
A story in the Talmud, which is the basis for all codes of Jewish law and is widely quoted in rabbinic literature, states that at creation, the sun and the moon were equals both in size and power. However, shared leadership wasn’t possible in the ancient world so God shrunk the moon and made the sun the ruler but promised that one day the moon would be restored to the size of the sun. We can see this as a gender and leadership struggle - that women’s power was bright but limited and often overshadowed. In modern times, women celebrate Rosh Chodesh as part of our path to equality .
So what does this mean to be a Jewish woman today?
Traditionally Jewish women married young and became the "mainstay of the house,’ tending to the family and household duties. However, with gender equality today, women have the freedom and power to choose whatever path they want to follow in their personal and professional lives. We are not restricted by the ancient laws.
There are many examples of strong women in the Bible and in more recent history whose characteristics we can try to emulate today.
For example, Anne Frank was extremely brave because she had to hide from the Nazis for a couple of years and yet she still remembered her identity and religion in those dark days. I read her diary and found her very inspirational. I also visited her house in Amsterdam in 2019 which was very moving, particularly the bookcase that hid the entrance to their annexe.
Further back in history we have the story of Esther, another courageous heroine from the Bible. She was a concubine to the King, who didn’t know that she was Jewish. He chose her because she was very pretty. However, she learnt about a plot to kill all the Jews in the Kingdom, so she went to see the King uninvited, an offence for which she could have been executed. Instead, her bravery and intelligence saved her and the Jews and we now read this story at Purim.
There is much more equality for Jewish women today. For example, we are now allowed the same rights as boys in terms of having a Bat Mitzvah - this is relatively new - I am only the second generation in my family to do this. I have been given more responsibility to come up here on the bimah, wear a tallis - which I am doing for the first time today - and read from the Torah.
I enjoy the Jewish festivals which I spend with my family, eating traditional food whose recipes have been passed down from my mother and grandmothers and which I am now learning to cook myself. I hope that I can continue to set a good example to my family and friends by continuing to respect the rules and laws of modern day Jewish society.
My Bat Mitzvah is a milestone in my life as a Jewish girl, one for which I have studied hard and I will continue to carry out mitzvahs and observe Jewish life.
Finally, I would like to thank Sara and Rabbi Andrea for helping me learn my portion and the blessings and for all the time they have put aside to help me, it wouldn't have been possible without you.
I would like to thank my parents for helping me practise every day after school, and making sure I don’t forget anything.
I would also like to thank my Grandpa and granny for giving me my tallis and providing love and support over the years, and to my grandmother for teaching me about Jewish customs and traditions.