Rosh Hashanah: look closely and see the feminine aspects

There is a long standing tradition that Rosh Chodesh is a woman’s festival.  In honour of women who did not want to give up their jewellery to create the golden calf, their female descendants were allowed to take time for themselves every month at the new moon.

Rosh Hashanah is a new moon par excellence.  Both the first day of the new month of Tishri, and the new year for the counting of years (the first of Nisan is the beginning of the year itself), so how important must Rosh Hashanah be for women?

Unlike the month of Nisan when the year begins with a frenzy of house cleaning and the nearest experience of slavery most women ever encounter as they prepare their home for Pesach, Rosh Hashanah has a gentler and sweeter feel to it.  A month of preparation in Ellul focuses on inner rather than outer cleansing, as we spend the time contemplating our lives, reflecting on how we are using our time in this world, and carefully repairing the mistakes in our relationships. Ellul is the time for introspection, for healing the soul and for readying ourselves for a new beginning.  There is, I always feel, a rather feminine character to this time, as God is traditionally said to be close by, ready to help us in our approach back to the relationship we want and need..  There is a feeling of openness, a sense of nurturing and of creating space to live in, with God as the caring and warm parent who wants us to be more fully ourselves.  During the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, the shechinah (the feminine indwelling presence of God) seems to be gently nudging us to be the best people we can be, to seek and to offer forgiveness for the many small hurts and the lack of proper attention we gave during the year.

The service for Rosh Hashanah itself is more majestic – God is repeatedly described in terms of masculine power in the liturgy, crowned as king of the world again and again – yet we know that this is only one facet of the day, and that God as nurturer, as giver of second chances, as open armed receiver of returning souls is still there under all the pomp and circumstance of the liturgy. 

Rosh Hashanah has a variety of different customs, many of them dedicated to the sweetness of continuing life.  From the roundness of the challah to the apple and honey, the symbolism is comforting and somehow integrally female.  The tradition to eat foods with many small components – be they pomegranates or cordon bleu baked beans – symbolises fertility and plenty. 

Rosh Hashanah is underrated as a female festival.  We can get so mesmerised by the strident masculine sound of the Shofar that we are in danger of forgetting the balancing silent gently insistent pull of the new moon as it leads us into yet another cycle, a new beginning, rebirth.