החודש – Shabbat HaChodesh
On the last day of the month of Adar, just as the first sliver of the new moon signaling the beginning of Nissan appeared, Hashem taught Moshe and Aharon the Mitzvah of sanctifying the new month – ראש חודש – Rosh Chodesh (Exodus 12:1 ,2):
א) וַיֹּאמֶר יְדֹוָד אֶל משֶׁה וְאֶל אַהֲרֹן בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר
ב) הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים רִאשׁוֹן הוּא לָכֶם לְחָדְשֵׁי הַשָּׁנָה
1) Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon in the land of Egypt saying, 2) This month shall be for you the beginning of the months; it shall be for you the first of the months of the months of the year.
Therefore, the Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh Nissan is called “Shabbat HaChodesh,” which translates as “Shabbat of the month,” viz, the Shabbat on which we commemorate that event.
What does this entail? To commemorate the first Rosh Chodesh ever celebrated, we take out a second Sefer Torah on the Shabbat before the first day of Nissan and read from it about the sanctification of the new moon. Because that portion begins with the word “החדש” (Hachodesh – This month), we designate this Shabbat as Shabbat Hachodesh, meaning, “The Shabbat on which we read the portion of the Torah about Rosh Chodesh.”
Only the High Court (the Sanhedrin) can sanctify the month. (In this case, Hashem with Moshe and Aharon, comprised the high court.) Hashem instructed Moshe saying, “When the new moon looks like this (when you see its first sliver) you can proclaim Rosh Chodesh – the new month.”
Although the new moon appears automatically in the sky, Rosh Chodesh is not “official” until the high court proclaims it so. The process requires witnesses who see the new moon and come to the high Court to testify that they saw the new moon. The court, knowing how the new moon should look, would interrogate them and determine if they actually saw it; and if their testimony was accepted, the court would proclaim the new moon by saying the words, “מקודש החודש מקודש!” – “the new month is sanctified.”
Hashem then also told Moshe exactly when each future month would become visible until the end of time, so that Moshe would sanctify them in case, for some reason, the court was unable to do it. This is how our Roshei Chodoshim were sanctified, even though we no longer have the High Court to sanctify them.
According to Maimonides, the mitzvah of sanctifying the new moon also includes the mandate to synchronize the lunar year with the solar year. There are 365 days and 6 hours in a solar year, but only 354 days, 8 hours, and about 49 minutes in 12 lunar months. The difference is almost 11 days (10 days, 21 hours, and about 11 minutes). The Torah mandates that Pesach be celebrated in the spring and Sukkot be celebrated in the fall. Over time, if no adjustment was made, the almost 11-day difference between the solar and lunar year would accumulate, pushing these holidays out of their seasons. To remedy this problem, an extra month, Adar 2, is added 7 times in 19 years (years 3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 17, and 19). This is why your secular birthday and Hebrew birthday coincide only once in 19 years. Every 19 years, the solar and lunar calendars are at the same place they were the year that you were born.
The Midrash tells us that Hashem told Moshe, “Until now, the calculation of the new moon was known only by Me; but from now on, it is yours.”
ויאמר ה’ אל משה ואל אהרן בארץ מצרים לאמר, מהו לאמר אמר מכאן ואילך הרי הם מסורים לכם
Hashem gave Moshe the exact length of a solar month, and that number has been used since then, to calculate the months and years in the Jewish calendar. The moon’s cycle from the first sliver of light to the end of its light takes approximately 29 days, 12 hours, and 44 minutes. The Sages divide an hour into 1,080 parts. (Maimonides explains that this number was chosen because it is divisible by 1,2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, and 10.) The 44 minutes represents 793 parts of an hour; thus, the exact length of a lunar month is 29.530594 days. A Jewish month begins and ends with the first and last light of the moon; hence, this is the length of a Jewish calendar month. Since a lunar month is roughly 29 and a half days, and a month must have whole days, the two halves add up to a whole day, and every other month has 30 days. To keep the calendar in sync, moreover, some Hebrew months may alternate between 29 and 30 days.
When we receive the numerous Jewish calendars before Rosh Hashana from the different institutions soliciting donations, we give little thought to the miracle of what we are holding in our hands. The permanent Hebrew calendar was established primarily by Hillel II the Prince, a great-grandson of Rabbi Judah the Prince, in circa 358, over 1650 years ago, and it has worked flawlessly, without any tweaking, since then! If the original number was off by even the slightest amount, over so many years the discrepancy would have skewed the holidays and placed them in different parts of the year. But the calendar is perfect. How could the Sages of that time have had such an accurate number for the length of a lunar month? They did not have telescopes, spaceships, or other sophisticated instruments to measure with! They didn’t even spend their time outside looking into the heavens and trying to figure it out! There is only one answer. They received this number from Moshe who received it from Hashem and passed it down from generation to generation. A query of “how long is a lunar month?” to Google, yielded this answer: The Moon’s synodic period (the length of a lunar month) is 29.53059 days – or 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, and 2.8 seconds. Does this number look familiar? This is a clear, irrefutable proof that the Torah is from Sinai.
Indeed, when Claudius Ptolemaeus (85-165) of Alexandria, who was considered the most prominent astronomer of the ancient world, heard that the Jewish Sages had such a precise number for a lunar month, he said that this proves that the Jews had prophecy.
The verse cited above says that Nissan is the first month of the year. Indeed, when the Torah talks about Rosh Hashana, it places it on the first day of the seventh month of the year, Tishrei! There seems to be something wrong. Rosh Hashana means the “Head of the year.” Isn’t Rosh Hashana the beginning of the new year? In fact, we changed the calendar year from 5780 to 5781 on Rosh Hashana! How can there be two Rosh Hashanas?
Rosh Hashana is the anniversary of the world’s creation, and it has been 5781 years since Adam was created, which is considered the world’s beginning. Nissan, on the other hand, marks the anniversary of the creation of the Jewish Nation, which is considered to have been “born” on Pesach, and, therefore, Pesach is our birthday. For all matters relevant exclusively to the Jewish people, Nissan is the first month.
Rosh Chodosh was the very first mitzvah given to the Jewish people. The calculation of Rosh Chodesh, beginning with the month of Nissan, was necessary to set the festival of Pesach, which was going to happen on the 15th of the month when they would leave Egypt. This would also set the stage for all the future months.
There is great significance in the mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh being the very first mitzvah given to the Jewish people, and in that, unlike most other nations, we use a lunar year instead of a solar year. It is indicative of the Jewish view of time versus the conventional view of time.
The first encounter with time for most of us was probably the first birthday party that we can remember. That is when they told us, “Happy Birthday!! You are so and so many years old!” We loved the party, but at the same time we were thinking, “What does that mean?” Eventually, we learned about the concept of time, and how to tell time so that we could be on time and do things in a timely manner. We then realized that there is a continuum of time that seems to have no beginning and no end and that we were born into that continuum the year of our birthday. Here I am, dangling in time, on this continuum, from the date of my birth until the current year. We hope that this will continue for many more years until we pass from the world as have so many others before us. Time marches on relentlessly without us, with new people being born and more people passing on, just following the pattern that has been going on from time immemorial.
The “purpose” of time is the greatest mystery in the world. Everyone is trying to figure out what to do with it. Some say that it has no purpose; it just “is.” Others use it to play solitaire on their computers, and others say that it is for doing good. The options cover the entire spectrum of human thought and action.
The Torah has a different perspective on time and teaches us clearly its purpose. It starts at the very beginning of time.
The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (5:1) teaches us:
א) בַּעֲשָׂרָה מַאֲמָרוֹת נִבְרָא הָעוֹלָם
1) The world was created with 10 pronouncements.
This refers to all of the times that it says, ויאמר אלקים – “And Hashem said,” when creating the various parts of creation. The problem is that ויאמר אלקים is said only nine times! The Talmud answers the question by noting that the word בראשית – “In the beginning” also constitutes one of the ten statements. The commentaries rightfully ask, “What was created with this word?” The answer that they give is – a beginning, the beginning of time.
Rabbenu Obadia Seforno (1480-1550) says it like this.
ספורנו עה”ת ספר בראשית פרק א פסוק א
א) בראשית. בתחלת הזמן והוא רגע ראשון בלתי מתחלק שלא היה זמן קודם לו
At the beginning of time, which is the very first moment, which cannot be divided, and before which there was nothing.
We are accustomed to thinking that before Hashem created the world there were just eons of time and a vast expanse with nothing in it into which Hashem placed an entire universe, including our solar system with the planets among them, including planet Earth. The reality is that before Hashem created the world, there was nothing, absolutely nothing, but Hashem. No time. No space. Just Hashem Who is the Creator of time and space.
When we contemplate the creation of “a beginning,” our thoughts must also include a continuation of that beginning and its end. Created time is a finite thing, with a specific duration.
The Talmud tells us (Sanhedrin 97a):
אמר רב קטינא שית אלפי שני הוו עלמא וחד חרוב
Rav Ketina said, “The world will exist for six thousand years, and it will be destroyed for one thousand.”
Time has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and, like everything else that Hashem created, it has a purpose. What is that? We can understand the purpose of time from its very name. The Hebrew word for time is זמן. The source of this word isלהזמין , which means to prepare. Time in this world is the medium through which we prepare ourselves for the world to come. When used properly, time is the ultimate instrument through which we earn reward in the world to come. How is that? We earn reward in the world to come is by doing Hashem’s commandments in this world. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught (Eruvin 22a):
דאמר רבי יהושע בן לוי מאי דכתיב אשר אנכי מצוך היום לעשותם היום לעשותם ולא למחר לעשותם היום לעשותם למחר לקבל שכרם
“That which it says (Deuteronomy 6:6) ‘That I command you today,’ the word today teaches us that we have only today – this world- to do them [the mitzvot], not tomorrow. We do them today, and tomorrow -in the world to come- we receive the reward for doing them.”
When we choose to fulfill one of Hashem’s commandments, we entitle ourselves to reward from Hashem for having done as we were told, much like a worker who is entitled to pay for having done his work properly. With time we have the past to learn from, the present to execute in, and the future to look forward to other opportunities to prepare ourselves for the ultimate destination, the world to come.
This idea, that time is a creation with a purpose and a goal, is a game changer in our perspective in life. Instead of thinking of ourselves as existing in a vast continuum of time, and that we “just happened” to be born into the world at the time we were born, we realize that Hashem put us here at this point in the 6,000 years of earth’s existence and that we were part of Hashem’s plan for this world from the moment of creation! Exactly where we are in time is extremely significant!
Our Sages tell us that we live in a time called עקבתא דמשיחא – The times of the Mashiach. Another translation for this is “The footsteps of the Mashiach,” meaning that he is so close that we can hear his footsteps as he approaches. We were chosen to be the ones who through our actions, will complete the world’s mission and ultimately bring the Mashiach, who will restore Hashem’s kingdom to the world. My gut tells me that Partners in Torah, and all of the wonderful people who study Torah and come closer to Hashem through it, is at the forefront of this operation.
The moon is the perfect example of what life is supposed to be because it is ever changing. There are no two moments when the moon is the same. Either it is on its way to becoming larger, or on its way to becoming smaller. That is why a month is called a חֹדֶשׁ from the word חָדָשׁ which means new, since every moment of the lunar month is new. Similarly, we should see each new moment of our lives as a new opportunity to prepare ourselves for the world to come.
There is another important lesson for us in the moon. The moon waxes and wanes until it disappears for 24 hours. After the lull of 24 hours, the moon always returns and steadily grows to reach its full state. This resembles life in many ways, because we also have our ups and our downs. When we are down, we need to look at the moon and see how it comes back full every month, and when we are up, we should not make the mistake of thinking this is the way it will always be. Again, we need to learn the lesson from the moon, that things wax and wane.
The sun, on the other hand, despite its awesome size and energy, is the same every day of the year and never changes. It is always out there in full force with its life sustaining rays beating relentlessly on the earth. That’s not realistic for the human being.
This is why the sanctification of the new moon is the first mitzvah to be given to the Jewish people as a nation. This mitzvah sets the foundation for what the Jewish nation is here to accomplish. We are here to prepare ourselves for the world to come.
As the Vilna Gaon cried on his deathbed, those around him asked, “What could a person like you, who didn’t waste a minute of his life, have to cry about?” He answered. “In this world, I can take a few dollars, buy a pair of tzitzit, and gain eternal reward in the world to come for wearing them. In the next world, there are no more such opportunities. I am crying because those opportunities will no longer be available to me.”