Parshat Hachodesh: Time is of the Essence

This Sabbath, the one preceding the new month of Nissan, at the end of the Torah portion, we read Parshat Hachodesh telling of the sanctification of the month of Nissan. It was their first commandment as a people.

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Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg,

Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

We are all fairly familiar with the first commentary by Rashi in Genesis, Parshat Bereishit. He raises the question of why the Torah did not begin with the first commandment given to the Jewish people, rather than the story of Creation.

And as we know, this first commandment is found in the Torah portion of Parshat Bo (and read this week as it is Shabbat Parshat Hachodesh). Rashi’s question is actually more concerned with why the Torah did not begin with the commandments. When looking at the text itself, however, we might see a different issue arising – why is this the first commandment given to the Jewish people?

The commandment is described as follows (Shemos 12:1-3):

The Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying, this month shall be to you the head of the months; to you it shall be the first of the months of the year. Speak to the entire community of Israel, saying, ‘On the tenth of this month, let each one take a lamb for each parental home, a lamb for each household.’”

We see from these verses a separation between the first and second commandments. God first tells Moses and Aaron about the commandment of sanctifying the new month, kiddush hachodesh. Immediately after, God begins to describe the commandment of the Passover offering, korban pesach. This second commandment seems to have direct relevance to the impending Exodus from Egypt.

However, on the surface, it seems there is no practical significance to the first commandment. The Jews were not “equipped” in any way shape or form to begin the application of this instruction. Its implementation was tied to the future nation’s settling in Israel, along with the genesis of the institution of Sanhedrin. Thus, we must ask: why is this commandment given at this point in time? If anything, the Passover offering, korban pesach, should have been the first commandment given to the Jewish people.

There are many different explanations offered by various commentators. For the sake of length, we will focus on the insights offered by Ramban and Sforno.

Sforno offers a cryptic explanation (ibid 2):

“From this [first] month and on, the months will be yours to do with as you wish, but during your days of enslavement your days were not yours, rather they were for working for others and their will…”

No doubt, the Jewish people were on the cusp of freedom. At the same time, it is doubtful that the “ownership” of the months was at the top of the list. What is the importance of this change? Furthermore, how does this fit into the specific commandment of kiddush hachodesh, the system involving the calculation of the months?

Ramban offers a very lengthy and different explanation (ibid). He focuses more on the “names” of the months; in the Torah, this is usually depicted at “in the first month after the Exodus from Egypt”, “in the second month after the Exodus from Egypt”, and so on. This concept is also found in our count of the days of the week (said by many by the daily Psalm, shir shel yom) – “echad beshabas”, “sheini beshabas”, first day before the Sabbath,Shabbat, and second day before Shabbat and so on.

In this way, there is a constant reminder of Shabbat. This same principle is then being applied to the counting of months, a method of serving as a reminder to the Exodus from Egypt. Ramban goes further, though. The reference here is specifically to the redemptive aspect of the Exodus. Therefore, the counting of the months is not from the time of creation; rather, it is tied specifically to the redemption from Egypt.

Of course, there is a problem with this approach, as we do not use this system of counting today. Ramban writes that the names of the months – “Tishrei”, “Cheshvan”, etc – are from Persian origin. This new naming order was the result of the redemption from Babylon to Israel, the fulfillment of the prophecy. The key point, as Ramban puts it: “we stood there and God took us up from there”. In the end, the names of the months used today should remind us of that second redemption from Babylon, much like the original counting reminded us of the first redemption from Egypt.

What idea is Ramban trying to convey here?

It is possible that the overall concepts brought out by Sforno and Ramban have to do with time and how we relate to it. Sforno provides a very brief explanation, and his idea is a simple but important one. He refers to an “ownership” of time – what does he mean by this? The reality is that most people spend a significant part of their day at work, and their time is “owned” by others. Is the message simply that the Jewish people lacked any free time?

Rather than viewing it as a quantitative assessment of who has more time to themselves, Sforno is bringing out a deeper idea. While it is true that in many cases a person’s time is limited, he still has some control over this. At the end of the workday, he is able to separate the state of work from his own personal time. A clear demarcation is always evident, regardless if it is always acted upon (even for those corporate attorneys out there).

At this point, we can state with a fair amount of confidence that the Jewish people had absolutely no time to themselves. Part of their slavery, and subsequent slave mentality, meant that there was no concept whatsoever of personal time. Even when not engaged in physical labor, it seems their psyches were completely wrapped in the state of servitude brought upon them by the Egyptians. There was no demarcation, no delineation between the self and the slavery. Sforno, then, is expressing a change in this overall approach to time.

However, one could go even further, trying to tie the idea he is presenting to the specific commandment of sanctification of the new months, kiddush hachodesh. When one’s time is “owned” by others, as in the case of the Jewish people, one lacks the ability to truly engage in creative thinking. The mind is stunted and the ability to be absorbed in abstract ideas becomes at the very least a severe challenge. To be completely enslaved means having no room for such activities. This could be the connection to kiddush hachodesh.

One of the fundamental concepts surrounding this commandment involves the calculation and determination of the lunar calendar, accompanied by witnesses. The ability to apply the creative mind in such a fashion, dedicated to the purpose of setting up the holiday schedule, yomim tovim, might be the reason why this commandment was chosen.

As noted above, Ramban seems to take a completely different approach. He first offers the general concept of how the counting of the months was similar to the counting of days, both connected to some true idea. Keeping track of days has a critical, practical benefit.

At the same time, one should recognize that behind this notion of keeping track is the underlying idea of what time is being used for. When we check off which day it is, we must also recognize the contrast between the “regular” day and Shabbos. In other words, Shabbos is a daily awareness, a constant presence. Not a day goes by without it being recognized for its importance.

The same holds true for God’s redemptions of the Jewish people. Similar to counting days, counting months serves an integral purpose in mankind’s ability to function. However, if this were the case, one could invent any system for counting the months- call them “A”, “B”, and so on. Ramban is pointing out that the counting itself is tied to the two events of the redemption. Rather than viewing these events as past events, they become a constant presence.

Every time we sanctify the new month, we should have in mind the concept of the redemption. After all, the redemptions were opportunities for the Jewish people to dedicate all their time to the service of God. We should always see the redemptions as a constant reality, rather than something that took place in the distant past.