A new Book, a New Month, a New Year, a New Era

Parashat Vayikra and Shabbat Hachodesh: Why was the first national mitzvah that G-d ever gave the commandment to institute a calendar?

Daniel Pinner,

Judaism Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

Having completed the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) at the end of the Book of Exodus, the Book of Leviticus begins a new era – the era of regular sacrifices, the era of continual prayer in the Tabernacle, the era in which the Children of Israel have constant opportunity to approach their Father in Heaven: “When He called to Moshe, Hashem spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When any person among you sacrifices a sacrifice to Hashem from the animals, from the cattle or from the flock you shall sacrifice your sacrifices” (Leviticus 1:1-2).

The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain and Israel, 1195-c.1270) introduces the Book of Leviticus: “This Book is the Torah of the Kohanim and the Levites; all subjects of sacrifices and the duties of the Tabernacle are clarified herein… The subject-matter of most of this Book is sacrifices, the laws of sacrifices, those who bring the sacrifices, and the place of sacrifice. Together with this are some of the commandments that follow on from these: after beginning with the free-will offerings , the Torah then forbids eating certain fats and blood [vs. 23-27]. And following on from the mention of sin-offerings the Torah mentions forbidden foods [chapter 11] because they contaminate…and anyone who enters the Holy Temple while contaminated is obligated to bring a wave-offering… After this, the Torah mentions the mitzvah of Shabbat and the Festivals [chapter 23] because of the sacrifices, as it says ‘These are Hashem’s appointed festivals which you shall proclaim as holy convocations, sacrificing a burnt-offering to Hashem: an elevation-offering and a meal-offering, a feast-offering and libation-offerings – each day’s sacrifice on its appropriate day’ ”.

The entire Book of Leviticus covers one month – the month of Nissan in the year 2449, exactly one year after the Exodus (see Exodus 40:17 and Numbers 1:1). Hence it is singularly appropriate that we begin reading this Book on the first of Nissan.

The Mishnah tells us that “there are four New Years: the 1st of Nissan is New Year for Kings and for Festivals” (Rosh Hashanah 1:1). The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Spain, Morocco, Israel, and Egypt, 1135-1204) explains: “Specifically Kings of Israel; and the practical application of this is for dating documents, such that as soon as the first day of Nissan begins, his reign is reckoned as entering its next year”.

Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura (Italy and Israel, late 15th century) says similarly: “The reigns of Kings of Israel are reckoned from Nissan, so that even if a king begins his reign in Sh’vat or Adar, as soon as Nissan comes his first year is completed and we begin to count his second year”.

Some ten months before the Book of Leviticus begins, we approached Mount Sinai and encamped at its base, waiting to receive the Torah. In those last few hours, G-d defined us as His “Kingdom of Kohanim [Priests] and holy Nation” (Exodus 19:6).

It is singularly appropriate, therefore, that G-d’s “Kingdom of Kohanim and holy Nation” would begin their new era of sacrifices, of ever-closer devotion to G-d, on the 1st of Nisan, the New Year for Kings. The same date from which the reign of a King of Israel is reckoned, is the date on which the Nation of the Supreme King of kings reckons its new beginning.

And it is equally appropriate that we so often begin reading about this new era at about the beginning of Nissan – and this year on the actual date of the beginning of Nissan.

This year, Parashat Vayikra, which begins the Book of Leviticus, is also Shabbat Hachodesh – the Shabbat which either coincides with or which immediately precedes Rosh Chodesh Nisan (Megillah 29a-30a; Rambam, Laws of Prayer 13:20; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 685:1-5).

Shabbat Hachodesh recalls the first national mitzvah that G-d gave us, while still in Egypt: “Hashem said to Moshe and to Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall be the beginning of your months; it is to be for you the first of the months of the year” (Exodus 12:1-2).

This constitutes the Commandment that we sanctify the months and that the Sanhedrin calibrate our calendar (Ramban, Commentary to Exodus 12:2; Mishneh Torah, Enumeration of the Mitzvot, Positive Mitzvah #153, Laws of Sanctification of the Months 5:1; Sefer ha-Chinuch, Mitzvah #4).

Why was the first national mitzvah that G-d ever gave the commandment to institute a calendar?

A nation of slaves had no use for a calendar; a slave needs neither calendar nor clock. He sleeps and wakes, eats and works, lives his entire existence, according to his master’s timetable. Only a free person can determine his own schedule, and only a free nation can determine its own calendar.

Teetering on the very threshold of freedom, even while yet in Egypt, G-d gave us this mitzvah as the first tangible component of freedom. When G-d gave us the mitzvah to determine our own calendar, He was liberating us from Egyptian slavery. He was telling us: “From now onwards the months will be yours, to do during them whatever you desire; but in the days of slavery, your days were not yours – rather, they were subjugated to other people and their desires. Therefore, ‘it is to be for you the first of the months of the year’, because in this month your freedom of choice begins to be actualized’” (Sforno, Exodus 12:2).

And the responsibility that G-d thrust upon us with this first command shows the measure of trust that He placed in us: “He taught them the faces of the moon, then said to them: Until now, I Myself determined which years were leap years. And behold – I have given that responsibility to you: From now, you begin to count” (Tanchuma, Bo 6).

Or, as the Targum Yonatan renders Exodus 12:2, “This month is yours to determine the beginning of months, and from it you will begin to count festivals and appointed times and seasons; it is the first for you for reckoning the months of the year”.

This is how G-d’s “Kingdom of Kohanim and holy Nation” begins its odyssey towards freedom.

Parashat Vayikra, Shabbat HaChodesh, Rosh Chodesh Nissan – these guide us into a new Book, a new month, a new year, a new era. The confluence of Parashat Vayikra, Shabbat HaChodesh, and Rosh Chodesh Nisan is by no means unusual: it is the 27th time it has happened in the past century, and will happen another three times before the current decade finishes.

But this time, unusually, there is an additional component. A few days ago, Israel went to the polls and elected a new government. The results delighted some, devastated others, frustrated others. There are endless arguments (as we would expect from a nation of Jews) over which party to vote for, whether or not to vote at all, what the real issues are, how we should resolve these issues…

Democracy has plenty of shortcomings. And whether or not it is appropriate for a Jewish state is also debated endlessly. But it has one insuperable benefit: a nation which goes to the polls and elects its government is indisputably a free nation. For all its drawbacks, democracy is an unequivocal way for a nation to make a statement:

We decide who will govern us! We are not beholden to any other nation! Even if our leaders may be incompetent, dishonest, unreliable, and corrupt – they are nevertheless our leaders, chosen by us from our nation, not forced upon us like taskmasters appointed over a nation of slaves.

And this was even more blatant in this week’s election: the world’s mightiest superpower flagrantly intervened in Israel’s internal affairs and tried to influence the nation’s choice – and the nation asserted its independence and overwhelmingly rejected those blandishments.

This is indeed an appropriate way for G-d’s Kingdom of Kohanim and holy Nation to enter a new Book, a new month, a new year, and a new era.