The Shabbat which either coincides with or immediately precedes Rosh Chodesh Nisan is Shabbat HaChodesh (Mishnah, Megillah 3:4; Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer 13:20; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 685:1-4; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 140:2).
The Maftir-reading for this Shabbat is Exodus 12:1-20: “HaShem spoke to Moshe and to Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying: This month is the first of your months, it is the first of the months of your year…”. 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).
Prior to this, G-d had already given our ancestors ten Mitzvot. The first was the Mitzvah/blessing to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28), followed by the seven Noahide Mitzvot (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 9:1); these eight apply to the whole of mankind. Then G-d gave our father Abraham the mitzvah of circumcision (Genesis 17:10-14), and to his grandson Jacob, the prohibition against eating the sciatic nerve of any animal (Genesis 32:33).
So of these ten mitzvot, eight are universal, and the two exclusively Jewish mitzvot were given to individuals.
It is deeply significant that the first national mitzvah that G-d gave us, while still in Egypt on the very threshold of redemption, was to take control of our time. A slave has scant need for a calendar: 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.
The Mishnah (Rosh ha-Shanah 1:1) tells us that “There are four New Years: the first of Nisan is New Year for kings and for the Festivals; the first of Ellul is New Year for tithing animals, and Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon say it is on the first of Tishrei; the first of Tishrei is New Year for years, for the Shmitta-years, for the Jubilee years, for agriculture, and for vegetables; the first of Shevat is New Year for trees according to the School of Shammai, and the School of Hillel say on the fifteenth”.
(Though the idea of different new years for different purposes may seem strange, Rabbi Yosef Rottenberg in his commentary Yad Avraham [published by ArtScroll] notes the modern parallel of the calendar year beginning on January 1, the fiscal year on July 1, and the school year in September. It may also seem strange that though the first month of the year is Nisan, the year changes on the first of Tishrei. This too is not unique: until 1751, the Gregorian year changed on 25th March even though the Gregorian new year was on January 1, so the day after 24th March 1749 was 25th March 1750.)
If it is significant that our first national mitzvah was to take control of our time, it is more significant yet that the day which G-d designated as the beginning of our national year, the 1st of Nisan, is the New Year for Kings. Israel’s task in this world is to be G-d’s deputies, to carry His message and to propagate it throughout humanity; to be G-d’s “Kingdom of Priests and holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).
Jewish history was waiting to burst forth. Scant days earlier, as G-d smote Egypt with the Plague of Darkness (Exodus 10:21-23), all those Jews who rejected His redemption and preferred to remain in Egypt – fully four-fifths of the nation! – died in the darkness there, unseen by the Egyptians (Sh’mot Rabbah 14:3; Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Bo, Masechta de-Pis’cha 12; Tanchuma, Beshallach 1). Those of the newly-liberated nation who survived were the minority who were worthy of redemption.
And as they stood teetering on the knife-edge between Egyptian slavery and their mission of holiness, G-d infused them with this most exalted and inspiring of concepts. As G-d’s Kingdom of Priests and holy nation, our national year begins on the New Year for Kings.
As G-d infused this magnificent and majestic identity into the nation at those critical moments of liberation, so we are to live perpetually – even in exile.
A century and a half ago, the great Zionist German-Jewish poet Ludwig August Frankl expressed this in his stirring poem “Juda’s Farben” (“Judah’s colours”):
“The Jew turns his gaze to the east
And the worries of his soul;
He thinks of his kingdom’s fate
And of the morning of freedom.
Like a ruler who has been banished,
Who, in the pains of exile
Still feels himself in his heart
To be the king of his lost country.”
A Yiddish song of yearning also expressed this idea beautifully and powerfully:
“A Yiddishe Malchus, Rabbosay –
Kennen ihr farshtein?
A Malchus von leuter Hellkeit,
A Malchus von Melachim alein”
(“A Jewish kingdom, gentlemen –
Can you understand that?
A kingdom of absolute brilliance,
A kingdom of Kings alone”).
In 1932, the great Jewish visionary and leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky penned the Beitar anthem:
עִבְרִי גַּם בְּעֹנִי בֶּן-שַׂר,
אִם עֶבֶד, אִם הֶלֶךְ,
בְּכֶתֶר דָּוִד נֶעֱטָר.
זְכֹר אֶת הַכֶּתֶר
עֲטֶרֶת גָּאוֹן וְתַגָּר.
“Hadar (Glory) –
A Hebrew even in poverty is the son of a prince;
If a slave or a wanderer
You were created the son of a king,
Crowned with the diadem of David!
Whether openly or in secret
Remember the crown –
The diadem of magnificence and struggle.”
And the Jew is enjoined to begin every day with this majestic bearing. The Mishnah (Berachot 1:2) cites Rabbi Yehoshua’s ruling that we must recite the Shema of the Morning Service “by the third hour, because it is the way of sons of kings to rise at the third hour”. This, indeed, is the halachah in practice (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Reading the Shema 1:11; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 58:1; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 17:1).
The Tosafot Yom Tov explains this by citing Shabbat 111a and 128a, that “all Israel are sons of kings”. As sons of kings, it behoves the Jew to begin his day as royalty do.
This has tremendous, awe-inspiring ideological implications. Whenever the Talmud mentions Rabbi Yehoshua without further definition (there were more than fifty rabbis called Yehoshua), it refers to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiyah of Peki’in. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiyah was the student of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai – the man who tried with all his power to prevent the destruction of the Second Temple and to preserve Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. And after the Destruction, he did all he could to preserve and to strengthen and to encourage the shattered and conquered Jewish nation in the Land of Israel.
And Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiyah was the teacher and rabbi of Rabbi Akiva – the man who led the Jewish revolt against the Roman occupation and restored Jewish independence and sovereignty and kingship to Israel for almost three years. Rabbi Yehoshua was intimately acquainted with Jewish kingship, with Jewish royalty; he epitomised the concept of “a kingdom of Kohanim and a holy nation”. Rabbi Yehoshua, who had such a powerful connection with kingship, transformed the very concept of royalty into daily practical halachah.
At the very dawn of Jewish independence, even while still in Egypt, G-d infused the principle of majesty into the Jewish psyche. Our national New Year is the first of Nisan – the New Year for Kings.
And at the dawn of every day, the Jew is reminded of this: the time for reciting the Shema is the time when sons of kings rise.
This is the magnificent message of Shabbat HaChodesh – the Shabbat which ushers in the month of Nisan, the month of redemption: “In Nisan they were redeemed, and in Nisan they are destined to be redeemed in the future” (Rosh ha-Shanah 11a; Mechilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay 12:42; Tanchuma, Bo 9).