Why is the first mitzvah that Hashem commands Bnei Yisrael, החודש הזה לכם, the mitzvah of sanctifying/declaring the new month? Why not something more fundamental like Shabbat, belief in Hashem, or ואהבת לרעך כמוך?

The mitzvah of Kiddush Hahodesh is the commandment to establish the new month. In the days of the Sanhedrin, witnesses would come before the Beit Din and testify that they had seen the new moon. Based on their testimony, the Beit Din would determine whether or not the new month should be declared. This declaration would determine not only when Rosh Hodesh was but also when the holidays would be observed.

The Talmud Yerushalmi describes the scene in the Heavenly Court:

אָמְרוּ בֵית דִּין. הַיּוֹם רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה. הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אוֹמֵר לְמַלְאֲכֵי הַשָׁרֵת. הֶעֱמִידוּ בִימָה – יַעַמְדּוּ סֻנֵיגוֹרִין יַעַמְדּוּ קַטֵּיגוֹרִין. שֶׁאָמְרוּ בָנַי. הַיּוֹם רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה. נִמְלְכוּ בֵית דִּין לְעָבְרָהּ לְמָחָר. הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אוֹמֵר לְמַלְאֲכֵי הַשָׁרֵת. הֶעֱבִירוּ בִימָה לְמָחָר. יַעַבְרוּ סֻנֵיגוֹרִין יַעַַבְרוּ קַטֵּיגוֹרִין. שֶׁנִּמְלְכוּ בָנַיי לְעָבְרָהּ לְמָחָר.

If the earthly court declares “Today is Rosh Hashana”, then Hakadosh Baruch Hu calls out to the angels, “Erect the podium! Call the prosecuting attorneys, call the defense attorneys! My children have declared that today is Rosh Hashana!” If the earthly court decides to delay Rosh Hashana, Hakadosh Baruch Hu commands the angels, “remove the podium! Remove the prosecuting attorneys, remove the defense attorneys! My children have decided to postpone it for a day!

We see here that an underlying message of this mitzvah is that we have a partnership with Hashem in determining when it is Rosh Hashana. While Hashem directs the actual moon through its cycles, He commands us to take control of time. The Jewish people have an active role in determining time, which in turn sets all of our holidays.*

Rav Soloveitchik (in Reflections of the Rav pg 201) suggestes that what separates a slave from a free person is their control over time:

Time-awareness is the singular faculty of the free man, who can use or abuse it. To a slave, it is a curse or a matter of indifference. It is not an instrument which he can harness to his purposes. The free man wants time to move slowly because, presumably, it is being employed for his purposes.

As Bnei Yisrael are leaving Mitzrayim, and being released from slavery, Hashem is preparing them for freedom by teaching them to take responsibility for their time and to use their time wisely. Rav Mirsky (Hegyonei Halakha vol.2 pg 189) uses this point to explain a curious passage in the Haggadah. Regarding the Mitzvah of Sippur Yetziat Mitzrayim, the Haggadah asks, “יכול מראש חודש”, one might have thought that one could fulfill this mitzvah from Rosh Hodesh. This is precisely because this was the true beginning of geulah/redemption:

…כיוון שראינו שבראש חודש נמסר זמנם בידיהם, כדרך בן חורין ששעותיו בידו, ולפיכך היה ראש חודש תחילה לחירות…

Once Bnei Yisrael gained control over their own time, their transition from עבדות to חרות, from slavery to freedom had truly begun.

I think our question is similar and ties in nicely with the first Rashi on the Torah. There he quotes the question from the Midrash as to why the Torah didn’t start with our first mitzvah of kiddush hahodesh:

אמר ר׳ יצחק: לא היה צריך להתחיל התורה אלא מהחדש הזה לכם (שמות י"ב:ב׳), שהיא מצוה ראשונה שנצטוו ישראל. ומה טעם פתח בבראשית, משום: כח מעשיו הגיד לעמו לתת להם נחלת גוים (תהלים קי"א:ו׳). שאם יאמרו אומות העולם לישראל: לסטים אתם שכבשתם ארצות שבעה גוים, והם אומרים להם: כל הארץ של הקב"ה היא, והוא בראה והוא נתנה לאשר ישר בעיניו, ברצותו נתנה להם וברצותו נטלה מהם ונתנה לנו.

Rabbi Yitzchak said: The Torah should have opened with the pasuk (Exodus 12:2) “This month shall be unto you the first of the months” which is the first commandment given to Israel. What is the reason, then, that it begins with the account of the Creation? Because the pasuk says (Psalms 111:6) “He declared to His people the strength of His works (i.e. He gave an account of the work of Creation), in order that He might give them the heritage of the nations.” For should the nations of the world say to Israel, “You are robbers, because you took by force the lands of the seven nations of Canaan”, Israel may reply to them, “All the earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it and gave it to whom He pleased. When He willed He gave it to them, and when He willed He took it from them and gave it to us”.

The lesson here is that history and the ways of the world are in Hashem’s hands.

These two questions and their answers flow together to deliver a message of a partnership between Hakadosh Baruch Hu and the Jewish People. The Torah began with Breishit to teach us that all is in Hashem’s control, and then the first mitzvah of the Torah, Hahodesh Hazeh, reminds us that we need to not simply flow through history as slaves to time, but we must take an active role in shaping and determining our future.

*For further study of answers to this question, see Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s essay for Parshat Bo in his sefer, “Unlocking the Torah Text”.

Melissa Rayman is the programming director of the Matan Bellows Eshkolot Educators Institute. She has been involved in formal and informal Jewish education for both adults and children for almost 30 years. Melissa has a degree in computer science from Stern College and certification from the Dyslexia Training Institute. After teaching Judaic studies at Shevach High School and at the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, Melissa and her family made aliyah to Beit Shemesh, where she is the Director of Matan Beit Shemesh, teaches children with dyslexia and leads a very popular Tanakh chabura at Congregation Nofei Hashemesh.

Matan Women's Institute for Torah Studieshas been at the cutting edge of Torah learning for women since it was established in 1988.