This Month Shall Be for You the Head of Months

  • Harav Baruch Gigi

This shiur is dedicated in memory of
Miriam Heller z"l
whose yahrzeit falls on the seventh of Shvat,
by her niece, Vivian Singer.



Summarized by Binyamin Fraenkel

Translated by Kaeren Fish


“The first commandment given to Israel”

In our parasha, just moments before the Exodus from Egypt (and the splitting of the Reed Sea, in next week’s parasha), we find the commandment of sanctifying the new moon:

“And God said to Moshe and to Aharon in the land of Egypt, saying: This month is for you the head of months; it is for you the first of the months of the year.” (Shemot 12:1-2)

Rashi’s very first comment on the Torah, at the beginning of Sefer Bereishit, cites the opinion of R. Yitzchak, who notes the great importance of this mitzva:

“R. Yitzchak said: [Seemingly,] the Torah should have begun with [the command,] ‘This month is for you,’ which is the first commandment that was given to Israel. So for what reason does [the Torah] start from Bereishit? Because ‘He has declared to His people the power of His works, that He may give them the heritage of the nations’ (Tehillim 111:6).” (Rashi, Bereishit 1:1)

Although the Torah begins with the words, “In the beginning God created,” R. Yitzchak draws our attention to the fact that the body of mitzvot conveyed in the Torah actually starts in our parasha, with the command, “This months shall be for you.” Admittedly, we encounter a number of commandments already in Sefer Bereishit (to be fruitful and multiply, the seven Noahide laws, circumcision, etc.), but sanctification of the New Moon is the first mitzva that Bnei Yisrael are given as a nation. Why is it specifically this mitzva that comes first?

Solar calendar and lunar calendar

In order to understand the importance of this mitzva, let us consider two fundamental disagreements relating to it.

  1. The first dispute was raised by the Judean Desert sects, who wanted to adhere to a purely solar calendar, because it was fixed and unchanging. This emerges clearly from the Book of Jubilees, which endeavors to negate the commandment of sanctifying the New Moon as familiar to us and as observed in our time.
  2. A second dispute arose when Hillel II proposed to establish a fixed intercalated calendar that would determine in advance all future dates. Rabbenu Chananel, in his Likkutim al ha-Torah, proves that the calendar was actually known before the time of Hillel II, and in fact there was no need for sanctification of the New Moon on the basis of eye-witnesses in order to know when the month began and when festivals would occur.

In the absence of a fixed intercalated calendar, there are three possibilities for determining the length of a month: one is a fixed solar calendar; another is a fixed lunar calendar; and a third is announcing a new month on the basis of eye-witness reports, as described in Massekhet Rosh Ha-shana.

At stake here is more than just the technical issue of the length of the month. The ramifications are far more profound. Clearly, the most convenient option is simply to follow the solar calendar: that way we can know in advance the date of the Seder night, we can plan to host guests for different festivals long in advance, preparations can be made in accordance with the possibilities for outings during Chol Ha-mo’ed, etc. Seemingly, a very good arrangement.

Why, then, does the Torah require sanctification of dates based on the testimony of witnesses, despite the significant measure of uncertainty that this introduces with regard to approaching festivals?

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 12b) notes that a leap year (i.e., an extra month of Adar) may be added even up to the 29th of (the first) Adar. Think of what this means: a household that is in the midst of feverish cleaning, all the while trying to finish the chametz left over from mishloach manot, all of a sudden discovers that Pesach is not two weeks away, but rather a whole month and two weeks!

A no-less-dramatic scenario might occur on Rosh ha-Shana: the family returns home from the synagogue, all dressed in their festive finery, following the special evening service. They recite Kiddush with the special tune reserved for holidays; they eat apples dipped in honey and exchange good wishes for the new year. The next morning, they and their fellow congregants discover that “Today is the 30th of Elul; Rosh ha-Shana begins tonight!”

Silent hearts

What, then, is the significance of sanctification of the New Moon based on testimony? It seems that Chazal are emphasizing the importance of being aware of our surroundings.

The Gemara (Shabbat 147b) records what happened when R. Elazar ben Arakh reached the verse, “This month shall be for you…” after having forgotten all he had learned:

“R. Elazar ben Arakh went [a luxurious location]. He was drawn to them, and his learning vanished. When he returned, he arose to read from the Torah. He came to the verse, ‘This month is for you…’ (ha-chodesh ha-zeh lakhem) but said instead, ‘Their heart became silent’ [ha-charesh haya libbam – one letter in each of the three words is altered in relation to the three words of the proper reading, rendering an entirely different meaning]. The rabbis prayed for him, and his learning returned to him.”

What is the significance of R. Elazar ben Arakh’s mistake – “ha-charesh haya libbam”? Why is it these specific words that he utters instead of “ha-chodesh ha-zeh lakhem”? Because these two phrases are the inverse of one another. The opposite of the commandment of sanctifying the New Moon is “silence” (or “closedness” or “sealing”) of the heart; it is the participation in ordinary, repetitive ritual that has nothing new about it. It is the manifestation of a sealed heart that is deaf and insensitive to the events of the time.

Time is sanctity

Often, during the course of their military service, religious soldiers in Israel discover that they are denied what is considered by many to be a fundamental right. While under “Shabbat mode” conditions a non-religious soldier might sleep until noon, a religious soldier can never permit himself to do so. All week he gets up early for exercise drill or morning parade, but his fantasy of sleeping later on Shabbat is never realized. He must still get up early in order to recite Shema at its proper time, and in order to pray at the proper time. Sometimes we internalize this understanding at an earlier stage in life, in different contexts.

A Jew cannot go to sleep at night without an awareness of his obligations and tasks for the following day. He must constantly be aware of himself and pay attention to what is happening and what needs to happen. In contrast to the state of having a fixed calendar and knowing long in advance when Pesach will fall, he must pay attention to the waxing and waning of the moon.

“You are not in its hands”

The midrash recounts:

“‘This month…’ – The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Since I created the world I have been busy making calculations of the months; from now onwards, the matter is given to you. It is in your hands; you are not in its hands.

It once happened to R. Chiyya ha-Gadol that the moon rose on Erev Rosh ha-Shana, such that the animals could walk three milin by its light. R. Chiyya saw it, took up soil and clods of earth and threw them at the moon. He said, ‘Tomorrow we were intending to declare the New Moon – and now you rise?!’ Whereupon the moon disappeared; why? Because it was in his hands.” (Tanchuma Yashan, 8)

Time is given into man’s hands – “It is given over to you; you are not given over to it” – and man is responsible for his use of time. God gives Chazal control over the calendar and the responsibility for it, and R. Chiyya manages to drive the moon back – how? By virtue of the fact that “It is in his hands.”

Other midrashim also deal with the power of Am Yisrael. For example, we find the following description of the Divine Presence at the time of sanctification of the month:

“By three [judges] the year is declared a leap year… And they make a circle and sit in order of their seniority, and put their faces down to the ground and stand and spread their hands before their Father in heaven.

And the head of the assembly utters God’s Name, and they hear a heavenly voice declare, ‘And God spoke to Moshe, saying…’ And if, owing to the sins of the generation, they hear nothing, it is as though God is unable to rest His glory and His Presence among them.

And happy are those who stand in that place at that time, as it is written, ‘Happy is the people that know the joyful note; they shall walk, O Lord, in the light of Your countenance’ (Tehillim 89:16)…

On Rosh Chodesh Nissan the Holy One, blessed be He, was revealed to Moshe and to Aharon in the land, and it was the fifteenth year of the great cycle of the moon, and the sixteenth year of the intercalated cycle. [He told them:] From now onwards, the counting will be up to you.” (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, 7)

Let us conclude with the prayer that Am Yisrael merit to resemble the moon in its renewal:

“… And to the moon He said that it should renew itself as a crown of splendor for those borne from the womb, who are destined to renew themselves like it, and to glorify their Maker for the Name of His glorious kingdom.” (From Kiddush Levana)

(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat parashat Bo 5774 [2014].)