"This month shall be for you the beginning of the months, it shall be for you the first of the months of the year." (Shemot 12:2)
This coming Shabbat, the final Shabbat in the Hebrew month of Adar, is also known as Shabbat HaChodesh. An additional Torah scroll is taken out on this Shabbat and Exodus 12:1-20 is read, announcing the arrival of the month of Nissan. Shabbat Hachodesh is the last of four special Shabbatot that surround the festival of Purim. Shabbat Shekalim and Shabbat Zachor precede Purim, and Shabbat Parah and Shabbat HaChodesh follow Purim.
The first day of Nissan is a historic day for the Jewish people. It was the day when we received our first commandment as a nation: sanctify the new moon. The new month could only be declared by a Beit Din (rabbinical court) after hearing the testimony of two witnesses. This ritual has a profound spiritual and historic significance for Jews living all over the world. The establishment of when chagim (holidays) fall, how many days they are and when we celebrate in and out of Israel all relate back to this commandment.
By virtue of this commandment, the Jewish people are given mastery over time. From that moment the calendar with its cycle of Shabbat, chagim and festivals could exist only when human witnesses declared the new month. This signifies more than control over the determination of time and the everyday events of daily life. It represents the potential for change and renewal, for rebirth and growth, and for the waning and waxing of the moon each month.
The concept of Rosh Chodesh is one that connects holiness with time. Sanctifying time and marking it is central to our lives as Jews. As Abraham Joshua Heschel states, "Judaism is more concerned with time than space" and Judaism is "a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time."
The law also instructs as to count the coming month of Nissan as the first month of the year. Not Tishrei, not Rosh Hashanah, but Nissan. If the world was created in Tishrei, then why is Nissan considered the first month of the year?
Ramban understood the rationale of this law in the following way:
- "The children of Israel should mark this month as the first, and
should count months in relation to this one; the second, the third, to
the 12th month. This is to ensure that we remember the great miracle (of
yetziat Mitzrayim - the Exodus) for whenever we mention the
month, we will (effectively) be mentioning the miracle. That is why
there are no names of months in the Torah, but the Torah will say (for
example): "And it came to pass in the third month" (19:1) or "In the
second month of the second year" (Bamidbar 10:11). This is the same
notion as our counting the days of the week in relation to Shabbat. And
this is why it says in the verse 'it shall be the first of the months of
the year FOR YOU'. In truth it is not the first month of the year (as
the world was created in Tishrei), but it is the first month for you as
it is a remembrance of our redemption."
The establishment of the calendar can be seen as a vital step in pursuit of freedom - all sorts of freedoms, both collective and personal. A slave is not a master of his or her own time. When I create my own calendar, I am stating without reservation that I control my time. My work times, my quiet times, my holidays, my family and friend times. My work/life balance. It enables me to honor time and mark it. I am in control of my life. The establishment of a Jewish month system is most significant especially if our calendar begins at, and points to, a month of release and redemption.