Nissan is the month of renewal and rebirth. Nature, all around us, is starting to come alive again, with the blossoming greenery and the gentle showers that smell of summer. Inspirered by nature’s awakening, it’s a time when we too seek to refresh and renew: Out with the heavy, dark winter wardrobe, bring in the light and cheerful florals! We clean the house not just for Pesach, but we insist on a full Spring Cleaning, seeking still to renew ourselves and our households. We want to shed the extra layers-of clothes, of dust, and of general weariness, and be rejuvenated in our lives, physically and spiritually. It’s time for some change….
This past shabbos was Rosh Chodesh Nissan. In a nod of deference to all of the lovely women (myself included) who are still in Pesach denial mode and are blissfully going about their daily lives, I thought I’d dedicate this post to understanding Rosh Chodesh and the Jewish Calendar in its entirety, rather than something overtly Pesach related.
For those who don’t know, I teach third grade in a boys yeshiva. Years ago, I started including what we call the “whys” in our telling time unit: we ask why there are 24 hours in a day, why there are 365 days in a year, why there are 30-31 days in a month, why there are 7 days in a week, and so on. (Of course, every year I have a few boys who try to insist that the answer to all the whys is “that’s the way Hashem created it” and are quite content with that alone!) Over the years, this unit has expanded considerably and is now a comprehensive math, literature, and science curriculum that covers the solar system, the planets, and understanding the workings of the both the English and Jewish calendar.
As I built this curriculum the first year, I didn’t know what direction it would go in and didn’t have the science and literature material available. I taught the material as it came up and let the questions and flow of conversation in the classroom guide the direction. What was interesting to me was that I found I knew the information in bits and pieces but, as is often the case, as I taught the material, especially as I answered the questions about the Jewish calendar, it all came together for me. With that in mind, I’m going to run through the basic workings of a Jewish calendar before we start, just to lay a foundation for what is to come.
Let’s start with the whys:
The English year is solar–it has 365 days (and six hours, necessitating an extra day every four years as those extra 6 hours days add up to a whole day) because that’s how long it takes for Earth to revolve once around the sun.
A Jewish year is an accumulation of the 12 Jewish months, which are lunar—based on the cyclical waxing and waning of the moon. Each month is 29-30 days, based again on the moon’s cycle. If there is a 30th day in the month, that day is the automatically the first day of Rosh Chodesh for the following month.
The English year is divided into 12 months with 30-31 days in each month, basically for convenience in dividing the year. The division we use now hasn’t always been used. As I point out to my class, the prefixes of various months easily prove this—sept means 7, oct means 8, deci means 10, but September, October, and December are not the 7th, 8th, and 10th months.
Though we call the English year Solar, we can’t quite call the Jewish year Lunar. Calendars that are fully lunar, like the Arabic calendar, are not consistent with the seasons. If you cycle around a 354 day lunar year, as the years pass the holidays fall behind the solar year and come out in the wrong season. If the Jewish calendar were fully lunar, we’d often have Pesach in the winter and Chanuka in the summer. We therefore have a solar correction instituted into our calendar to keep the Yamim Tovim on track with the season that the Torah wants them in. This solar correction is, of course, Adar Shaini.
Back to the whys: A day is 24 hours because that’s how long it takes for Earth to rotate once on its Axis. And finally, the only answer that’s non-scientific, pleasing the little smart-alecs in the class, is that a week is 7 days because that’s how Hashem created the world.
With the basics down, let’s start understanding the significance of Rosh Chodesh in a novel way. In keeping with the Pesach spirit, we’ll break it down into four questions:
Biblically, inhabiting this world is called being under the sun. For example, pessukim in Koheles refer to the inhabitants of the world as being “Tachas Hashemesh”. Why is it then that they follow the sun and we don’t? What do the sun and moon symbolize
The Sun is a great constant in the universe. Earth, and all else in our Solar System revolve around it. Our days and nights are based on it. Life on Earth is physically sustained by the light, heat, and energy received from the sun. Indeed, most of the world lives by a calendar determined by it.
In this case, consistency is the Sun’s great flaw. The word “שנה”, year, is related to the word, שונה, which means to repeat. The world is full of repetitive years. Just as we are told in that there is nothing new under the sun, we also know that history is set to repeat itself. The goyim live their lives according to the sun and are set to live in a cycle of repetitious years. Just as the sun’s course is fixed and steady, the world is on a fixed and steady course
Looking back on history through the years, we see that in fact, there really is nothing new. Empires and nations rise and fall and with hindsight we see the unbreakable patterns. That’s the course chosen by the those who live under the sun.
This course also lends itself to atheism and to those who choose not to see G-d in the world. In a world where the sun is the great constant, it’s easy to deny that a greater, more constant power is truly supporting and giving life. Mitzrayim was the perfect example of this: self-sufficient and supported by the waters of the Nile, they turned to their king and worshipped his as a god. This was a country where all were familiar with magic that manipulated nature, and no one wanted the submission that comes with recognizing an all-powerful G-d. That is why, the Ramchal tells us, that the gematria of paroh is equal to that of Shana.
The sun has set pattern, but the moon constantly changes; other nations follow set course of history, the the Yidden defy this. Let’s see how in the next question.
If the sun is the great, unchanging constant, the moon is anything but. Set in a 29 day pattern of growth and diminution, we celebrate its rebirth and set the calendar of our holidays by its cycle.
In complete contrast with the repeating שנה of the sun, the moon’s חודש is related to the word, chiddush, renewal. When we accepted this mitzvah, we chose to live in a different plane of existence. No longer bound to the sun and its predetermined pattern, we now lived in world where renewal and change were the baseline. Nations are set to follow the ups-and-downs of the sun, but in a system of months, individuals can grow.
Why was this the first mitzva? (It’s even referenced in the first Rashi in Braishis, as worthy of being the first possuk of the Torah.) Further, why is it so intricately bound to יציאת מצרים, even serving as the introduction to the pessukim about קרבן פסח? Parshas Hachodesh, read in shul yesterday, only starts with this commandment, quickly segueing into the the instructions of קרבן פסח.
The Rambam writes that leaving Mitzrayim was about leaving the natural state of this world. It was the choice as to see Hashem, and not the sun, as the One who sustains this world and choosing to live in a world of renewal and growth.
We, as a nation, choose not to follow the path of the goyim, and choose not to be led by that which illuminates their world and directs their world view. This was the true departure from Mitzrayim and this is the reason for our very existence. Atheists see just the natural world of unchanging tevah, while we must look beyond and see the daily chiddush. The moon is often visible during the day but is overlooked due to the brightness of the sun. We, as a nation that acknowledges Hashem, are bound to see it and celebrate it.
It is the Solar year, however, that lends a framework to the seasons. One might mistakenly think that in order to reach Spring, the season of happiness and renewal, one has to turn to the goyim’s sun. But that isn’t true. Pesach comes in the spring, regardless. We don’t abandon our Lunar-centric lives in search of the physical benefits of the sun, trusting instead that our path will lead to true happiness.
This mitzvah was given to us first because it set us apart and set us free. When Hashem created the world, He created light first. Light is the foundation and framework of all of nature. (Consider that theoretically speaking, travelling at the speed of light would cause time travel.) Creating light created a sequence and a timeline. This foundational law of nature is restricting on everyone and everything in the natural world—except for the Yidden. With the makos, Hashem made it clear that only He controls nature and that we are above it. He then gave us (the word lachem is used twice in this passuk) power and control over time and nature. Bais din declares when Rosh Chodesh will be, because Time has been given over to us.
Let’s now move into the third question, which will examine more closely what the moon really represents.
We’ve all learned the story in kindergarten, but here are some new things to consider: what was the physical change that was made in the moon? What power did the moon receive along with the diminishment? Why do we pray monthly that the moon be restored? Why do we celebrate on Rosh Chodesh, and why have chachomim throughout the generations seen the moon’s cycle as a reason to rejoice?
The moon famously tells Hashem that two cannot rule simultaneously and is reduced as a consequence. Many assume this refers to the size of the moon, in that it is smaller than the sun. However, meforshim explain it as follows: the moon always was physically smaller, and never had the natural light of the sun. However, before it complained to Hashem, the moon would have fully reflected the brightness of the sun, leaving us in an illuminated world, 24 hours a day. The moon had the ability to be mekabel, to fully accept and reflect back the light it received from the sun. When the moon was punished, this power of internalizing and reflecting was diminished.
In truth, the reduction of the moon started a pattern of decline that we see continually in the chapters of the Torah. We see several creations that are reduced and that won’t be restored until the final geula. Some examples:
· When Adam was created, he was put in gan eden. There was One World, which had the components in it of what we now know as This World and The World To Come. Adam’s sin caused that our world be reduced to just a This World, leaving the reality of the Next World for after the final geula.
· Adam himself was also reduced after his sin. The gemarah actually uses language that seems to mirror the language used to describe the moons reduction: הניח הק”בה ידו עליו ומיעטו
· B’nai Yisrael initially were to receive the Torah in its totality. However, when we sinned with the eigel, our level was reduced and we received the second, limited luchos. (The medrash says that the entire Torah was contained in the first luchos, but not the second.)
We therefore daven each month that the moon, and all that is similarly reduced, be restored to their full power with the coming of Moshiach.
The moon was diminished in its ability to receive but was also granted a a gift: the special ability to survive in darkness. This is the often overlooked bracha of the moon: the capacity to be diminished, but not to fade away and die; instead, to grow and renew in response. This is the ability we tap into when we follow the moon, and not the stoic sun
In Birkas Halevanah, the monthly prayer, we say that Hashem tells the moon renew itself, and this is a crown for those on Earth, that they may continue on to serve Hashem.( ” וללבנה אמר שתתחדש עטרת תפארת לעמוסי בטן “) When those of us on Earth stumble and are reduced due to our urge to sin, we can look to the moon to inspire us to wax after waning. Sefer Hachinuch explains that this implied power in the renewal of the moon is what makes it an ideal time for teshuva. As we say in the Rosh Chodesh musaf : ראשי חדשים לעמך נתת זמן כפרה לכל תולדות
We know that a non-Jew can be reborn with sincere acceptance of the Torah. We, too, through our acceptance of the Torah with this first command have the power to simulate on our neshamos this rebirth and renewal, and to remove the reductions that our sins have caused. As the moon is reborn and renewed each month and then proceeds to wane again, we look to it for a message of hope as we strive to grow and gain. The transition to living under the moon’s light is what turns a non-Jew into a Jew, and it is what turned the us into B’nai Yisrael.
A new moon is called a molad, a birth, and brings with it a new chodesh (which of course hints to the word chiddush). This new moon never existed before (on a spiritual level) and therefore, we verbalize our hope and pray each month that this will be the last diminished moon, and it will continue to wax, and never have to wane. That which is reborn isn’t subject to the sins of the previous existence, and remains (spiritually, of course) on the heightened level until the minute something happens to once again cause the diminution. Thus, the chachomim celebrated each new moon, as the potential beginning of the final geula, and prayed that this would be the month it doesn’t wane: “ויהי חודש זה סוף וקץ לכל צרותינו תחילה וראש לפדיון נפשנו”.
And our last question
Rav Tzadok writes that B’nai Yisrael are compared to the moon. Just as the moon has no light of its own, we acknowledge that we have no right to exist and are here by Hashem’s grace. The amount of light the moon reflects is directly proportionate to the angle at which it is facing the sun. So too, the more we turn our faces to Hashem, we can receive more of His great light. There will be times of darkness, when we’ve turned away from Him, but even as we fade away, we have the inborn ability to catch on to the moon’s message and repent and renew ourselves.
The sun is compared to Olam Hazeh, This World, while the moon is compared to Olam Haba, The World to Come. The goyim, ruled by the sun and earthly pleasure, rule the world we live in. Other nations only have the ability to survive in good, bright times. As B’nai Yisrael, we aim towards and live our lives for the next world, surviving eternally through dark times as well.
Just as the moon is renewed, we hope and pray for the renewed world of the future. Our galus has a set end. May this month truly be the month where we joyfully greet Moshiach.
Baruch Hashem, my time these days is pretty much taken up by my family. Gone are the days when I used to walk to shul on random afternoons to join my father at the local mincha minyan. Way gone are the years where I would wake up with him daily at 5 AM the entire month of Elul to go to selichos. Yom Kippurs spent in shul from 6:30 AM until after ma’ariv of Motzai Yom Kippur are a distant dream. Living in an area where we don’t use the eruv has meant that the last decade of Yom Kippurs was spent at home, playing, building, singing, and squeezing in the shemona esrays and each viddui in between. But I remember the high of Yom Kippur, and the sweet and heady feeling of being cleansed and renewed. I remember commenting years ago at some random point during a long and unending winter to my sister that “I need a good Yom Kippur to get me going” and she knew exactly what I meant.
Facing challenges of life, and feeling weighed down by our own shortcomings, our souls which remain pure and Heavenly, seek to cleanse and renew, as we seek to find our way in this world again and reconnect with our Maker. As we seek Hashem in the darkness, we know that He too is rooting for our success and is helping us come back.
What I didn’t know back then is that we don’t have to wait for Yom Kippur to feel reborn. Erev Rosh Chodesh is called Yom Kippur Katan and is a day where we can tap into the message of the moon and the feelings of Yom Kippur. As we somberly get ready for the joy of the molad of the new moon and celebrate Pesach this Nissan, our introspection is guided inwards:
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Truly, Clearly, and Sincerely yours,