By Rabbi Yitzchok D. Frankel
Agudath Israel of the Five Towns
This month will be for you the head of months. It is the first for you among the months of the year. (Sh’mos 12:2)
“In the beginning”—said Rabbi Yitzchok: “The Torah should have begun with ‘This month will be for you,’ which is the first mitzvah that Israel was commanded . . .” (Rashi, Bereishis 1:1)
The very first mitzvah we received as a people is the one in our pasuk: the mitzvah of Kiddush HaChodesh. This mitzvah was performed by the Sanhedrin in ancient times. Based on the sighting of the new moon, it entails declaring that the new month has begun and thereby “sanctifying” it. Included in the mitzvah is that Nissan is the first month that should be sanctified.
Why, of all the mitzvos in the Torah, was this one chosen to be first? What was so overwhelmingly special about it? In addition, this mitzvah appears to have been superfluous at the time it was given. In contrast, Korban Pesach was indeed a timely mitzvah, with its matzah and marror, all of which were part of the special Seder that Klal Yisrael needed to partake of before leaving Mitzrayim. Would Yetzias Mitzrayim have been held back if some other month had been the first month? Was it important to find out exactly how the Sanhedrin declares a new month before Yetzias Mitzrayim took place?
In the beginning, G-d created the heavens and the earth . . . G-d said: “Let there be light,” and there was light. (Bereishis 1:1, 3)
There is a logic and a rationale to the order of Creation. The first thing Hashem created was light, on the first day. Why was it necessary for light to be created first? Why did Hashem not wait until day four, when the sun, moon, and stars were created? Why did Hashem create light in an independent fashion, several days before the creation of the luminaries that were supposed to provide it?
One simple answer is that without light, there is no time. According to the laws of physics and the discoveries of Einstein, it is quite evident that in order for time to exist, light needs to exist. The faster an object moves, up until the speed of light, the slower time passes for it. Theoretically, one can actually stop time when one travels at the speed of light. Time is thus inextricably linked to light. So in order for there to be a first day, in order for the chronology of Creation to unfold, there needed to be light.
The fact is that all of nature, mankind included, is limited and defined by the natural order that was set up at the time of Creation. Up until Yetzias Mitzrayim, all human beings were completely subject to the laws of nature. Even after Matan Torah, it is known and accepted that the mazalos, the constellations of the Zodiac, have a profound influence on the world (see Shabbos 129b) and all people born into this world are under their influence.
There is one exception to this grand, Divinely ordained system of natural law. That is Klal Yisrael.
Said Rav Yehudah, said Rav: Avraham said, “Ribbono shel Olam, I examined my mazal, and I am not fit to father a son.” He replied, “Leave your astrology behind. There is no mazal for Israel.” (Nedarim 32a)
Klal Yisrael is not limited by these natural laws, nor subject to astrological powers and constraints. Although we live in the natural world, we have the ability to transcend these limitations and leap beyond the natural order of the universe, beyond what is naturally “possible.” As a nation, and often as individuals, we have overcome our physical barriers and elevated ourselves to what is called lema’alah min hateva, to a level that is above nature.
This ability was granted to us at Yetzias Mitzrayim. Throughout the ten makos, Hashem progressively demonstrated how nature meant nothing when it pertained to Klal Yisrael. Water could be both blood and water at the same time. There could be separations of time; there could be separations of light and dark. There were no absolute rules. One reality existed for the Mitzri’im while a different one simultaneously existed for the Jews. Although they were contradictory, they existed side by side.
In order to show that Klal Yisrael is lema’alah min hateva, the first mitzvah we were given was one that grants us control over a most profound and innate aspect of the natural world: the phenomenon of time.
The verse cited at the start of this article seems repetitive. First it says, “Head of months,” and then it says, “It is the first.” What is the message? Placing the renewal of the month in the hands of the Jewish people implies that control over time itself is in the hands of Israel. It is Jew over nature. The “head of months” represents that “it is the first” of all the beginnings. It is the first of all the mitzvos to come, and is their key. Time belongs to the Jews—granting them the level of lema’alah min hateva.
In this way, the mitzvah of Kiddush HaChodesh contains the force that allows us to succeed in our Torah observance. We are no longer shackled by our physical nature and our behavior is not constrained by the influence of the stars above.
The decision of when Rosh Chodesh will be is not just a matter of which day to call “one.” It determines such crucial issues as when Pesach will fall. We can even decide, for instance, that the first day of Pesach will never fall on a Wednesday!
“This month will be for you.” The ministering angels said to Hashem, “O Master of the World, when are You making the holidays?” For it says, “Regarding the decree of the angels, there was a word” (Daniel, ch. 4). Hashem replied, “You and I shall agree to what Israel decides regarding the leap year.” For it says, “I will call to G-d on high, to G-d who fulfills for me” (Tehillim, ch. 57). And it says, “These are the holidays of Hashem, the holy convocations, which you shall call in their time.” (Vayikra, ch. 23). “‘You,’ [Israel, will decide them, and so it shall be.] Whether they are in their proper time or not, I have no holidays other than these.”
Hashem said to Israel: “In the past, it was in My hand.” For it says, “He made the moon for holidays” (Tehillim, ch. 104). “But from now on, it is placed in your hands. The decision is yours. If you say ‘yes,’ it is yes. If you say ‘no,’ it is no. In every case, ‘this month will be for you.’ Furthermore, if you wish to make it a leap year, I accept your decision.” Thus it says, “This month will be for you.” (Sh’mos Rabbah 15:2)
This Midrash underscores the control the Jewish people have over the running of the world. The angels come to Hashem and ask when Rosh Hashanah will be, as they also shake in fear of the Divine judgment. But Hashem tells them that it is not in His hands when He will judge the universe. The Jews decide how many days Elul will have, thus determining the date of Rosh Hashanah. And so it is regarding the date of Pesach. When will the Korban Pesach be offered? From which date will the severe prohibition of chometz apply? Klal Yisrael controls these decisions.
This power makes us partners with Hakadosh Boruch Hu in Creation, and elevates us above all that is created. Only with this power may a human being fulfill the rest of Torah. Thus, the mitzvah of Kiddush HaChodesh is a sine qua non, an indispensable prerequisite to the rest of the Torah.
Said Rava: When a person is brought in to be judged, he is asked, “. . . Did you fix times for Torah?” (Shabbos 31a)
Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch notes that this famous question should have been worded differently. If the question was whether we fixed a regular time in our daily schedule for Torah study, it should have been worded: “kavata Torah l’itim”? Why does it rather say, “kavata itim l’Torah”? Rav Hirsch explains that it is conveying the idea that the Jew has the ability to establish the times of the Torah itself: “Did you fix times for Torah?” This is because Torah is not subservient to anything material, anything of this world. It is not ruled by Greenwich Mean Time. On the contrary, this world is subservient to the Torah. That is why the Jewish people have the ability to establish the times for the Torah.
Hachodesh hazeh lachem. This power over time, over nature, is ours. v
Rabbi Frankel can be reached at email@example.com. At local stores: Machat shel Yad Bereishis, Sh’mos, and Vayikra.