Rabbi Yakov Haber
Rabbi Yakov Haber

World Time, Jewish Time

One of the central features of existence is time. Scientists speak of the time and space dimensions. Its existence is readily apparent but is yet intangible, untouchable, and unfathomable. Modern scientific theory has arrived more recently at the Torah truth (see Ramban to Breishis 1:1) that time, like space and all other aspects of existence, is a creation. The Creator, then, having created it is not subject to it. G-d does not exist forever in time. He is timeless.

All of humanity, Jew and non-Jew alike, are subject to time. They all age through time, celebrate special events in time, and mourn tragedies in time. But here the similarity ends. The first mitzvah of our parasha distinguishes between World time and Jewish time. "Hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chadashim, rishon hu lachem l'chadshei hashana" (Bo 12:2). The second half of the verse commands that the month of the exodus, Nissan, be counted as the first month of the months of the year. Throughout the Torah and most of Tanach, the months are referred to by number starting from Nissan as month one. Ramban (ibid.) explains that this commandment directs us to remember the Exodus constantly. When one refers to Kisleiv, for example, as the ninth month, one recalls that Nissan is the first month since that is the occasion of our leaving Egypt.

Based on this approach, Ramban explains why we currently use different names for the Jewish months. We no longer refer to Nissan as chodesh harishon but as Nissan; Iyar is called Iyar not chodesh hasheini. The Talmud Yerushalmi teaches that the Jewish people brought the names of the months from the Babylonian Exile with them when they returned in the days of Zerubavel to build the second Beit HaMikdash. Interpreting this not as a historical statement but as a halachic statement, Ramban explains that the mitzvah is to recall redemption with the naming of the months. During the first temple period, the exodus from Egypt was the most relevant redemption to recall. After the destruction of the Mikdash and the subsequent exile, followed by the shivat tzion starting the second temple era, it was the redemption from Babylon which was the most relevant exodus. Hence, the names of the months were changed to Babylonian ones, commemorating the last redemption.[1] Elsewhere,[2] Ramban takes this approach one step further. When we (may it be speedily!) merit the final redemption from the Edomite-Roman exile, we will once again change the names of the months to ... April, May, June, July etc. - the Roman names of the months - for Nissan, Iyar, Sivan, Tammuz[3] to commemorate the final redemption!

Ramban compares the numbering of the months recalling the exodus from Egypt to the numbering of the days of the week which recall Shabbat. The commandment "Remember the Shabbat" is interpreted by Ramban[4] as a directive that we should refer to the days of the week as yom rishon baShabbat, yom sheini baShabbat[5]. What emerges then is that the days of the week, counting as they do toward Shabbat, recall creation and our months recall the exodus. Thus, we do not just experience time, we elevate time.

Let us now turn to the first half of the passuk. On a simple plane, it states the same idea as the second half of the passage. But Rashi quotes the d'rash of Chazal[6] that it refers to the mitzvah of kiddush hachodesh. "Hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chadashim" teaches that the sighting of the first sliver of the new moon will serve as the sign for witnesses to testify to a beis din to sanctify the new month. Is there a connection between the two halves of the verse?

Rav Chaim Ya'akov Goldwicht zt"l, founding Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh, explained[7] that the mitzvah of kiddush hachodesh indicates Jewish mastery over time, and, more generally, over all of nature. The beis din is in supreme control of declaring the new month. Chazal teach us "atem - afilu m'zidin, atem - afilu muta'in" (Rosh HaShana 25a). Your declaration of the new month will be binding even if you erroneously or even deliberately declare the new month on the wrong day (the day the new moon was not sighted)[8]. This halachic concept, explained Rav Goldwicht, informs us of Hashem's granting beis din, as the representatives of Klal Yisrael, mastery over time and nature. They, when connecting to G-d through the study and keeping of his Torah, will not be subject to the regular rules of time and history. The Torah, being created before the world and serving as its blueprint, supersedes nature. Those who connect to it also do[9].

The exodus from Egypt entailed a total overriding of the "regular" natural order. The plagues which wrought havoc on the water supply, the agriculture, the cattle, and the very lives of the Egyptians, breaking quantitatively and qualitatively all of the forces of nature and statistics, demonstrated G-d's absolute mastery over the world. But they also indicated that the Jewish nation on whose behalf they were performed, when connecting to Torah would for all eternity, if not as dramatically and openly, be subject to a "higher order" system, not the ordinary, natural system. Klal Yisrael's survival does not depend on the regular rules of the rise and fall of nations. An individual Jew's well-being or c"v misfortune does not solely depend on the "regular rules." (See Ramban at the end of our Parasha.)

Mori v'Rabi Rav Hershel Schachter shlit"a often explained[10] why Jewish kings count their rule from Nissan and non-Jewish kings count from Tishrei (Rosh HaShana, Perek 1). Tishrei was the month of creation; it represents the natural rules of physics, time, and history. Hence, non-Jewish rulers count from that month as they are subject to the natural order. Nissan was the month of the miraculous Exodus; it represents the Jewish people's unique status and ability to override all of these rules when connecting to G-d. Therefore Jewish rulers count from it.

We can now link the two halves of the passuk. The Jewish beis din has mastery over time and nature as demonstrated by the laws of kiddush hachodesh. The Jewish nation counts the first month as Nissan since the exodus represents their transcendence above nature. Through the very first mitzvot, Hashem did not just command us concerning particular activities. He provided an overview of the great adventure of Torah life: one of spiritual elevation, of a link to a transcendental order, of connection to the very Master of time, nature and history Himself.


[1] See drasha for Rosh Hashana where Ramban writes that these new names were used as an addition to the original numbering system, not as a total substitute. See also the enlightening comment by Rabbi Chavel in his introduction to this drasha in his edition (Kitvei Ramban, Vol. I, footnote 6).

[2] I believe I saw this in the drasha for Rosh Hashana. I did not succeed in finding it in preparation for this article. I would appreciate if a reader who knows the source can inform me.

[3] Apparently the fact that the Roman months do not represent lunar months as do the Jewish (and Bablylonian) months does not pose a difficulty for Ramban since there is generally a clear correspondence - April for Nissan, May for Iyar, etc.

[4] In addition to Chazal's interpretation that it refers to the mitzvah of kiddush.

[5] See Sh'mirat Shabbat K'Hilchata (42: fn. 11) that this commandment is fulfilled by our recitation before shir shel yom: "Hayom yom ... b'Shabbat".

[6] The seeming redundancy of the passuk seems to be the basis of this d'rash.

[7] See Asufas Ma'arachot (Chanuka, introduction).

[8] This rule, of course, has its limits. Since the lunar cycle is approximately 29 1/2 days, Rosh Chodesh can only be on the 30th or the 31st day from the previous Rosh Chodesh. It is only within these two days that Beis Din's authority is final even if in error.

[9] Also see Defying Human Nature and Divine Miracles in the archives of Torahweb.

[10] See Jewish History: Stranger than Fiction in the archives of Torahweb.

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