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Torah Sparks

January 31, 2004 – 8 Sh’vat 5764

Annual: Ex. 10:1 – 13:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 374; Hertz p. 248)
Triennial Ex. 12:29 – 13:16 (Etz Hayim p. 387; Hertz p. 258)
Haftarah Jeremiah 46:13-28

Prepared by Kenneth S. Goldrich, Esq.
Author of the USCJ/RA Luah and Yad LaTorah

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director


10:1-20 – The eighth plague, locusts.

10:21-29 – The ninth plague, darkness.

11:1-3 – God announces to Moses the last and decisive plague and instructs him to tell the people to prepare to leave by asking the Egyptians for jewels and gold (which the Egyptians, overawed by events and by Moses' apparent power, readily give).

11:4-10 – Moses announces the tenth plague, the slaying of the first-born, to Pharaoh; but God hardens Pharaoh's heart and he does not respond to this final ultimatum.

12:1-13 – Moses and Aaron are instructed concerning the new month (see below, Selected Text) and Moses is commanded to tell the people about the Passover sacrifice to be offered in Egypt. The Israelites are commanded to take a lamb, slaughter it on the 14th of Nisan, at twilight, mark the doorposts of their houses with its blood, and eat the lamb on the eve of the 15th. On that same night, God strikes down all the first-born of Egypt. Israelites are commanded to take a lamb, slaughter it on the 14th of Nisan, at twilight, mark the doorposts of their houses with its blood, and eat the lamb on the eve of the 15th. On that same night, God strikes down all the first-born of Egypt.

Selected Text

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt declaring: This month shall be for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first of the months of the year. (Exodus 12:1-2)

Discussion – Let's Make a Date: The Jewish Calendar

Interestingly, Rashi’s first mention of the Selected Text is found in his commentary on the first verse in the Torah. Rashi cites the Tanhuma and tells us: “Rabbi Isaac said: ‘(God) did not have to begin the Torah other than with ‘This month shall be for you …’ (Ex. 12:2) because that is the first mitzvah which was commanded to Israel.” (Rashi on Gen. 1:1)

What is the nature of the mitzvah that is incorporated in our verse? Let us look at the explanation given in the 13th century Sefer HaHinukh (which gives an explanation of each of the 613 mitzvot as they are recorded in the Torah). “The mitzvah of kiddush ha’hodesh, sanctifying the new moon: To sanctify months (i.e., declare the beginning of the new month) and intercalate years (i.e., determine when a leap year occurs) by the Bet Din (court) that is greatest in wisdom in the Land of Israel and which has the authority to fix the festivals …”

As can be seen from a careful reading of the Sefer HaHinukh, there are two components to the mitzvah in our Selected Text. Based on a seeming redundancy in the language, the text was interpreted to mean both (1) that God instructed Moses how -- and the court in each generation was empowered -- to declare the beginning of each month, and (2) that the court was charged with declaring when the first month (Nisan) would occur (i.e., whether there should be an extra Adar so that Passover would not occur before the vernal equinox).

An interesting mishnah: “Rabban Gamliel the nasi (patriarch) sent (a message) to (Rabbi Joshua): ‘I order you to come to me with your staff and your money on the day that Yom Kippur will fall according to your calculation.’ Rabbi Akiba found (Rabbi Joshua) troubled (since he would have to violate the day he understood to be Yom Kippur) and said to him, I can teach you that whatever Rabban Gamliel does is determinative because it is said ‘These are the appointed seasons (fixed holidays) of the Lord which are called holy and which you shall proclaim (Lev. 23:4). (According to Rabbi Akiva, this means whether you, i.e., the designated court, shall proclaim them) at their proper time or not at their proper time ... Rabbi Dosa ben Hyrcanus said to (Rabbi Joshua), ‘If we challenge the court of Rabban Gamliel, we must challenge every court from Moses until now’ … (After Rabbi Joshua complied) Rabban Gamliel stood up and kissed him on his head and said to him, ‘Come in peace my teacher and my disciple. My teacher in wisdom, my disciple because you accepted my words.’” (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 2:9)

Today we utilize a fixed calendar that was established almost 2000 years ago. Although we no longer have a Bet Din to sanctify the new moon, we do have an opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of Kiddush ha’Hodesh through the ceremony of Kiddush Levanah (sanctification of the moon). Generally recited in the evening when the moon is visible from the third (or seventh) through the fourteenth of the month, the ceremony includes selections from Psalms, several verses and a brakhah which states, in part: “Blessed are You … Who with His word created the heavens and with His breath everything they contain. (God) established a schedule for them which they do not deviate from. (The heavenly bodies) are joyous and happy to do the will of their Creator … Blessed are You … Who renews the months.” (See Siddur Sim Shalom, p. 705)

Sparks for Discussion

  1. Why is the fixing of a calendar important enough for that to have been the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people?
  2. How many calendars – school, fiscal, secular, Jewish, sports – affect your life? Can you think of how any person or authority uses the ability to fix a calendar to exercise power or establish priorities? Re-read the selection from the Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 2:9, excerpted above. Was Rabban Gamliel’s action in forcing Rabbi Joshua to act as he did (i.e., violating the day Rabbi Joshua calculated as Yom Kippur) inconsistent with what we would today consider pluralism? Are there proper limits to pluralism, e.g., to maintain the unity and integrity of the Jewish people? How does Rabban Gamliel’s final comments to Rabbi Joshua serve to modify the seeming harshness of his opinion?
  3. Consider new commemorations – for example, Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) or Yom Ha’Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) – which have been added to the Jewish calendar. Do those segments of the Jewish community which refuse to acknowledge these risk splitting the community?
  4. What purposes can the continuation of traditions such as kiddush levanah serve for us today?

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