By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
I’ve often wondered why the Jewish calendar is lunar, unlike the secular calendar which is solar. Is it that we have some connection to the moon rather than the sun?
The first mitzvah given to the Jews as a nation, while still in Egypt, was to sanctify the months based upon the new moon (Shemot/Exodus 12:2). This mitzvah forms the foundation of the Jewish holidays, the celebration of which depends upon our counting of the months and days from the sighting of the new moon. However, we no longer wait for the sighting of the new moon by witnesses. Instead, the final High Court calculated the Jewish months for the next several thousand years. These early sages calculated the lunar calendar with remarkable precision, leading to startling accuracy until today, thousands of years later.
It is not insignificant that this, of all mitzvot, should be the very first given to the Jews, well before the Ten Commandments. This reveals much about our relationship to the mitzvot, the lunar cycle and insights regarding the Jewish people.
The Hebrew for “month,” as seen from the above-mentioned verse, is chodesh. This comes from the root chadash, which means “new.” We are always to perform the mitzvot with a feeling of freshness and newness, not to execute them by rote. This entails injecting the feelings you have that day, coupled with using your full faculties and thoughts and heart, when performing a mitzvah. No two times you carry out a mitzvah should be the same. This is reflected by the moon, which waxes and wanes, sometimes more present and at times more elusive, but never the same. Its very essence in the way it presents to us teaches us to always be renewed. This serves as an introduction to all future mitzvot, following the lead of the first mitzvah, which is fresh, new and invigorating by its very nature. We see this in the words of the Torah, in the Sh’ma, which says “these words should be today upon your heart.” The classical commentator Rashi explains this to mean that every day the words of Torah should be as fresh and new as the day they were given at Mt. Sinai.
The Jews, as a people, are connected to the mitzvot on a very deep level. For this reason, the Jewish nation is constantly being renewed. Unlike the sun, which remains static and unchanging, the moon waxes and wanes. At one point during the month it seems to disappear completely, only to suddenly appear anew and on its way to fullness and complete splendor. So often in our history have we gone through times that seemed as though the end had arrived. We have seen the destruction of our Temples, subsequent exiles, annihilation of our country. We’ve endured Haman’s final solution, pogroms, inquisitions and the unspeakable Holocaust. Each time, sociologists and historians pronounced us dead or too weak to go on. Shortly after we were hidden like the moon (alas, to the chagrin of many), we were back!
In no small part it is the very mitzvot that we perform with a newness that has kept our nation fresh and new, giving us the strength and Divine connection to continue to survive. That’s the one most important thing we can all do in the face of the latest threats to our existence from Iran coupled with the threat of assimilation — renew our commitment to mitzvot and Torah study, which will ensure our survival!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.
By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried