Today is Rosh Chodesh Nissan – the new month of Nissan. Nissan is a very special month – not just because we celebrate the festival of Pesach in the midst of it. Nissan is the first of the Hebrew months. We read in Exodus chapter 12 (:1-2): in the preamble to the instructions for celebrating the first Pesach:
The Eternal One spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt saying: / ‘this month shall be to you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you.’
Nissan is actually a Babylonian name. The first month was originally called, Aviv, meaning ‘Spring.’ As we read in Exodus chapter 13; ‘(:3-4):
And Moses said to the people: ‘Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage, how the Eternal One freed you from it with a mighty hand: no leavened bread shall be eaten. / You go free on this day, in the month of Aviv.’
From a seasonal point of view, it makes sense that the first month of the year should be in the spring – a time of rebirth and renewal in the natural world. And so Jews count the months from Nissan through to Adar, the month which came to a close at sunset yesterday evening.
We may count the months, but how do we live them? In biblical times, the day of the new moon was an important festival, announced with the blasting of the shofar. As we read in Psalm 81 (:4): Tik’u va-chodesh shofar, ba-keseh l’yom chaggeinu – ‘Blow the shofar at the new moon, and when the moon is full, for our festival.’ In ancient practice, Rosh Chodesh was a day when women, specifically, did not work in recognition of the fact women, too, experience a monthly cycle of our own. Nowadays, the coming month it announced during the Torah service on the preceding Shabbat. And on Rosh Chodesh itself, there are a few liturgical additions: a special prayer, ya’aleh v’yavo, used also for the intermediate days of Pesach and Sukkot, is inserted into the first of the three concluding blessings of the Amidah, known as, R’tzei; half-Hallel, is recited – that is, we sing some of the hymns of ‘praise’ set aside for festive days; and there are also special Torah and Haftarah readings.
However, since only a minority of Jews engage in daily prayer, the beginning of most months is likely to pass most of us by. Of course, sometimes, like today, Rosh Chodesh will fall on Shabbat. But then only those who actually attend the service will be aware that it is Rosh Chodesh. The Hebrew month always begins in darkness, with the moon waxing day by day, until it becomes full, and then waning day by day, so that the month ends in darkness once more. But unless one makes a conscious effort to be a moon-watcher, it is easy to lose track of the Hebrew months. We are bombarded each day with constant messages about the Gregorian date, from the moment we wake up and switch on our radios or TVs, or smart phones, or open our newspapers. By contrast, keeping in touch with the cycles of the Jewish year involves making a real effort.
During the past quarter century, Jewish women from across the Jewish spectrum have been reviving the observance of Rosh Chodesh, bringing it back into the centre of our lives. Around the Jewish world, women gather in Rosh Chodesh groups to study together and bless the new moon – when the first sliver of moon appears around the third or fourth day. Following the example of these Jewish women, the observance of Rosh Chodesh has spread to mixed groups of women and men, and some synagogues in Britain have also begun to organise regular Rosh Chodesh programmes for their members, so helping to spread the awareness of the changing months.
Once people begin to become aware of the cycle of the months, they also become more Jewishly conscious in general as the rhythm of Jewish time becomes a regular feature of their lives. And so with the aid of a Jewish diary and an opportunity to mark the passing months it is possible to live the Jewish year more fully. Becoming a regular Moon-watcher can be fun – weather permitting, of course! Indeed, keeping an eye on the changing phases of the moon reminds us that observing the changing moons is not some obscure Jewish practice it connects us to one of the most significant cycles in the life of the world that is so powerful it affects the tides of the seas.
That’s a good reason for becoming a moon-watcher, but the Jewish reason is actually equally significant. Within the cycle of months that make up the Jewish year, Jews actually live two other cycles – a cycle connected to the sun and a cycle connected to the moon, specifically, the moon of Tishri, the seventh month of the Jewish year. These cycles in turn, explore different aspects of what it is to be a Jew and to be a human being, to be the Jewish people, and be part of humanity. And so living these cycles creates opportunities to embark on a variety of different journeys, which together made deepen our experience of our own lives. Let me illustrate what I mean.
The sun cycle is connected to the seasons and encompasses the spring festival of Pesach, the early summer feast of Shavuot, and the autumn celebration of Sukkot. In biblical times, these festivals were rooted in the agricultural life of our people and involved pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the bringing of the offerings of the land to the Temple: at Pesach, barley; at Shavuot, wheat and bikkurim, the ‘first fruits’; at Sukkot, the final harvest of the year. For this reason, these three festivals are known as shalosh r’galim, the ‘three feet’ festivals. But Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot are not simply celebrations of the gifts of nature. Pesach is z’man cheiruteinu, ‘the season of our liberation’ from slavery; Shavuot – which in biblical times was purely agricultural – is z’man matan Torateinu – the season of the giving of our Torah; and Sukkot is z’man simchateinu, the season of our rejoicing, when we remember God’s providence in sustaining us during the forty years of wilderness wandering. In other words, these three festivals mark the journey of our people: from slavery to freedom; from freedom to responsibility; from formal acceptance of the Torah to the difficult task of putting the mitzvot – the commandments of the Eternal – into practice in daily life, and creating a society based on social responsibility and justice. As we celebrate these festivals, we make them live in our lives when we don’t just remember what happened to our ancestors and relive their experience, but embark on journeys generated by our own experiences as Jews and as human beings today.
If the sun cycle, focuses on our journey as a people and each Jew’s journey as a member of the people, the changing phases of the moon in the seventh month take each individual on an inner journey towards reunion with the Eternal and ourselves. Indeed, the seventh month of Tishri is each Jew’s annual opportunity to repair ourselves and our souls, and mend our relationships. Rosh Ha-Shanah means ‘the head of the year’, and marks the the turning point of the months. It is at this turning point, at the beginning of the seventh month, that we are summoned to wake up with a blast of the shofar calling us to examine ourselves and begin the process of repentance. For this reason, Rosh Ha-Shanah is also known as Yom Ha-Din, the Day of Judgement. The intense period of t’shuvah, ‘returning’, culminates in Yom Kippur. But the Day of Atonement is not the final stage of our journey. The new moon begins in darkness on the first of Tishri, but by the 10th of Tishri, it is only three quarters full. So, while Yom Kippur is a day of at-one-ment, it is not until Sukkot, which begins on the 15th day, when the moon is full, that the journey towards the Eternal and ourselves is completed. On Sukkot, we acknowledge Eternity in time and space and celebrate the gifts of life.
Sukkot is a crucial meeting point for the sun cycle and cycle of the months. The Torah speaks of an eighth day following the seven days of Sukkot, known simply as Sh’mini Atzeret, which means, literally, ‘the eighth day of conclusion’. The Torah does not explain the content of this day, except to indicate that like the other festivals it is mikra kodesh, a ‘holy convocation’ on which work is prohibited (Leviticus 23:36). When we experience the two cycles for ourselves we can see why a final day of conclusion is necessary. And if we think about our ancestors gathered in Jerusalem, it’s not difficult to imagine why Sh’mini Atzeret was a very important final moment, before they returned to their homes once more. Nowadays, progressive Jews observe the post-biblical Festival of Simchat Torah on Sh’mini Atzeret, while orthodox Jews celebrate Simchat Torah a day later. And although Simchat Torah has nothing to do with the original festival cycles, it’s very clear why the festival which celebrates ‘the joy of the Torah’ with the completion of one Torah reading cycle and the beginning of a new one, should prove to be such an ideal way of concluding the autumn festivals.
The cycle of the months, the moon cycle, the sun cycle, and the festivals are all opportunities to live our lives Jewishly. And indeed, there are many more such opportunities during the Jewish year. Simchat Torah is not the only festival to be instituted by the rabbis after the biblical period. The post biblical festivals include: Chanukkah, meaning ‘dedication’, the winter Festival of lights, marked by the lighting of flames for eight days from the 25th of Kislev – at the dark time of both the sun year and the month; Tu Bishvat, the New Year for trees at the full moon on the 15th of Sh’vat towards the end of winter; Purim, the feast of ‘lots’, on the 14th of Adar – the last month of the year; and Tishah B’Av, the day which commemorates the destruction of the Temple – by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and by the Romans 70 CE – on the ninth day of Av, in the late summer. As we mark all these special days, we can, both, remember the past and the traditions we have inherited, and make connections with contemporary concerns – like self-determination, pluralism, racism, ecology, and war.
And then there are the other special days created during the 20th century in response to recent Jewish experiences: Yom Ha-Sho’ah, Holocaust Memorial Day, on the 27th of Nissan, and Yom Ha-Atzma’ut, Israel Independence Day, on the 5th of Iyyar – corresponding to May 14th 1948, when the State of Israel was established.
Since the winter month of Tevet is marked by a fast day on the 10th, the summer month of Tammuz is marked by a fast day on the 17th, and the month of Elul at the beginning of the autumn, is the month of preparation for the yamim nora’im, ‘the days of awe’, there is only one month of the year when there are no commemorative days: Cheshvan, which follows the month of Tishri. For this reason the rabbis called it mar, ‘bitter’ – Marcheshvan – ‘bitter Cheshvan’. But, remaining ‘bitter’ still, since 1938, Cheshvan is no longer empty. Indeed, on the 15th and 16th of Cheshvan that year, the destiny of the Jews of Europe was sealed. Nevertheless, because the events of those days are remembered in the wider world beyond the Jewish community, we observe the Gregorian and not the Hebrew date. I’m talking about Kristallnacht, ‘the night of the broken glass’ on November 9th. Just imagine all that glass glittering in the light of the full moon…
So, the Jewish year is full of special moments. And, as yet, I haven’t even mentioned that weekly marker of Jewish time, Shabbat, a day so special that, traditionally an observant Jew is described as a person who is shomer Shabbat, ‘a keeper of the Sabbath’. Shabbat: the weekly mini-festival on the seventh day of the week, and the model of all the major festivals. Shabbat: Judaism’s gift to humanity; a day for rest and renewal; a day of liberation from work and the relentless routines of our daily lives. Shabbat: the day of shalom, and so, the weekly rehearsal for the future time, when all will live in freedom and peace.
Sometimes I think that for most Jews today, the Jewish year is like a kind of parallel universe, which we step into from time to time, but rarely inhabit. It makes sense on its own terms, but exists in another dimension. The majority of Jews live in this realm – and not in that one; while a minority live in that realm – and not in this one. The question for us – for progressive Jews, who wish to lay claim to our inheritance and live in the modern world is this: is it possible for us to build a bridge between these two universes? Can we find a way of integrating the cycles of the Jewish year into our own lives? A key issue in addressing these questions is relevance. We need to ask ourselves: are the themes of these Jewish cycles relevant to me and my life? Another key issue is need. Do I need the special Jewish moments in my life? Another key issue is time. Can I find the time to live Jewishly? And another key issue is responsibility. Does taking responsibility for my life include taking responsibility for my Jewish life? And: what about my responsibility – as an individual – for the life of the Jewish people? There are many, many more key issues, and they will also vary from Jew to Jew. And, of course each one of us will respond to these issues in different ways. I have taken you on a whistle-stop tour of the Jewish year this Shabbat morning of Rosh Chodesh Nissan in the hope that you will be tempted and challenged by the bounty of Jewish celebrations and commemorations to extend and deepen your own Jewish experience. May each one of us begin this first month of the Jewish year in a spirit of adventure, and may the discoveries we make over the months to come enrich our lives. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Congregation Beit Shalom, Barcelona
24th March 2012– Rosh Chodesh Nissan 5772
 Traditionally, the Torah reading for Rosh Chodesh is Numbers 28:9-15, which sets out the Temple offerings for Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh. A progressive alternative for Rosh Chodesh is Genesis 1:14-19, which describes the creation of the sun, moon and stars on the ‘fourth day’. A progressive alternative for Rosh Chodesh Nissan, specifically, is Exodus 12:1-13, where the text says, ‘This month show marks the you the beginning of months’ (12:2). The Haftarah reading is Isaiah 66:1-24, chosen because the verse 23 states: ‘And it shall come to pass from one new moon to another…’