Mar 28 2011

Months and Meaning

Months and Meaning

Rabbi Joel Zeff

In addition to the reading of the Torah portion of “Tazria,”, this coming Shabbat we will add a segment from the book of Exodus which begins, “This month shall be for you the head of the months; it is the first for you of the months of the year.” This special reading was established in honor of the month being referred to, now called Nissan, which has a unique status in the calendar. While the Holy Temple in Jerusalem still stood the public recitation of this passage served as a reminder to prepare for the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the festival of Passover, when all Jews were required to participate in the bringing of the Paschal lamb offering.  Rashi, the greatest of the medieval commentators, in his very first comment on the Torah, paraphrases the Talmudic sages who suggest that, were it not for other considerations, this sentence should have been the first verse of the Torah, since it is the first commandment given through Moses to the newly born Jewish nation. What is this mitzvah which merits such a singular place of honor?

Rashi explains that the simple meaning of the verse is the commandment to have the month of Nissan be the reference point for the naming of the months in an ordinal fashion such that what we now call Nissan will be called “the First Month,” Iyyar by the name “the Second Month,” Sivan as “the Third Month,” and so on. Indeed, in the Torah itself, the months are given no other names than these ordinal designations.  At first glance it seems that this point is technical and certainly does not justify the seemingly inordinate attention given to this mitzvah.

Ramban, the greatest of the medieval Spanish commentators reveals the secret. Time references are generally a convenient but arbitrary way of making our lives more manageable.  Not so is the path of Torah, which seeks to infuse everything with meaning. Designating the months with ordinal names (the First Month, the Second Month, etc.) starting with the anniversary of the exodus from Egypt makes that great act of Divine redemption as the reference point for all dates. If we say, “I was born in the Third Month,” we are also reminding ourselves of God’s saving grace, since the Third Month, by its very semantic nature is only meaningful relative to the First Month-  which is the month of deliverance.  Every time we write a date, we are not simply marking time. We are heightening our consciousness to have an on-going awareness of God’s loving and active concern for us.

The Talmud tells us that the present names we use for the months (Nissan, Iyyar, Sivan, etc.) were imported into our Hebrew lexicon when we returned to the Holy Land from the Babylonian exile after the fall of the Babylonian empire and the ascension of the Persians. If so, doesn’t this undermine the meaning of this wonderful mitzvah? The Ramban again provides the answer. No, he argues, in fact it deepens the meaning of the idea behind this commandment. When we use the Babylonian names for the months we are further reminded of God’s redemptive presence in history, which was not just a one-time act with regards to Egypt. The second great exile, this time to Babylonia, came to end, as well, through the ever-present action, even if somewhat hidden, of Divine Providence.

It is noteworthy that in Modern Israeli Hebrew, the English names of the months are often used, transliterated into Hebrew consonants and vocalization.  Could it be that this is yet another, and this time ultimate, reminder of God’s abiding faithfulness to us?  When we utter the Prayer for the State of Israel we refer to it as “the first-flowering of our redemption,” redemption from the current dispersion of our people, mostly in the lands of Western civilization, where these names of the months are in universal use. When the process of redemption will be fully actualized and we all make aliya to Israel, then the use of these names by our Modern Hebrew speaking children will serve, yet again, to remind us of God’s abiding faithfulness to his promises.