A Timely Mitzvah
In Parshas Bo, the Jews receive their very first mitzvah – Rosh Chodesh:
Beis Din (the Jewish court of law) must determine Rosh Chodesh (the first
day of the month) by sanctifying the new moon. This month shall be to you
the first of months. (12:1)
The beginning of the new month is determined by witnesses who testify to
having seen the new moon. After Beis Din verifies their testimony, the court
formally establishes that day and sanctifies it as Rosh Chodesh.
Rashi, at the beginning of parshas Bereishis (1:1), explicitly refers to
this mitzvah as the Torah’s very first. But the Rambam (Sefer Ha-Mitzvos)
does not count Rosh Chodesh as the Torah’s first mitzvah, opting instead for
the first of the Ten Commandments – “to know that there is a G-d.”
Clearly, Rashi focuses on the chronological order, in which Rosh Chodesh was
given first, while Rambam apparently prefers to count the mitzvos
fundamentally, and thus considers believing in G-d – without which all other
mitzvos are meaningless – as the primary mitzvah.
While both approaches are clearly viable, and aren’t mutually exclusive, it
is interesting to consider why the mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh was chosen to be
the very first of all mitzvos. What is so special about sanctifying the new
moon? And what, if any, is the relationship between it and the mitzvah to
believe in Hashem, which, as the Rambam writes, is “the basis of all beliefs
and the pillar of all wisdom”?
According to chassidus, the performance of mitzvos affect not only the
person doing the mitzvah, but the object or vessel through which he performs
the mitzvah, which becomes holy through its use in doing G-d’s will. To wit,
there is nothing inherently holy about challah (the bread we eat on Shabbos,
not the small piece that’s separated and given to the Kohen which is also
called challah) and wine. But when used to honor Shabbos, they are co-opted
as vessels to demonstrate the sanctity of the Day of Rest – and become holy.
In aggregate, when we perform mitzvos, we elevate the material world – the
lowliest of all spheres – and imbue it with G-dliness.
The mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh is unique in that instead of physical objects,
it relates to time. Through this mitzvah, we transform a regular day into
one with special sanctity. (This is not true of Shabbos. Shabbos does not
depend on the Jewish Court to declare it holy; it is holy in and of itself.
By guarding the laws of Shabbos, we attune ourselves with the day’s
sanctity, but we don’t bring any additional holiness to the day itself.)
In this respect, the mitzvah of establishing Rosh Chodesh – which in turn
determines the entire Jewish calendar – has an impact not found in other
mitzvos. In general, our ability to sanctify the physical world through
performing mitzvos is limited to the specific tools we use to perform them.
When we do many mitzvos, we elevate the material world on multiple levels.
Still, that kedusha (sanctity) is confined to the specific object(s) we use
in doing those mitzvos.
But the “tool” used to perform the mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh is time itself.
Beis Din, after verifying that the new moon has appeared, declares the day
holy. So while time is one of the few aspects of physical existence over
which we have no apparent control (we can neither speed it up or slow it
down), the mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh gives us control over time – to sanctify
it and imbue it with holiness.
Ibn Ezra is puzzled by the Torah’s brief treatment of Rosh Chodesh:
Moshe doesn’t spell out how years and months are established or what we’re
supposed to do if the calendar gets out of sync. How is it possible that he
goes to great lengths to explain the laws of the Metzora (leper) – which
affects just one man at one time – but is so vague about the laws of Rosh
Chodesh, which affect every Jew at every moment?
He answers that the Torah is intentionally vague about the details of Rosh
Chodesh in order to establish that the final ruling depends on the judgment
of Beis Din. In other words, by leaving out the fine details, the Torah is
stressing that while Hashem established the framework of Rosh Chodesh, it is
up to the Sages of each generation to decide and implement its laws. Indeed,
Chazal, our Sages say, that even if Beis Din mistakenly establishes the
wrong day as Rosh Chodesh (which could potentially mean we also observe
Pesach or Rosh Hashana etc. on the wrong day), their ruling stands.
Kedushas Levi explains that our ability to determine the calendar is so
powerful that, to the extent that we can express it, it gives us veto power
It shall be for you the first of the months of the year.
The First, he says, is an allusion to the Holy One, Blessed is He – who
precedes time and creation. Through the mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh, The First –
that is Hashem, is yours – i.e. the Torah has made you the arbiters of
Hashem’s will in this world.
A couple months after leaving Egypt, Hashem told Moshe he wanted to give the
Jews the Torah. Chazal say Hashem intended to give the Torah on the sixth
day of Sivan, but Moshe added another day to give them more time to prepare,
and the Torah was ultimately given on the seventh. Mefarshim explain that
this is why Shavuos, which coincides with Mattan Torah, is referred to as
Zeman Mattan Toraseinu – the time the Torah became ours. When Hashem gave us
the Torah, he didn’t just share His blueprint for the world with us; He also
put us in control of its interpretation forever more (within the guidelines
taught by Moshe). Indeed, we find at times in the Talmud that laws are
established according to the understanding of our Sages, even when their
interpretation potentially clashes with Hashem’s original intent.
So while it’s true that the mitzvah to believe in G-d is the basis of all
mitzvos, it’s also true that the understanding and interpretation of G-d’s
will – through studying and expounding on the holy Torah – has been
transferred to His nation. And thus both mitzvos – belief in G-d and Rosh
Chodesh, which establishes our ability to dictate the hows and whens of
G-d’s will – rightly deserve a dual billing atop the mitzvah count. Have a
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Torah.org