This week’s Torah portion includes the final three plagues and the beginning of the exodus. It also includes the instructions for the celebration of the Passover holiday and the procedure for the sacrifice of the lamb. The chapter which includes these instructions, Chapter 12, begins with the following Scripture: “This month is for you the head of the months, it is first for you of the months of the year.” (Exodus 12:2). This is G-d’s instruction to Moses regarding the Biblical calendar, which is a lunar calendar, and forms the basis for the Jewish methods of counting months and calculating the holidays.
Rashi, the most widely-read traditional Biblical commentary, notes that the use of the words “this month” indicates that G-d actually pointed out the moon, the word “month” being interchangeable with the word “moon.” In other words, G-d spoke to Moses on the first day of the lunar month and showed him the moon as it looks on the first day of the month — a tiny sliver. In this way, G-d instructed Moses as to how to identify the first day of the new month. Interestingly, the first month of the Jewish calendar is the month of Passover, the month of our redemption from slavery. In Biblical terms, it is referred to as the first month. Today, we call the month by name — Nissan.
The Bible refers to the months by number. The first time the months are referred to in the Bible is during the story of the flood, when the Bible clearly tells us the date that the waters receded. (Genesis 8:4) However, it is not until the above-quoted verse in Exodus that we understand that the first month is the Passover month, the month of Nissan. We also know from Deuteronomy 16:1: “Preserve the month of spring” that this month of Nissan always falls in the spring. This last verse also teaches us that we must add an extra month every 3 years (approximately) to ensure that the month of Nissan always falls in the spring, as the lunar calendar is 11 days shorter than the solar calendar.
After the destruction of the first Temple, when the Jews were exiled to Babylonia, which soon after became part of the Persian Empire, we adopted the Persian names for the months, as the Persians also used the Lunar calendar. Hence the renaming of the first month, Nissan.
The dates of the Biblical holidays were set firmly in the Bible. It was, therefore, imperative, that every Jew know the exact day that the new month began so as to be able to celebrate the holiday on the right day. Also, when G-d actually pointed out the moon to Moses and instructed him in determining the first day of the month, He effectively handed over the authority for setting the Jewish calendar to Moses and to those spiritual leaders who would follow him. In fact, this was the sole responsibility of the high court of Jerusalem and there were people whose job it was to look for the first moon and to report the find to the authorities in Jerusalem.
Amazingly, there was an elaborate system to ensure that the Jews throughout the Land of Israel would receive immediate word of the start of the new month. A number of mountain tops were selected that stand out from the landscape. As soon as the high court declared the new month, bonfires were lit in the hills of Judea and from there, each succeeding mountaintop boasted its own bonfire and the signal spread throughout the land. Two mountains that we can identify today as having participated in this ceremony are the Sartaba mountain in the Jordan Valley and Mt. Tabor in the lower Galillee.
After the destruction of the Second Temple, these same mountains and their bonfires were used to pass signals during the Bar Kochba rebellion, (in the years 132-135) the last attempt to assert Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
And finally, the first day of the month is called Rosh Chodesh in Hebrew or “Head of the Month”, a variation of the term used in Exodus 12 when referring to the first month as the “Head of the Months”. To this very day, it is a special day when special prayers of praise are sung to G-d. And each month, when we celebrate the renewal of the moon that signifies the beginning of the month, we remember G-d’s loving instruction to Moses: “This month.”
And one more thought — G-d also uses the term “this” when he promises Abraham the Land of Israel — “I will give this land to your children” (Genesis 12:7). The intimacy of G-d’s instruction to both Abraham and Moses is truly awe-inspiring!