March 16, 2018
This Shabbat Is Rosh Chodesh Nisan – the first of the month of Nisan (Nisan is the month of Passover, which is, of course, the anniversary of the Exodus from Egypt.) It’s a special Shabbat – in Hebrew it’s called “Shabbat HaChodesh.” HaChodesh – “This Month” refers to the special Torah reading that is read on the Shabbat on or before Rosh Chodesh Nisan. The term “This Month” is actually part of the first line of this special Torah reading that gives it character: “God spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land Egypt, saying, ‘This month shall be for you the beginning of the months, it shall be for you the first of the months of the year.’” [Exodus, chapter 12] This section precedes the last of the ten plagues, and it contains so many of the laws of Passover – what we should eat, that we should eat matzah specifically, how the sacrifices work, how we count the months – note that this text says it’s the first of the months, even though Rosh HaShanah, the new year, happens at the beginning of the seventh month.
According to the Rabbis, the Torah contains 613 Mitzvot (Commandments): 248 Positive Commandments (Thou shalt . . . ) and 365 Negative Commandments (Thou shalt not . . . ) This commandment, to make the month of Nisan the first of the months, is the first commandment in the Torah that is particular to the Jews! Notice in the line quoted above, the phrase “for you” appears twice. It is for the Children of Israel, not necessarily anyone else. It begins a section about calculating months and about celebrating our very distinctly Jewish holiday of Passover. This commandment precedes the actual giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. [That comes later in Exodus, Chapter 20.] Other commandments are given as early as the first chapter of Genesis, such as “Be fruitful and multiply.”
This leads to an interesting Talmudic discussion about the nature of the mitzvot, commandments. Two words in the Torah that seem to be interchangeable in Hebrew are “Chukim” and “Mishpatim,” both of which can be loosely translated as “Laws.” Sometimes the English translations differ, however. “Chukim” can be seen as “Rules, or Ordinances,” and “Mishpatim” as Laws. Confusing? The Rabbis from 2,000 years ago, as well as Medieval rabbis such as Maimonides and Nachmanides see this as entirely logical. For them, the word Mishpatim refers to the commandments that are entirely rational and universal, for example, “Thou shalt not murder,” one of the Ten Commandments. This commandments, they say, is a Mishpat, a rational law. Even if you didn’t know the Torah, you could rationally figure out that we shouldn’t murder without an actual commandment to tell you so. On the other hand, commandments to observe Passover, or keep kosher, or eat matzah, are “Chukim,” they are commandments that are supra rational – they are particular to the Jewish people and binding only on Jews. No one could be expected to figure out these commandments without the help and authority of the Torah. And so, our special reading on this Shabbat highlights a whole series of commandments, particular to Jews, about “HaChodesh – This Month.”