New moon, new months
Tazria Leviticus 9:1-11:47
The first Passover Seder is nearly upon us. How do we know? No need to look at the calendar; go outside and look at the moon. As our ancestors did, we too can look at the sky and see the new moon, the crescent barely visible, and know that this week the month of Nisan begins. The full moon will come soon enough and with it all of our favorite Passover foods and experiences.
This Shabbat is known as Shabbat HaChodesh, Shabbat of the month. It is the fourth of the special Shabbatot that precede Passover. It is celebrated on the Shabbat closest to the start of the month of Nisan and gets its name from the special Torah reading from Exodus 12:1-20 that begins with the phrase “this month.” The Haftarah portion from the book of Ezekiel also refers to the first month of the year (verse 45:18), which is Nisan. Even though on the first of Tishrei — Rosh Hashanah — we celebrate the start of the New Year, from a calendar perspective, Nisan is considered to be month No. 1.
It is confusing. According to the Mishnah, there are actually four Jewish New Year’s days; the first of Nisan is the New Year for kings (the anniversary of an Israelite king’s reign no matter what date he actually started) and for establishing the order of holidays. The first of Elul is the New Year for taxes. The first of Tishrei is the first day of the calendar year and a spiritual New Year. And
finally, the 15th of Shevat is the New Year for the trees. Nisan, then, is an important month; with its arrival, we start the cycle of holiday observances once again.
On a Shabbat such as this one, coming before a new Hebrew month begins, there is a special prayer that we recite, as we note the start of the new month: “Our God and God of our ancestors, may the new month bring us goodness and blessing. May we have long life, peace, prosperity, a life exalted by love of Torah and reverence for the divine; a life in which the longings of our hearts are fulfilled for good.” The custom of announcing the beginning of the new Hebrew month is thought to have become part of the synagogue liturgy sometime during the ninth century. We continue it today — asking God to make each month a good month, a month full of blessing.
It is an interesting thing to anticipate the arrival of the new month and to ask God to make it a month of blessing. It makes sense to do it as we start a new Hebrew month. But do we think of our hopes for the new month when we begin the month of April? My guess is probably not. My question: Why not? Why not pray to God for goodness and blessing, long life, peace and prosperity? Why not pray to God for lives enriched by Torah or touched by the divine presence in all the months we encounter? Especially in a situation such as the one we will find ourselves in next week — when Nisan and April begin together. So, whether we are observing the start of Nisan or celebrating the beginning of April, may the months ahead be full of good things.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)