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Our Pre-Passover Renewal


I will introduce this letter with an explanation of a biblical Hebrew term which is associated with renewal. The term is “chodesh,” and it can be translated as “month” or as “new moon” – depending on the context. As we shall learn in this letter, our tradition views the appearance of the crescent of each new moon as an opportunity for a new beginning. It is therefore relevant to mention that the term “chodesh” is related to the term “chadash” – new.

Dear Friends,

Our Passover journey began on the 15th day of the first month of spring. When the new moon of this month first appeared, Hashem conveyed to us through Moshe and Aharon the following message:

This renewal of the moon shall be for you a beginning of new moons” (Exodus 12:2 – translation of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch).

Our Sages interpret the above Divine statement in the following manner: The appearance of each new moon is to be the beginning of each of the months of our calendar year (Talmud, Rosh Hashana 20a). As Rashi writes in his explanation of this interpretation, Hashem is saying: “When the moon renews itself, it will be the beginning of the month for you.”

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on the above Divine statement, writes:

Accordingly, when Hashem pointed to the light of the newly appearing moon and said, ‘This renewal of the moon shall be for you a beginning of new moons,’ it meant as our Sages interpret: ‘When you see the moon like this, sanctify the beginning of your months’ (Rosh Hashanah 20a).”

The beginning of each month is called, “Rosh Chodesh” – the Head of the Month. As Maimonides explains in his Book of Mitzvos, the mitzvah to sanctify each new moon and thereby determine the date of each Rosh Chodesh is a mitzvah that is to be fulfilled by the high court in the Land of Israel (Mitzvah 153). The members of this court are leading Torah sages.

Rabbi Hirsch explains that the sanctification of the renewed moon by the high court of our nation is to inspire us to engage in a process of spiritual renewal, and he writes (commentary on Exodus 12:2):

The Jewish sanctification of the new moon is an institution for the moral and spiritual rejuvenation of Israel, to which Israel must always strive anew at regular periods, and which it will achieve through its reencounter with Hashem. Our Sages capsulize this whole idea in their explanation (of Hashem’s message): This renewal of the moon is to be your model (see Midrash Exodus Rabbah 15:27, at the end).

Rabbi Hirsch elaborates on this teaching about our spiritual renewal, and he writes:

In Egypt, Hashem called the future leaders of His people, showed them the crescent of the moon struggling to emerge from darkness to new light, and said: ‘This is to be your model.’ Just as the moon renews itself by the laws of nature, so you, too, should renew yourselves, but of your own free will. Each time the new moon appears, let it remind you to effect your own free-willed rejuvenation. And as I renew you, and you renew yourselves, you should pass, like the moon, across the night sky of the nations and, wherever you go, proclaim the message of renewal, the teaching of Hashem” (ibid).

Through the example of our own spiritual renewal, we are to proclaim the Divine message of spiritual renewal to all the nations.

Why, however, did Hashem specifically choose the renewal of the moon as a model for our spiritual renewal? I would like to suggest the following answer: The light of the renewed moon is actually the reflected light of the sun. So too, our renewal takes place when we reflect the light of the Torah, the Divine Teaching. The wise King Solomon said, “Torah is light” Proverbs 6:23), and when the Prophet Isaiah called upon us to engage in spiritual renewal, he said:

“O House of Jacob: Come let us go by the light of Hashem!” (Isaiah 2:5)

At the beginning of the first month of spring, we were given the mitzvah to sanctify each new moon. The month of spring is the month of our Exodus; thus, Hashem later said to us, “Today you are leaving, in the month of spring” (Exodus 13:4). Hashem honored this month by calling it, “the first of the months of the year” (Exodus 12:2). This month is also known as the month of Nisan, and it begins this year on Monday night, March 31st.

May Hashem bless us with a month of healing renewal.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)

Related Teachings and Insights:

1. The Sefer HaChinuch is a classical work on the Torah’s 613 mitzvos. Regarding the mitzvah to sanctify the New Moon, it states:

When you see the renewal of the moon, you will establish for yourselves the beginning of the month, and thus do even if you not see it, once it is due to be seen according to the accepted calculation” (mitzvah 4).

In other words, the public sanctification of the new moon takes place even during a cloudy period when the moon can not be seen. The sanctification of the new moon is done by the high court, and regarding the normal procedure, the Sefer HaChinuch states:

This is the substance of the mitzvah: Two reputable Israelites come before the court and testify before them (the judges) that they saw the moon in its renewal. They (the judges) set the beginning of the month according to their word, by saying: This day is sanctified.” (Ibid)

2. As Rabbi Hirsch explained, the sanctification of the renewed moon by the high court of our nation is to inspire us to engage in a process of spiritual renewal. The high court is a social institution that is to help our nation establish a just and righteous society according to the precepts of the Divine Teaching. The involvement of the high court in the public sanctification of the new moon therefore suggests the following idea:

The renewal of the new moon is not only to inspire personal renewal; it must also inspire social renewal that leads to a just and righteous society that reflects the light of the Divine Teaching.

3. The high court, which became known as the Sanhedrin, determined the dates of each Rosh Chodesh – the beginning of the month. During the difficult period of exile which followed the destruction of the Second Temple, the Sanhedrin stopped functioning. As a result, a fixed calendar was established by the leading sage, Rabbi Hillel HaNassi.

This Rabbi Hillel lived thirteen generations after his renowned ancestor of the same name, Hillel, the Elder. The calendar which he established lets us know the dates of each Rosh Chodesh and Festival.

4. Within the Siddur – our classical prayer book – we find the monthly prayer that is joyously chanted upon seeing the crescent of the New Moon. The chanting of this prayer is known as, “Kiddush Levana” – the Sanctification of the New Moon.

Within this prayer, we find a reference to the similarity between Hashem’s renewal of the moon and Hashem’s renewal of our people. The Hebrew text and English translation of this prayer, along with teachings about the laws and deeper meanings of this prayer, can be found in the ArtScroll Siddur:

Hazon – Our Universal Vision:

This letter originally appeared as:
My Search for the Soul of Zion – 216
Part Four: Our Passover Journey to Zion