An unusual occurrence will happen in traditional synagogues around the world this Shabbat. During a regular Shabbat morning service, we take out one Torah scroll from the ark. When Shabbat coincides with Rosh Hodesh, the new moon, we take out an additional Torah scroll, from which we read a passage from Numbers 28 that details the communal sacrifice offered in the ancient Temple on Rosh Hodesh. Rosh Hodesh falls on Shabbat one or two times a year, so this isn’t terribly unusual.
What is much rarer is what happens on this Shabbat, when we take out a third Torah scroll. That’s because this Shabbat is Shabbat HaHodesh–the Shabbat two weeks before Passover, when we read the passage from Exodus 12 in which God instructs the Israelites to prepare for Passover. When Shabbat HaHodesh falls on Rosh Hodesh itself, we take out three scrolls. And that is a pretty rare occurrence. (For you trivia buffs: The only other times this can happen are on Rosh Hodesh Tevet, which falls during Hannukah, and Rosh Hodesh Adar that which coincides with Shabbat Shekalim. These occurrences happen about once every three years.)
The coincidence of Rosh Hodesh and Shabbat HaHodesh prompts us to think about the observance of Rosh Hodesh itself. “The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, ‘This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year’” (Ex. 12:1-2). As Nachmanides reminds us, “This is the first commandment that the Holy One Blessed Be He gives to Israel through Moses.” Indeed, Rashi’s very first comment on Genesis 1:1 points to this verse, as he asks why the Torah, which is after all a book of law, doesn’t simply begin here. So this verse is important.
While the main emphasis of Exodus 12, and the primary reason we read it just before Passover, is its instructions for preparing the Pesach sacrifice, the fact that the verse begins with the institution of Rosh Hodesh is significant. Slavery operates not only in physical dimensions, taking away the slave’s ability to freely act; it also affects the dimension of time. A slave’s time is not his own. Thus a basic aspect of freedom is the freedom of time, the freedom to set the calendar, to order the world in our own way. So the first act of liberation for the Israelites is God’s granting them the ability to name time on their own.
This continues to be on of the key aspects of Rosh Hodesh in Jewish history. The Talmud devotes an entire tractate, Rosh Hashanah, to the laws about declaring Rosh Hodesh. The New Moon does not simply happen on its own, at least not in classical Jewish law. It has to be witnessed, and the witnesses have to testify in the rabbinic court that they have seen the new moon. Then the court declares that the month has started. So powerful is this human dimension in making time that the Talmud recounts that one year the angels in heaven were all assembled for Rosh Hashanah, but since the court did not declare the New Moon that day, they packed up their things, went home, and came back the next day for the holiday.
And yet this freedom of time is not absolute. As the Torah reading for Shabbat-Rosh Hodesh reminds us, Shabbat comes every seven days whether we like it or not. While we acknowledge the start of Shabbat by lighting candles and reciting Kiddush, the power of those acts is not the same as the declarative power of the witnesses and the court regarding Rosh Hodesh. In this sense, Shabbat reminds us that our freedom is not a freedom to do whatever we like; it is rather a freedom to be servants of God. It is also a reminder that, at the same time as we stand over against nature (what Rav Soloveitchik referred to as an Adam I consciousness), we are also creatures of nature (Adam II). We can name natural phenomena, manipulate them as we construct our world (as we do on some level with the moon and creating the calendar through Rosh Hodesh); but we also exist within nature and accept our place within it with humility–not as slaves, but as free people.
Rashi quotes the Midrash Mechilta as noting significance to the fact that God instructs Moses and Aaron “in the land of Egypt,” meaning outside of the city. Why? The Mechilta states that the city was full of idolatry–whereas beyond its boundary was a place where God’s word could be heard and experienced. In this small way, the Torah seems to gesture at the idea that the liberation from Egypt was a kind of re-creation of the world, as Moses and Aaron must go back to a natural place to hear God’s voice. Every Rosh Hodesh since then is a time of renewal and restarting–not only of the lunar cycle, but of our own lives.
Shabbat shalom, and Hodesh tov.