The Rhythm of Nature and the Harmony of Tradition: Thoughts on Shabbat HaChodesh

Post by Joshua Boydstun, Jewish Farm School Rabbinic Intern

Spring can be a dizzying time, particularly for those who travel. At my home in Philadelphia, we have barely seen any snow all Winter. Crocuses and other early bloomers are already starting to appear in my yard. In Western New York, however, where I was last weekend, the landscape is still blanketed in a foot of snow. And when I lead a Jewish Farm School Organic Farm Alternative Break in New Orleans next week, I can expect an equally jarring transition to a totally different climate.

In a sense, we all live in numerous different worlds, each governed by its own distinct terrain and climate. This is particularly evident to gardeners, farmers, ecologists and anyone else whose work keeps them focused on nature and its cycles. The growing season in New Orleans, with its subtropical climate, is nearly year-round, while the growing season in Rochester is only a few months long. Thus the schedules, the rhythms and the rituals that we build around this work are guaranteed to vary as widely as the landscape itself.

I have written before about how the Jewish holidays—based as they are upon a 2,000-year-old, Middle Eastern, agrarian society—often do not line up properly with the locations in which Diaspora Jews find ourselves living today. How can we have a meaningful experience of Tu Bishvat in January or February, when our trees are not yet yielding fruit? How can we observe Sukkot authentically in May or early June, when the US wheat crop is harvested in mid- to late Summer?

In my more cynical moments, I worry that an authentic, sustainable and nature-based model of Jewish observance will be hampered as long as our holidays are out of step with the landscapes and climates in which we live. But what is the solution? Are we to modify the Hebrew calendar to fit our bioregion? What would be the effect of Jews everywhere living according to different calendars?

This question is particularly relevant as we approach Shabbat HaChodesh (Saturday, March 9, 2013): the Shabbat preceding Rosh Chodesh Nissan ("The Beginning of the Month of Nissan"), in which Pesach falls. Shabbat HaChodesh is last of the four special Shabbats called the Arba Parshiyot, which are observed with additional readings from the Torah. The first two of these days fall before Purim, and the other two fall before Pesach.

On Shabbat HaChodesh, the additional Torah reading is Exodus 12:1-20, the passage in which G-d describes the proper observance of Pesach (for example, eating matzah and abstaining from leavened food). However, the first two verses of this passage address the calendar and the sanctification of time:

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you. (Exodus 12:1-2)

This simple and unassuming passage is understood as the source of the lunar calendar, in which each month begins with the new moon. (In Biblical Hebrew, "chodesh" means both "month" and "new moon.") Even though the Jewish year begins in the Autumn on Rosh HaShanah, Exodus 12:2 identifies the Spring month of Nissan as the first month. (If this is confusing, think of the how the secular year coexists with an academic year or a fiscal year.)

The passage also receives significant attention in rabbinical literature. The medieval Torah commentator Rashi notes, "Rabbi Isaac said: 'The Torah could have begun with "This month shall mark for you…" [in Exodus 12:2], since this is the first mitzvah that was commanded of Israel. So what is the reason that [the Torah] opens with Creation?" (Rashi on Genesis 1:1) While Rashi has an answer to this rhetorical question, the question itself is testimony to the significance of this verse. Indeed, Exodus 12:1-2 it is the first time in Torah that G-d has prescribed a mitzvah for the Israelites as a distinct group. It is a significant step not only in their communal identity, but also in their relationship with G-d. In short, what makes them a people—and moreover a holy people—is their communal sanctification of time.

As with all commandments, the proper observance of this mitzvot has depended on a clear set of rules, rituals, laws and procedures. For the rabbis, this was the only way to ensure that the calendar and all the festivals that depend upon it would be properly maintained and universally recognized. According to Mishnah Rosh Hashanah, two witnesses would need to appear before the rabbinic court and testify that they had seen the first hints of the moon. They would be cross-examined by the members of the court, and if their testimonies agreed, the new month would be declared as sanctified. (M. Rosh Hashanah 2:6-7)

However, no system is perfect. In a particularly compelling story from Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 2:8-9, we learn about a conflict regarding the calendar: Rabban Gamliel, the head of the Sanhedrin (the supreme rabbinic assembly), accepted the testimony of two less-than-perfect witnesses, even though some other rabbis disagreed with this ruling. To resolve this potentially disastrous conflict, Rabban Gamliel ordered Rabbi Yehoshua, one of the dissenting rabbis, to appear before the Sanhedrin with his staff and his money on the day that Yehoshua believed to be Yom Kippur according to Yehoshua's own reckoning of the calendar. In other words, Gamliel demanded that Yehoshua abandon his individual observance of Yom Kippur and conform to the official calendar. After consulting with other rabbis, Rabbi Yehoshua came to a decision:

He took his staff and his money in his hand, and went to Yavneh to Rabban Gamliel on the day that Yom Kippur fell by his calculation. Rabban Gamliel stood up and kissed him on his head, and said to him, "Come in peace, my master and my disciple! My master in wisdom, and my disciple because you accepted my words." (M. Rosh Hashanah 2:9)

In this story, we are witnesses to a potential schism, a gut-wrenching struggle, a personal reconciliation between close friends and colleagues, and finally the resolution of a problem that might have torn the Jewish community asunder. Rabbi Yehoshua acquiesces to Rabban Gamliel's authority, not out of respect for that authority in and of itself. Rather, Yehoshua is moved by a recognition that questioning the court's judgment on this issue would fracture communal observance. Likewise, Gamliel admits his own error in judgment—Yehoshua's wisdom was greater than his, in this situation—but praises Yehoshua's willingness to put the good of the community before his individual observance.

Finally, the midrash on Exodus 12:2 offers an equally compelling argument about the importance of the communal calendar:

Another interpretation of "This month shall mark for you…": The angels said before G-d: "Master of the Universe, when will you fix the festivals?" […] G-d said to them: "You and I will confirm what Israel concludes when they [calculate] the year…. Whether [Israel] proclaims them at the right time or the wrong time, I have no festivals besides these. (Exodus Rabbah 15:2)

According to this tradition, even G-d confirms the calendar of months and festivals declared by the People of Israel. We cannot fail to observe the holidays at their proper times, so long as we follow the tradition. The logic here is not that people are perfect, but rather than unity and integrity within a community is more important that abstract notions of truth or divine will.

Returning to my original question of how we are meant to engage in meaningful observance of Jewish holidays that do not match the natural world in which we live, the texts related to Kiddush HaChodesh ("Sanctification of the New Moon") clarify that the tradition itself recognizes that the calendar is not always perfect. At times, the organization of sacred time will not match the natural world. However, this does not mean that our calendar is wrong. So long as it is our calendar—the calendar of a people, not merely individuals—it is right. Like Rabban Gamliel, we have accept that at times our observance of tradition will not quite line up with what the natural world tells us is right or meaningful. Yet we must also be like Rabbi Yehoshua. We must accept that the religious experience that is most meaningful to us as individuals—that puts us closer in contact with the rhythms of the natural world—cannot replace the harmony that we strive to create within and through the communal experience.

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