The First Month of the Year
Just before the last plague, as the Children of Israel get ready to be redeemed from Egypt, Exodus 12 presents a detailed commandment to prepare for the Passover sacrifice. This commandment constitutes a long and elaborate series of mitzvot regarding the Pesach of that year and the similar feasts in the future. The beginning of this chapter, in v. 2, features a solemn declaration about the month in which Pesach occurs:
שמות יב:ב הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים רִאשׁוֹן הוּא לָכֶם לְחָדְשֵׁי הַשָּׁנָה.
Exod 12:2 This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you (NJPS).
This verse offers an excellent example of the various ways later tradition uses to exact meaning from Scripture. Basing itself on meticulous attention to all components of the text and full respect to its context, traditional Jewish interpreters offered two main readings of this verse. These traditional interpretations concentrate almost exclusively on the micro level, while a critical look at the macro level, stressing the wider context, suggests different results.
Interpretation 1 – Invention of the Lunar Calendar
Traditional readers conceive 12:2 to be the cornerstone of the entire discipline of the Jewish calendar. Despite the brevity of this verse, the fact that it relates to the chodesh, ‘new moon’ (but see below) made it a proof text for the primacy of the lunar calendar. The Jewish adherence to a lunar calendar stood out among the surrounding nations throughout most of Jewish history, and accordingly Jews along the ages depicted the calendar as a primary type of Jewish wisdom.
Exodus 12:2, therefore, has always been conceived as a central Torah teaching; this makes it suitable for the first publicly proclaimed mitzvah in the Torah, following the long narrative sections in Bereshit. Thus for example Rashi, in his very first statement in Genesis, asks “why is it that the Torah did not start with ‘this month shall be for you’?” Aggadic Midrashim see this verse as a commandment to Israel to take responsibility for the regulation of time, as part of their coming of age at the exodus. Thus Midrash Tanhuma (Buber, Bo, 12) observes:
… it resembles a king who had a clock (אורלוגין, horologion). As he examined it, he knew the time of the day. When his son came of age, he (the king) told him: until now I held this clock, but from now on it is given to you. Thus also the Holy One, blessed be He, used to sanctify moons and intercalate years, but when Israel came of age He told them: … from now on they are your responsibility…
The medieval Jewish communities, whose works were found in the Cairo Genizah, chose Shabbat Bo as a special occasion for celebrating the Jewish calendar. Some manuscripts of the Aramaic Targum – read every Shabbat alongside the parasha – offer lengthy liturgical poems about the calendar, as well as about the signs of the moon and the Zodiac. These poems were recited by Jews as part of the service on that Shabbat.
Earlier on, Exodus 12 became one of the “Four Parshiot (special weekly Torah portions),” to be added to the weekly portion on that Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh (the new moon of) Nisan. While this assignment has a lot to do with the laws of Pesach contained in the parasha, it bears the title “ha-Hodesh,” indicating that its calendrical worth is central.
Indeed, as early as the second century BCE the Jewish-Hellenistic writer Aristobulus derived what we call “the Rule of the Equinox,” which is the most fundamental rule of the Jewish calendar, regulating the distance of Passover from the equinox. Since Passover is dated to the 14th of the first month, this rule has a direct bearing to the fixing of the first new moon day in the year with regard to the equinox. Although Aristobulus does not mention Exodus 12:2 in the fragments extant from his work, his association of Passover with fixing the new moon and with the intercalation attest to his reliance on this verse.
It is a salient part of this midrashic tradition that the word החודש in 12:2 does not mean “month,” but rather “new moon.” God pointed his finger (thus Rashi, based on the word הזה) at the new moon and showed Moses the way to use it as a clock for regulating time. Rashi (following the Mechilta) suggests that since Moses was not confident in how to use astronomical observations in order to sanctify time, God instructed him how to accomplish this task, as reported in Exodus 12:2.
Interpretation 2 – Beginning the Year in the Spring
The former interpretation of Exodus 12:2 seems to stretch the context by implying that this verse introduces the entire discipline of the Jewish luni-solar calendar. The context calls for a narrower aim, more befitting of the Pesach commandment, and many midrashists themselves recognized this. Although endorsing the grand-scale interpretation given above, the Rabbis also made sure to state the verse’s more fundamental meaning: to clarify that from now on, “the first month” is in the spring rather than in the autumn (thus Mechilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Pischa 1).
The meaning of חודש according to this interpretation is thus not “new moon” but “month.” The verse does not relate to the entire luni-solar calendar tradition, i.e., to the astronomical discipline of observing the new moon, but rather only to the order of months. Verse 12:2, by way of introduction, defines what “the first month” is – both for the sake of our parasha later on (12:18) and for all the laws of the Torah. This interpretation is more attuned to the verse in its context.
Interpretation 3 – A Modern Critical Answer
An even closer reading of the context, however, raises additional pressing questions. The Torah continues in verse 3 with the commandment to take a lamb and assign it for the sacrifice, which will take place several days later. The declaration about “this month” as “the head of months” deviates from the overall focus of the Pesach commandment, which primarily deals with the technical details of the sacrifice. While a more focused calendrical statement giving the date of Pesach is expected here, this is not the case at all. Instead, verse 2 conveys general information about the overall structure of the year, with the first month defined in the spring. The relevance of v. 2 in the context of the Pesach commandment seems rather limited.
In addition, the Israeli scholar Meir Paran noted that v. 2 interrupts the report of divine speech, which appears as a fixed formula throughout the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers except for this one case. The regular form, found in Exodus 14:2, 25:2, Numbers 5:2-3 and many more contexts, reads: “The Lord said to Moses: Tell the Israelites…”. Exodus 12, however, interrupts the connection between God’s call to Moses (v. 1) and the command to approach B’nei Israel (v. 3) by the calendrical statement in verse 2.
יב:א וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל אַהֲרֹן בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר.
12:1 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt:
יב:ב הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים רִאשׁוֹן הוּא לָכֶם לְחָדְשֵׁי הַשָּׁנָה.
12:2 This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.
יב:ג דַּבְּרוּ אֶל כָּל עֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר
12:3 Speak to the whole community of Israel and say…
Vv. 1-2 present a further problem. V. 2 notes “for you (masculine plural—לכם), but the previous verse refers only to Moses and Aaron! Much exegetical skill is required to maintain that לכם in its present position refers to all of Israel.
Ramban (Nachmanides, 1194-c.1270), who had great awareness for questions of context, actually noticed both of these difficulties: that v. 2 interrupts the sequence of the order and that the reference of the word לכם is problematic. He solved these problems by declaring that “Moshe and Aaron stand for all of Israel”, i.e. that לכם refers both to Moses and Aharon and to the entire people. He also supplied a reason why the fixed formula was interrupted by v. 2: it clarifies that Kiddush hachodesh, the declaration of the new moon/month, should only be carried out by experts like Moses and Aharon. Both of these answers, admittedly, are ad hoc, and do not relieve the force of the problem.
A critical interpretation would thus claim that v. 2 is a late addition, which interrupts the formulaic flow of the argument. This added line was inserted here precisely because Exodus 12 conveys the first mitzvah that depends on the calendar, and it was added with a view of the entire Torah in mind. Since many subsequent verses in the Torah (esp. Leviticus 23 and Numbers 28-29) relate to the months of the year using numbers (the first, the second etc.), it was important to clarify at the outset that this count begins in the spring. In both style and content, therefore, Exodus 12:2 is not part of its immediate context about the Passover sacrifice, but rather a general remark about the order of the year.
To my mind, the “proper” interpretation of v. 2 really depends on the priorities of the interpreter. The verse shows, on the one hand, a clear interest in the order of the months in the year, which corresponds to the mention of בראשון in v. 18. On the other hand, the verse interrupts the flow of verses 1 and 3. This case thus presents a clash of exegetical interests. While traditional scholars tend to prefer the former interest, based on the atomistic reading of v. 2 and on the enormous historical importance of the Jewish calendar, critical scholars would insist that v. 2 is impossible in the immediate context of verses 1-3, and must be an editorial remark. What would the intelligent reader do? This is up to him or her to decide.
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Prof. Jonathan (יונתן) Ben-Dov is George and Florence Wise Chair of Judaism in Antiquity at the University of Haifa, and senior lecturer of Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Literature. He is co-editor (with Seth Sanders) of the book Ancient Jewish Sciences and the History of Knowledge in Second Temple Literature (ISAW and New York University Press).
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