Parashat Bo: Taking time in our hands

This week’s parashah has the first mitzvah the Jews were commanded as a people, the obligation to make Nisan the first month. It’s an odd choice—what’s so vital about the calendar?  A debate about when the world was created shows us, I think, that there’s more to it than we might first notice.

The Month of Creation and Our Calendar

In Rosh haShanah 10b, R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua dispute the dating of several central events, including Creation and the month of the future Redemption. R. Eliezer claims those were and will be in Tishrei, R. Yehoshua in Nisan. They prove their point from verses, leading me to think they were making a claim about how the Torah wants us to see the events, not an historical one.

As Ritva says on Rosh haShanah 7b, since R. Eliezer held the world was created in Tishrei, the obligation to make Nisan the first month is Hashem commanding us to link our years to the Exodus. Whereas the world operates in line with cosmological history, we Jews have on our own time scale, based on the central event of our national lives.

Falling in Line with History, Not Opposing It

R. Yehoshua thinks the world was created in Nisan, though, giving a different import to our making it the first month.  For him, the Torah was revealing that the Exodus happened in the month of Creation.  That leaves open the question of why Rosh haShanah would be in Tishrei—I’ll come to that—but it means this first mitzvah doesn’t ask us to walk our own path in shaping time, it asks us to remember an aspect of the past that might have been lost, and to consciously declare months in line with how Hashem created the world.

That’s a pretty big difference; wouldn’t it be nice to know which we are doing with our calendar? It depends on whose view we accept as authoritative, and that turns out not to be simple.  It might sound odd to speak about declaring one or other opinion “right” on such a matter, but there are halachic— mostly liturgical—ramifications to this question.  Rashi notes that we recite birchat hachamah, the blessing on the alignment of the sun that we make every 28 years, in line with R. Yehoshua’s view.  Tosafot and Ran in his third Derasha also assume that we take the view that the world was created in Nisan (and so that’s when we most actively anticipate a possible future Redemption).

Explaining the Date of Rosh haShanah

Some later authorities, such as Maharsha and Keli Yakar assume that we rule according to R. Eliezer, that Tishrei is when the world was created.  Ashkenazic custom, too, is to say hayom harat olam, today is the birth of the world, after the blowing of the shofar. Those who take this position would say that Rosh haShanah is in Tishrei because that’s when Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, was judged and somewhat forgiven, making it a time of cleaning slates for the year to come.

What about R. Yehoshua? Ran suggests that Tishrei’s a month of forgiveness, but because it’s when Moshe Rabbenu finally secured forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf (on Yom Kippur—see Rashi to Shemot 18;13 and 32;1).

Mixed Signals from the Piyyut Tradition

It’s odd enough that later authorities disagree with earlier ones.  Complicating matters is that R. Elazar haKalir, the sixth century poet who shaped much of Jewish liturgy, used both dates.  In the piyyut for Shemini Atseret Mussaf, he mentioned Tishrei as the month of Creation, but in the Mussaf for Pesach, he said it’s Nisan (Ran adds that a poem for Parashat haChodesh does so as well, but that’s not necessarily by haKalir). How can he contradict himself?

Pause for a mini-elegy on the lost role of piyyut in Jewish liturgy and consciousness.  We still recite piyyutim but, for most of us, it is the tunes that resonate, not the words.  How many of us would notice this contradiction, remembering what we say in the piyyut for Shemini Atseret almost six months later, on Pesach? Yet Rashi and other Biblical commentators quote piyyut regularly, as does Tosafot. It is a reminder of a lost resource of Jewish knowledge and ideas, buried under language many of us no longer put in the effort to decipher.

Rabbenu Tam says Hashem “thought” of creating the world in Tishrei, but didn’t bring it to fruition until Nisan Rashi in several places in the first two chapters of Bereshit also imagines a slowly unfolding Creation.  It would take me too far afield to suggest a coherent theory for what that means, but it shows that they were secure in their view of Nisan as the month of actual Creation, and that we were commanded to line up our calendar with when Creation came to fruition, not when it was first considered.

The Calendar as an Expression of a Worldview

That leaves us unsure as to which position is authoritative, but knowing that Hashem was commanding us to take an active interest in the calendar, not just the technical question of how and when to declare a new month or year.  Whether we accept R. Eliezer’s view that Nisan was first only from our “Exodus-centric” worldview, or R. Yehoshua’s view that Nisan was actually the start of it all, we can all agree that Hashem is telling us to be conscious about the calendar, conscious about making “that” our beginning point.

Time shouldn’t just pass by, nor should we allow arbitrary dates to be the turning points of our year (all the more so that we shouldn’t fall in with other religions’ years, based on events important to those religions). I personally think that Rashi, Tosafot, and Ran outweigh the others, so I think we are told to start with Nisan, in line with how Hashem created the world, in line with Hashem having re-shaped that world when we left Egypt, in line with how we hope to soon see the world started anew, speedily in our days.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
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