Yaakov Jaffe
Yaakov Jaffe
Rabbi, Maimonides Kehillah; Dean, Maimonides School

Thinking about redemption through the Piyutim of Parshat ha-Chodesh

Four New Year’s [were revealed] in the vision (Rosh Hashanah 2a),          //          You explained and distinguished one from the other to the prophet.         //          Just like we heard [of redemption in the past] so we will also soon see!         //          Protect us with a shield in “this”[1] month.

The presentation in the Talmud of the Arbah Parshiot, the four special weeks that lead up to Purim and Pesach, gives the impression that these weeks are dry, law-focused preparation, teaching the Jewish people the rules of the holidays of Purim and Pesach.  They are not causes for celebration and have little deep, inspirational meaning: these are just weeks to review the rules for the upcoming calendar (see Rashi Megilah 29a).

The special Haftarot (Megilah 30a) help in providing these special four weeks with greater meaning and deeper resonance, connecting the readings of the coins, Amaleik, purification, and the first of Nissan with other moments in the narrative arc of the Jewish people, but the feeling is still limited.  Thus, aside from taking out a second Torah, the synagogue service feels largely the same on these four weeks, with 7 + 1 Aliyot and a Haftara from the prophets as in every other week of the year.

Four seasons in the year (Eiruvin 56a)         //          Renew their light like at first.         //       Just as we heard [of redemption in the past] so also bring speedily now!         //          Revive us with rain on the first of the months of the year.

That feeling shifts with the recitation of the liturgical poems affectionately called “Yotzrot.”[2]  These poems have largely fallen out of favor: they are not even printed in many of the newer siddurim to be published for the American market and are recited in fewer and fewer congregations.  Even the siddurim that do exist mistranslate many of the references in the Yotzrot.  But these Yotzrot shift the conversation from the laws of these four readings, into their implications for the redemption of the Jewish people.

If indeed the entry to Adar brings joy because it heralds the season of the twin redemptions of Purim and Pesach (pseudo-Rashi to Taanit 29a), then these Yotzrot poems explain more clearly how the special readings each week signal a moment of redemption, which for Diaspora Jewry cannot happen soon enough.

Four times of judgement [were revealed] in the vision (Rosh Hashanah 16a)         //          You explained and distinguished one from the other to the prophet.         //          Just like we heard [of redemption in the past] so we will also soon see!         //          And we will praise You, the Holy one, in this month.

During the week of Parshat Shekalim the piyutim develop the idea that the counting of the Jewish people captures how they are dear and special to G-d, and pray that with a redemption and rebuilding of the temple the Shekel collections will once again return to their original purpose.  In the week of Zachor we remember the ongoing, historical conflict between the Jews and our enemies Amaleik, and pray that just as we remember, so may G-d remember our current state and redeem us.

Para’s Yotzrot end with a view towards the moment of the revivification of the dead, and the morning piyyut of Parshat ha-Chodesh notes how the entire month of Nisan is set aside for redemption: in its beginning, third, halfway-point, and majority point.  On the majority point (16th), Mordechai achieved redemption in the merit of that day’s Omer sacrifice, while on the halfway point (15th), the Assyrian army was defeated in the merit of that day’s Pesach sacrifice.  On one third of the month (the 10th) the Jordan river was split for Joshua, while the first day of the month is set aside for a future redemption, the one of the Messiah who comes riding on a donkey.

Four valuations age-ranges I shall study (Vayikra 27:1-8)         //          Counting the gifts of the blossoms of the rose-like nation.         //          Just as we heard [of redemption in the past] so also bring speedily now!         //          Give us restful joy on the first of the months of the year.

The custom in the Maimonides congregation, following the directives of the Rav z”l and the Vilna Gaon (see Ma`aseh Rav 127) is to recite the piyutim on the special parshiot.  They contain such a rich tapestry of the series of themes, motifs, allusions, and Midrashic interpretations that have become over the years core to the Judaism even if they do not appear so from the Tanach or Talmudic literature alone.  Though Zecharia’s vision of a Messiah on a donkey (9:9) never mentions the date of Rosh Chodesh Nissan, Jewish tradition deduces it clearly must be so (Rosh Hashanah 11a)!  The springtime Assyrian defeat never mentions the date of Pesach (Melachim 2:19:35), but Jewish tradition deduces it clearly must have been in this month!

The Yotzrot take the complex interwoven tapestry of Jewish texts, history, law, and future aspirations, and connects together our original experiences of Passover redemption, our current prayers for redemption, and the many similar moments of redemption that took place throughout Jewish history to signal that indeed yet another redemption may be soon on the horizon.

Four cups [were revealed] like in the vision (Isaiah 51),[3]         //          You explained and distinguished one from the other to the prophet.         //          Just like we heard [of redemption in the past] so we will also soon see!         //          Accept us like a gift in this month.

The Mussaf Piyut for Parshat ha-Chodesh keeps returning to the number four, and in particular to seven special four’s that relate to Parshat ha-Chodesh.  We fittingly remember four new-years (since the first of Nissan is one of the new-years [Rosh Hashanah 2a]),  the four seasons (since Nissan is always the spring time month [Rashi Devarim 16:1), and the four times a year when we are judged (including Pesach [Rosh Hashanah 16a], before discussing the four age ranges of Leviticus chapter 27.

All of these fours are introduced with the hope that these aspects of the past redemption should signal a future redemption.  To further develop that notion of this time of redemption, the piyyut ends with three fours that signal the future redemption: the defeat of the four enemy kingdoms of the Book of Daniel, the heroic intervention of the four artisans of Zechariah (2:4,[4] see Succa 52b), and the four cups of punishment of Isaiah 51.

Four kingdoms of our exile we shall thresh,         //          In your measurement of their deeds like at first.         //          Just like we heard [of redemption in the past] so also bring speedily now!         //          And you will grant good to us in your good on the first of the months of the year.

Personally, though I have said yotzrot for a few years now, it is precisely this year where they resonate so much more deeply.  Perhaps in other years as I davened without masks, without social distancing, without half of the shul absent, I did not feel the same urgent need for redemptive change that I feel now.  This year, though, I feel the piyutim resonate so much more deeply, as they turn the experiences of our nation’s past redemptions, into predictions and aspirations for our nation’s redemptive future.

The Messianic era cannot arrive soon enough!  May we experience it in this season of redemption, in this month.

Four artisans of redemption [were revealed] in the vision,         //          You explained and distinguished one from the other to the prophet.         //          just like we heard [of redemption in the past] so we will also soon see!         //          Bless us with peace in this month.

[1] A play on words as Parshat ha-Chodesh begins “ ‘This month’ is for you the first of the months.”

[2] Technically, a “yotzer” is a piyyut appending to the first of the blessings of the Shema, while these are “Krovah” which is added to the repetition of Shacharit, but they are usually called Yotzrot.  There is also an additional Mussaf piyyut added as well on two of the weeks, Shekalim and ha-Chodesh.

[3] The word cup appears four times in that chapter in the context of exile and redemption.  Yerushalmi Psachim 10:1 cited by Tosafot Arvei Psachim found in the Mordechai (99b) cites four redemptive cups in Psalms.  The four cups of the dream of Paroh’s butler do not seem to relate to this context, though they are also invoked by the Yerushalmi.

[4] Rashi, both in his commentary to Zechariah and in his commentary to Succa struggles and is reluctant to define who these individuals are and why.  It may be better to think in the generic, of those that help the redemption, instead of trying to identify who specifically are the four artisans.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Jaffe is the Rabbi of the Maimonides Kehillah, and the Dean of Judaic Studies at the Maimonides School in Brookline, Mass.
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