This Shabbat is the last of the four special Shabbatot which started with Shabbat Shekalim. On each of these Shabbatot, our Maftir comes from a second Sefer Torah, and there is a special Haftarah. It is possible for Shekalim and HaChodesh to be on Rosh Chodesh, giving us three Sifrei Torah, but it can never be both in a single year, and in some years, as this year, neither.
Shabbat HaChodesh, if not actually on Rosh Chodesh Nisan, is on the Shabbat immediately before it, and we announce the new month. The theme of this Shabbat is preparation for Pesach, and our Maftir comes from Bo, (Shemot 12:1-20) and tells of the observance of the first Pesach, and then its institution as a festival for all time. The Haftarah from Ezekiel is very clearly linked with sacrifices on the first of Nisan, on Pesach and other days in the future Temple.
One response to our readings on this day are perhaps a level of panic, as we know how much we all need to do in the next fortnight. However, while that may also be part of the preparation, I sometimes worry that we panic about the wrong things. All the practical preparation is a vital part of our observance of the Chag, but I sometimes fear that it is at the expense of spiritual preparation, and our reflecting on the meaning of the festival. Some perhaps re-enact slavery and never think about or indeed experience freedom.
Of the four special Shabbatot, my personal favourite is Shabbat HaChodesh. I like it because it is either on, or anticipates Rosh Chodesh Nisan, which is many ways the first day of the Jewish year. This season clearly symbolises spring, renewal and rebirth, both of nature and the Jewish people. We think of Rosh Hashanah as the new year, but we know that Rosh Hashanah, just one of four new years in the Jewish calendar, is in the seventh month. Indeed there used to be communities where new year wishes were exchanged on Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the first day of the first month.
I find the second verse of the Maftir particularly meaningful: ‘hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chodashim; rishon hu lachem l’chodshei hashanah’, – ‘this month shall mark for you the beginning of months. It shall be for you the first of the months of the year.’ The lachem – for you – has a special significance for the Jewish people. It is understood that with this verse, we are responsible for our own timekeeping.
The Midrash in Shemot Rabbah 15, says: ‘This month is lachem, for you, the first of the months. The ministering angels said to God, ‘Master of Infinity, when do you declare the festivals?’ God said to them, ‘You and I will accept whatever Israel calculates’¦. The Holy Blessed One said to Israel, ‘In the past they were in my hands. But from now on they are in your hands’.
There is a human responsibility for the calendar, and perhaps we are reminded, beginning with Rosh Chodesh Nisan, to make a greater commitment to the observance of the calendar. It can also be seen as a bold statement that we cannot always wait for God to act. God is waiting for our human initiative.
Shabbat HaChodesh serves as a reminder to recommit ourselves to living, not just for the eight days of Pesach, but for the whole year, in accordance with the calendar and its profound messages which can so impact on our personal lives and our world.
Rabbi Amanda Golby retired last summer from the rabbinic team at NNLS where she remains a member.