Time on Your Side

And Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon in the Land of Egypt, saying: This month shall be to you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year to you. (Sefer Shemot 12:1-2)

  1. Elements of the commandment to establish a calendar

The Torah includes 613 commandments. Each of the commandments is given for all generations. They cannot be annulled; neither can new commandments be added to those of the Torah. The first of the commandments that was given to the Jewish people is recorded in Parshat Bo. This is the commandment creating the Torah calendar. There are various elements to this commandment. These elements include the following:

  • The establishment of a modified lunar calendar. The Torah's calendar is composed of twelve lunar months. However, the Torah requires that the lunar calendar correspond with the longer solar calendar. In order to align our lunar calendar with the solar calendar, an occasional 13th month must be added to the year.
  • Assignment to the courts of authority to administer the calendar. The Torah assigns to the courts the authority to declare the onset of each month and to decide when it is necessary to add an additional lunar month.
  • The identification of the first month of the calendar cycle. The Torah selects Nisan as the first month of the annual calendar cycle. Bnai Yisrael was redeemed from Egypt in the month of Nisan and the Torah gives it the distinction of being selected as the first month of the calendar cycle.

And G-d said: Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years. (Sefer Beresheit 1:14)

  1. Authority over the calendar expresses control over one's time

The creation of a Torah calendar deserves consideration. The Torah did not invent the concept of a calendar. Measuring the passage of time through observation of the heavens predates this mitzvah. In fact, in its account of creation, the Torah notes that the bodies in the heavens serve the purpose of marking the passage of time and the seasons. Calendars were in place before the Torah created its calendar. But, as Rashbam notes, this mitzvah creates for the Jewish people its own calendar. It directs the Jewish people to measure time by a calendar that is uniquely their own and to not avail themselves of the calendars used by other people and nations.[1] Why must the Jewish people have their own calendar?

Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno addresses this issue. He explains that a slave is not in control of his own time. His time is managed by his master. This master tells him when he should rise in the morning. He assigns to the servant the activities that will dominate his day. He tells the servant when he may eat and when he may rest at night. The slave does not control his time and neither is time meaningful to him. Time passes and he merely flows helplessly within its current.

In creating a calendar, the Torah returned to the Jewish people the management of their own time. Now, they would decide how to spend their time. Furthermore, even the ordering of time and the measurement of its passage would be in their hands.[2]

According to Sforno’s reasoning, it is fitting that creation of the calendar should be the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people. There are other commandments that recall our redemption. Shabbat and Pesach both remind us of our deliverance by Hashem from slavery to freedom. However, these commandments are reminders only. The commandment to administer the calendar and to seize control of the very measurement of time is more than a reminder of our redemption. It is an exercise of the freedom gained through that redemption.

This day you go forth in the month of the spring. (Sefer Shemot 13:4)

  1. The selection of Nisan as the first month of the calendar cycle

Many of the commentators take note of the selection of Nisan as the first month of the calendar cycle. Nachmanides gives much attention to this issue. He and many other commentators explain that the selection of Nisan as the first month and the counting of all other months from Nisan engender an ongoing reminder of the redemption from Egypt. Nachmanides notes that the names that we use in referring to the months are not found in the Torah or most of NaCh. Instead, months are identified by ordinal numbers. The months are simply identified as the first, second, third month and so on. The names currently in use originate from the time of the return to the Land of Israel after the Babylonian exile.

Nachmanides explains that the identification of months by their ordinal number designations established a virtually constant reminder of the redemption. Every mention of a date identified the month relative to the month of the redemption from Egypt. For example, the 5th of Tishre was identified as the 5th day of the seventh month – the seventh month from the month of the redemption.[3]

The ideas developed by Sforno and by Nachmanides and his fellow commentators are closely related. As Sforno explains, administration of the calendar is an exercise of freedom. The designation of Nisan as the first month of the calendar cycle reminds us of from whence our freedom is derived. It is the outcome of Hashem's redemption of his people from Egyptian bondage.[4]

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt"l suggests a beautiful addition to these ideas. Before considering his comments, we will review a related discussion in the Talmud.

And Hashem spoke unto Moses, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, “The appointed seasons of Hashem, which you shall proclaim to be sacred assemblies, even these are My appointed seasons. (Sefer VaYikra 23:1-2)

  1. Bnai Yisrael sanctifies the festivals

The central blessing to the Amidah on each festival ends with praising Hashem, who "sanctifies Israel and the appointed times". The Talmud explains the meaning of this phrase. Hashem gave us the festivals. These are very special times and are endowed with sanctity. However, Hashem gave us the authority to administer the calendar. Through our administration of that calendar we bring about the occurrence of each festival. For example, by our determination that the first day of Nisan has arrived, we establish that Pesach will occur in 15 days. By declaring that Tishre has arrived, we determine that it is Rosh HaShannah, that Yom Kippur will be in 10 days and that Succot arrives in 15 days. In other words, we declare the arrival of the month and in doing so, we endow the appropriate days of the month with their sanctity as festivals.

Based on this elucidation of the role of the Jewish people in creating the festivals' sanctity, the Talmud explains the ending phrase of the festival Amidah's central blessing. The phrase means that Hashem sanctified the Jewish people with His commandments. Because of this sanctity, the Jewish people has attained the authority to endow time with sanctity through determining the occurrence of the festivals. [5]

As noted above, Sforno explains that through the calendar commandment, Bnai Yisrael was assigned control over time. Rav Soloveitchik adds that the calendar mitzvah also assigns to us the capacity to sanctify time – to endow time with special meaning and sacredness.[6]

  1. Sanctifying time – a halachic and personal concept

Rav Soloveitchik's comments are closely related to those of Sforno. The calendar mitzvah expresses a free person's empowerment to be the master of one's own time. However, freedom creates only the potential to grow and thrive. The choices that the empowered individual makes – how the person uses the time he now controls – determines whether the person will achieve his potential.

As Rav Soloveitchik explains, we are not only the masters of our own time; we also have the capacity to sanctify that time. This is both a halachic capacity and a personal existential capacity. Rav Soloveitchik's comments focus upon the halachic expression of the capacity to sanctify time. We declare the advent of the new month. Thereby, we endow the designated days of the month with the sanctity of a festival. However, in the way we choose to use our time, we also are challenged to sanctify our personal use of our time.

  1. Making choices in how we use our time

We cannot view this challenge as an abstract quest or a religious platitude. We make choices about how we will prioritize use of our time. We balance family and profession, recreation and household chores. And, somewhere in the mix, we try to find time for spiritual and Torah growth. To sanctify one's time means to examine priorities. It requires translating religious and spiritual values into an action plan for personal growth. We can make the choice to devote our time to the exclusive pursuit of material ends. If this is the choice that we make, then we use our freedom to choose a new master who enslaves our souls. But we have the capacity to make a different choice. We can order our priorities and the time devoted to them in a manner that promotes our growth and sanctifies our time. If we make this choice, then we choose to use our freedom to grow and to thrive as complete human beings and Jews.


[1] Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 12:2.

[2] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 12:2.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot,12:2.

[4] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 12:2.

[5] Mesechet Berachot 49a.

[6] Rav Hershel Schachter, Divrai HaRav (Mesorah, Yerushalayim, 5770), p 308.