My email, during the last week of December, was inundated with messages from various charity organizations appealing for donations, using the end of the year as an incentive for patrons to give. They all qualify, as non profit organizations, for (USA) tax deductions and they encourage donors to give before the end of December 31st so that donors can list the gifts on their tax returns. This is practiced by many organizations and it is a legitimate marketing appeal. Time is running short to reduce one’s tax rate and people are always seeking lawful means of lowering their rates. Any donation made from 12:00am on the 1st of January and onward may not be included on the 2013 tax return. By now it is too late. One can certainly give charity to these organizations, but one must wait until next year to write them off on the tax return. There is no flexibility, no exceptions. Time waits for no one.
Numerous commandments appear in the book of Genesis which number among the 613 commandments we are obligated to observe. The commandment to multiply and populate the world, the Mitzvah of circumcision and the prohibition of eating the sciatic nerve are all recorded in the first half of Genesis. The very first Mitzvah commanded to the Israelites as a nation, however, is found in this week’s reading.
“This month is for you the head of all months, it is the first for you of all months of the year.” (Exodus 12:2)
With this Mitzvah a mandate was given to the Jewish nation to determine the calendar based on the lunar cycle. Technically, a lunar month is 29.5 days long. Some months of the Jewish year are therefore 29 days long and others are 30. (This explains why sometimes Rosh Chodesh is one day and sometimes it is two days – the day after the 29th is always Rosh Chodesh, and the first day of the new month is always Rosh Chodesh. When those two days coincide we have just one day of Rosh Chodesh, as it was on Thursday, and when they don’t, the result is a two day Rosh Chodesh.)
This is not merely a matter of ceremony. Authority is given to the people, with this Mitzvah, to determine the date even when it is not perfectly aligned with the lunar cycle. If the Sanhedrin (the high court seated on the Temple grounds) found it necessary to extend a month to 30 days despite the new moon being sighted, they have the Divine sanction of doing so. This concept is astonishing to contemplate, especially now when we just celebrated the New Year of the Gregorian calendar. Typically we view time as being something permanent, something we must always accommodate for, something we cannot control. With this Mitzvah, however, time is actually given to us to control. The Midrash Tanchuma (yashan) comments on this verse that until now G-d had ordained the times and cycles and now it is given over to the nation of Israel. “You are not in the hands of time, rather time is in your hands,” states the Midrash. Through this Mitzvah we are given the control of time. We can finally beat the clock!
The Seforno further notes that the MItzvah was specifically given to the people at this time, at the dawn of their liberation from slavery. Before they could become truly free people, the Israelites had to become free from the shackles of time. Liberation from the hands of their human oppressors would not have given them complete freedom. To become free one must be master of one’s destiny, unhindered by the bonds of the calendar. I must be able to claim my tax benefits without constraints.
The Talmud tells a story of Raban Gamliel’s Bet Din which accepted the testimony of witnesses who claimed to have seen the new moon. Rabbi Yehoshua rejected their testimony since it didn’t conform to the reality of how the moon should have appeared. Nevertheless, Raban Gamliel’s ruling was upheld, despite being made in error, since the Bet Din has the authority to establish Rosh Chodesh. The Talmud relates that Raban Gamliel ordered Rabbi Yehoshua to appear before him with his staff and money belt on the day of Yom Kippur according to Rabbi Yehoshua’s calculations. With the encouragement of Rabi Akiva, Rabbi Yehoshua did so, and Raban Gamliel embraced him for accepting the authority of the Bet Din despite its alleged error.
The Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah tells of the method the Bet Din used to notify distant communities of their declaration of the new month. Initially they used a system of fires on high mountains to convey the message (a system used in The Lord of the Rings). That system was no longer sustainable once saboteurs ignited the fires early to confuse the distant communities. Instead they had to send runners, messengers from the Bet Din, to notify distant communities of the date. Because of this system, communities outside of Israel would not find out the exact day of Rosh Chodesh until after the middle of the month. They therefore were forced to celebrate two days of Yom Tov for the festivals of Passover and Sukkot.
In the time of Hillel II, after the Sanhedrin was disbanded and the nation had no ability to sanctify and declare each new month, a calendar was established and all months were permanently scheduled for all future generations. The tragedy of that was the loss of our determination of time. Of course we had no choice in the matter. A calendar had to be set up since we no longer had an ordained Bet Din to establish Rosh Chodesh, but it was still a sad day for the Jewish people when a permanent calendar was put in place. Hillel II urged the Diaspora communities to continue observing two days of Yom Tov despite knowing which day of the month it was. In commemoration of the the temporarily lost Mitzvah some customs were preserved. The Diaspora accepted this practice and it became the law in all Diaspora communities to this day.
By this practice we always remember that ideally we govern time and time does not govern us. We are in control of our destiny.
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