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This Month's for You

Translation and commentary by Eliyahu Munk from Shnei Luchot HaBrit


"This month shall be for you." (Ex. 12:2)

The commandment to sanctify the new moon and to arrange for leap years when necessary is designed to ensure that the various holidays set out in the Torah occur in their respective seasons. Passover must occur in spring; Sukkot in autumn. Leap months and leap years were determined by calendar calculation even during the eras when the appearance of the new moon was confirmed by visual observation.

Astronomical factors were not ignored. We have a tradition that the luminaries symbolize a two-faced concept [such as Adam and Eve before Eve was separated from Adam by G-d. Ed.]. The moon receives its light only from the sun. The secret of when the moon renews itself is when it is positioned close to the sun. (This statement needs a detailed analysis. I have dealt with it in my commentary on tractate Pesachim under the heading Torah Ohr, sub-category Rosh Chodesh.)

Women observe the New Moon more than their husbands, since, symbolically speaking, the moon (as the lesser of the luminaries) remains on the wane for no more than seven days before it begins to shine again. Similarly, a menstruating woman becomes pure again after seven days.

The normal menstrual cycle of a woman is thirty days, similar to the cycle of the moon. We find in the Midrash Ha-nee-elam of the Zohar Chadash that whereas the gentile nations arrange their calendar according to the orbit of the sun, the Jewish people count according to the orbit of the moon. At first glance we would have thought that the opposite should be true. When G-d told the moon to diminish itself, the moon was not placated until told that Israel would use it for its calendar calculations (Chulin 60).

The moon was also promised that the righteous would bear its name. This is a metaphor and means that Israel walks in darkness in this world, whereas the nations of the world walk in light. The moon in this world shines only at night when it is dark. When Israel is in exile it experiences an existence similar to that of the moon. Just as the moon, despite its temporary eclipse, re-emerges and shines, so will Israel re-emerge after its exile. The blackness [absence of moonlight. Ed.] of the moon is an allusion to its being in mourning over the fate of Israel in exile.

Shemot Rabba (15:26) makes the point that there were 15 generations from Abraham to King Solomon. These generations represented the rising star of the Jewish people, similar to the first half of the month when the moon is in its ascendance. After Solomon, the star of the Jewish people began to decline, much like the moon towards the end of the month. King Zedekiah was the 29th generation after Abraham, and it was during his life that the Temple was destroyed, that the light of the Jewish nation was eclipsed. The fact that King Zedekiah had his eyes gouged out by the Babylonians further re-enforces the allegory between the moon and the fortunes of the Jewish people.

There will come a time, however, when the light of the moon will be as brilliant as that of the sun, when G-d and His Name will be one, when a new light will shine over Zion. The formula used in our benediction when we recite the prayer for sanctification of the moon each month contains the words "a crown of glory to those burdened from birth". We refer to the Lord who bade the moon to renew itself, "a crown of glory to those burdened from birth, who are likewise destined to renew themselves just like the moon, and to glorify their Maker because of the glory of His kingdom." I have dealt with this in the chapter mentioned earlier.

The subject of the orbit of the moon, the fixing of leap months and leap years, is also related to aspects of the transmigration of souls. The appearance and disappearance of one generation after another reminds one of the lunar cycles. Our sages have jealously guarded what is called "the secret of leap years", the mechanics of how and under what conditions to declare these leap years and leap months. (See Ketubot 112, based on Ezekiel 13:9. A collegium of seven scholars would deal with this issue in a closed session; normal sessions were open to the disciples Ed.)



Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz the Shelah b. 5320 (1560 CE) in Prague; d. 5390 (1630 CE) in Jerusalem, where he served as chief rabbi. Author of Shnei Luchot HaBrit, hence the acronym SHeLaH, a work of commentary and halacha.

Eliyahu Munk was born in Frankfurt, emigrated to England as a young man and then to Toronto. After retiring from education and moving to Israel in 1978, he began an extraordinary second career as a translator, publishing English versions of the Torah commentaries of Rebbeinu Bachya, Akeidat Yitzchak, the Shelah, the Alshich and the Ohr Hachayim.


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