12 March 2021
Passover or Pesah, which begins this year at sunset on Saturday 27 March, marks a half-way point in the Jewish calendar. Although it comes in Nissan, the first month in the Jewish year, it is actually six months since Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
In the month before Passover, each Shabbat is marked with special preparations for this important holiday. For example, last weekend it was Shabbat Parah (שבת פרה), while the previous weekend it was Shabbat Zakhor.
Shabbat HaChodesh (‘שבת החודש, the Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh Nissan) for the Hebrew Year 5781 begins at sunset this evening (Friday 12 March 2021) and ends at nightfall tomorrow (Saturday 13 March 2021).
This Shabbat is the last of the four special Shabbatot that began on Shabbat Shekalim (this year on 13 February 2021). On each of these Shabbatot, the Maftir comes from a second Sefer Torah, and there is a special Haftarah.
Shabbat HaChodesh takes place on the Shabbat before the first of the Hebrew month of Nisan (14 March 2021), the month when Passover is celebrated.
On the first day of Nisan, God presented the first commandment of how to ‘sanctify the new moon’ (kiddush hachodesh) for the onset of Rosh Chodesh, and so Nisan becomes the first month of the Jewish year (counting by months).
The maftir reading for Shabbat HaChodesh is Exodus 12: 1-20 (Shemot 12: 1-20). This tells of the observance of the first Pesach and its institution as a festival for all time. It describes eating the Passover sacrifice, with ‘your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand’; eating bitter herbs and unleavened bread; and putting blood on the doorposts. It also lists the Passover laws.
The first day of Nisan is also important as the occasion for God’s first commandment, sanctifying the new moon, which begins the Torah reading, ‘This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.’ This commandment moved the determination of months from God’s agenda into the hands of the Jewish people, giving them control over time and the theological and liturgical cycle.
The haftarah (Ezekiel 45: 16 to 46: 18) describes the sacrifices that the people are to bring on the first of Nisan, on Passover, and on other festivals in the future Temple. It is very clearly linked with sacrifices on the first of Nisan, on Pesach and other days in the future Temple
Passover this year begins at sunset on Saturday 27 March. The readings on Shabbat HaChodesh are a reminder that this is just two weeks away. It can create something akin to a response of panic, as people think about how much they need to do in preparation over the next fortnight.
The season symbolises spring, renewal and rebirth, both of nature and the people. But, of course, some people ask whether this panic is about the wrong things, emphasising practical preparation at the expense of spiritual preparation, almost as if they are reliving slavery over the next two weeks and not thinking about freedom, let along experiencing it.
The second verse of the maftir is particularly meaningful: ‘This month shall mark for you (lachem) the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you (lachem).’ The word lachem, ‘for you,’ is a reminder that we are responsible for our own timekeeping.
There is a human responsibility for the calendar, and Rosh Chodesh Nisan has a built-in reminder to make a greater commitment to the observance of the calendar. It is, too, a bold statement that we cannot always wait for God to act. God is waiting for our human initiative.
Shabbat HaChodesh is as a reminder to recommit ourselves to living for the whole year, in accordance with the calendar and its profound messages that can so impact on our personal lives and our world.
On the last Shabbat of each Jewish month, a blessing called Birkat HaChodesh is recited over the new month ahead. The blessing is often recited with fervour and emotion:
May it be Your will,
Adonai our God and God of our ancestors,
to reawaken in us joy and blessing in the month ahead.
Grant us a long life,
a peaceful life with goodness and blessing,
sustenance and physical vitality;
a life of reverence and piety,
a life free from shame and reproach,
a life of abundance and honour,
a reverent life guided by the love of Torah;
a life in which our worthy aspirations will be fulfilled.
During Lent and Easter this year, I am taking some time each morning to reflect in these ways:
1, a photograph of a church or place of worship that has been significant in my spiritual life;
2, the day’s Gospel reading;
3, a prayer from the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).
This week I am offering photographs from seven churches that have connections with my education. This morning’s photographs (11 March 2021) are from the chapel in Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Co Kildare. I received my BD in theology from the Pontifical University in the chapel on 19 November 1987. Later, I was a post-graduate student in history at Maynooth, I spent a day on a retreat in the chapel before my ordination as priest in 2001, I have been a visiting lecturer and I was involved in organising a retreat for students from the Church of Ireland Theological Institute (CITI) in Maynooth in 2016.
More recently, I contributed to a new history of Maynooth, We Remember Maynooth: A College across Four Centuries, edited by Salvador Ryan and John-Paul Sheridan (Dublin: Messenger Publishing, 2020).
Mark 12: 28-34 (NRSVA):
28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ 29 Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” 31 The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ 32 Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; 33 and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”, — this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ 34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.
Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:
The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (12 March 2021) prays:
Let us pray for all small business owners and entrepreneurs.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org