12 March 2021
Praying for ‘a peaceful life
with goodness and blessing,
free from shame and reproach’
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.