The Brilliance of the Jewish Calendar
March 12, 2021
By Ben Wolfson

In this week’s Torah reading, we read a special section where G-d instructs the Israelites to set the Jewish calendar by the monthly new moon, giving the Jewish people the calendar that we still use today. This act from G-d was the first mitzvah that the Jews received as a people in the Torah, showing the significance of the calendar to our people. This may be perplexing to some, as they may ask— why was the calendar important enough to be the first mitzvah bestowed upon the Jewish people? The answer to this question is simple: Judaism could not exist without the Jewish calendar. The traditions of our faith are mapped out on a shared calendar, giving Jews around the world a single reference point for when to celebrate, pray, and rest.

The calendar gives us a roadmap for how to structure our lives and celebrations, following the same pattern as our ancestors. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l talked about the importance of the Jewish calendar, saying, “it sets out a weekly, monthly, and yearly schedule of sacred times. The Torah forces us to remember what contemporary culture regularly forgets: our lives must have dedicated times when we focus on the things that give life a meaning.” The Jewish calendar gives us a blueprint to pause and fill ourselves with purpose and meaning.

We read a special section from the Torah this Shabbat called Parshat HaChodesh (Exodus 12:1-20) which translates as “portion of the month” and includes the word Chodesh, the Hebrew word for month. In Hebrew, Chodesh shares the same lettering as Chadash, meaning renewal. The reading of Parshat HaChodesh signifies the beginning of Nissan, the first month on the Jewish calendar and the month of Passover. This Shabbat, as we enter a new month, we have an opportunity to renew ourselves from the tribulations of the previous month and go into the new month feeling refreshed and reinvigorated.

While the reading of HaChodesh signifies the beginning of a new month, this month also signifies one full year of COVID in our lives, a time to reflect on the hardships we have all faced over the previous 12 months. For me, like all of us, the pandemic threw a wrench in just about all of my big plans I had going into 2020. I was studying abroad in Prague when the pandemic began, forcing me to leave Europe and my numerous travel plans behind. My summer internship with the Center for Jewish Engagement and Learning became virtual, and completely changed the type of work I thought I would be doing from when I originally committed to the internship in January 2020. I had plTheans for visiting friends and family throughout the summer, as well as living out my senior year of college as I originally intended. Of course, all of these plans were abandoned as we were moved to isolation and life on virtual platforms. However, throughout these changes, the constant of the Jewish calendar remained, providing me with a familiar pattern of holidays in an otherwise unrecognizable year.

The calendar was extremely helpful for me to provide a normal order and structure in a year that was otherwise devoid of both. Sure, my celebrations looked much different this year than any other; from Zoom Passover Seders, virtual Shabbat services, and even a drive-in Purim carnival, but the celebration of our holidays persisted. This helped to show me the resilience of our people and our faith. This past year is proof that no matter what challenges we face in our own lives, the Jewish calendar will persist to provide our people with a source of consistency in an otherwise volatile world.

Ben Wolfson is an intern at the Center for Jewish Engagement and Learning.

The Brilliance of the Jewish Calendar - Jewish thought of the week graphic