Jewish calendar, this is the start of the New Year. Didn't you know? On Shabbat, we will be reading a special maftir that introduces the month of Nisan (which includes Pesach) as follows: "Adonai said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: 'This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.'" (Exodus, 12:1-2) And indeed, Nisan is known as the first month of the Jewish year. Only one problem though: Don't we refer to Rosh Hashanah as "The Jewish New Year"? And if Nisan is the first month, why does the calendar tick over from 5777 to 5778 on Rosh Hashanah, in the seventh month of the year, Tishrei??? Yup, you guessed it; it's crazy Rabbinic Math!
I like to say to people, if the ancient rabbis had a choice between a simple solution and a complicated one, they almost always opted for the latter. Or they made up a
third option, or perhaps a sixth. Sigh. The answer to our question of when the year ACTUALLY begins is (of course) both. Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of all Creation, and we read the beginning of Genesis about how the world came into being. And since Jewish tradition purports the earth to be 5,777 years old, it makes sense that the calendar changes in Tishrei, when we celebrate Rosh Hashanah. Passover, on the other hand, celebrates OUR Genesis; the origins of the Jewish people. We were a ragtag band of nobodies before this story; the Exodus from Egypt put us on the map of world history! It is the first month on the JEWISH calendar, because it marks the start of our formation into a a nation. So believe it or not, BOTH months celebrate an important new beginning. Not as dumb as they look, those rabbis...
I share all of this to help ground us, and to take stock, as we prepare for Pesach. That same maftir reading, which introduces Nisan as the first month, goes on to
describe how the very, very first Passover Seder was conducted: "They shall eat it (the Paschal lamb) roasted over the fire, with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs... You shall observe this ritual as a statute for you and for your children forever. And when your children say to you, 'What do you mean by this service?' you shall say, 'It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, for God passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, striking the Egyptians but sparing our houses'" (Ex. 12:8, 24-27). According to Tradition, that Seder took place nearly 3,500 YEARS AGO! And even if you don't believe that, it is certainly true that our ancestors have been sitting down for a (too lengthy) Seder as far back as we know there were Jews. Regardless of your theology or opinion of tradition, you are participating in a ceremony that is REALLY old.
Many of the rituals have definitely changed, and they will continue to shift and evolve; but at its core, our Seder is the same. We're still eating Matzah and Maror, and still listening to curious children prod adults for answers to EVERYTHING.
This holiday is where it all began for us, and I think that's a really big deal! And it's also NOT about the specific rituals you do or don't do during your Seder. Don't worry about all that. But I hope you do find yourself at a Seder - of some variety - and that when you do, you take a moment to appreciate how ancient this ritual really is. And how it celebrates our very origins as a people. When we know where we've been and where we are, it can truly transform our understanding of where we're going. May we all use this opportunity for New Beginnings, and feel a genuine sense of renewal and replenishment this Passover season. For our ancestors, Pesach meant the start of a New Year. May it mean that for us as well.
Chag Sameach and Shanah Tovah!
Photos in this blog post:
In honor of the upcoming holiday, I'm including pictures from my collection of Haggadot. I don't actually know how many I have, but it's A LOT! In this post, I've included pictures from:
1) The American Heritage Haggadah
2) A Japanese Haggadah
3) My Swedish Haggadah growing up
4) A wooden-cover, illuminated Haggadah