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Why do the Jews maintain a lunar calendar?

by Rabbi Naftali Silberberg

The first Commandment the Jews received, while they were yet in Egypt, was: “This month shall be to you the head of the months” (Exodus 12:2). This is the Mitzvah to sanctify the new month upon the appearance of the crescent new moon. Undoubtedly, the fact that G-d chose this commandment to be the first Mitzvah has special significance. And, indeed, our sages tell us that “[the People of] Israel are similar to the moon, and [therefore] count [their calendar months] according to the moon.” On a basic level this means that just as the moon waxes and wanes, so, too, the condition of Jewry is constantly in flux – at times we are small and oppressed, and eventually we will shine in our full glory with the arrival of the Messianic era.

On a deeper level, we are compared to the moon because the moon has no light of its own; rather, it reflects the light of the sun. The sun is analogous to G-d, the source of all energy and sustenance, and we are meant to reflect the truth of G-d’s radiance in a world of darkness.

The sun and the moon both emit light, but there is an intrinsic difference between the two: the sun is essentially composed of hydrogen, a gas which by its nature is conducive to giving off light and energy. The moon, however, is not fuel. It is a mass of solid matter. So actually, the fact that the moon - solid matter - emits light, is more remarkable than the fact that the sun - gaseous fuel - emits light.

With the first Mitzvah, G-d conveys the very essence of the Jewish mission, which is accomplished through observing the Mitzvahs. Yes, we inhabit a world which consists of physical matter, a world which on the surface does not appear to be “fuel” for the holiness of the Torah. And the Jewish soul is clothed in a physical body which has very mundane perceptions, desires, and temptations; seemingly a body which can never radiate the G-dly truth. Yet we have the obligation, and therefore the G-d given extraordinary ability, to cause ourselves and the world around us to glow with spirituality.

The task may appear daunting. Most of us are a long way away from being human reflectors of Torah and Mitzvahs. But we must remember that we are commanded to sanctify the crescent moon. The person who has only taken the first step of his spiritual journey, has only managed to sanctify a small part of his day or character – he too is sanctified to G-d. And eventually, through much effort and self refinement, he too will reach his full moon; where his entire being is a reflection of G-d’s holiness.

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