This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Nisan: the First Month*

For most of us, the approaching Hebrew month of Nisan derives its distinctiveness from its association with Passover. Although we now think of it as the seventh month, we should not forget that for most of our history Nisan was counted as the first month, and the foremost among them.

Earlier generations regarded the first day of Nisan as a special occasion in its own right which was celebrated in a variety of way. This was especially evident during the era of the Second Commonwealth, an age noted for the proliferation of different Jewish sects.

An intriguing example can be found among the "Dead Sea Scrolls," in a document known to scholars as the "Temple Scroll." This manuscript consists of a lengthy paraphrase of the Torah, interspersed with many additions of laws peculiar to the sect which produced it. According to the fragmentary remains of this document the first day of Nisan was to be observed as a full-fledged festival with special sacrificial offerings similar to those of Rosh Hashanah.

Several of the books which were held sacred by the Dead Sea sect made a point of identifying events in the lives of the Hebrew patriarchs and other biblical figures as having occurred on the first of Nisan. One of these, the Apocryphal "Book of Jubilees" relates how Noah had celebrated that date as a holiday precisely according to the sacrificial regulations that are set down in the Temple Scroll. The same date was said to mark other events in the lives of the Hebrew patriarchs.

None of these sources ascribe the importance of the first of Nisan to its associations with the Egyptian exodus. More relevant for them was the fact that the inauguration of the Tabernacle and the ordination of the first priests had commenced on this date.

Rabbinic Judaism treated the eight-day ordination ceremony that had been observed in Moses' time as a one-time affair. For the Dead Sea sect however this was a fixed holiday that was ordained to be celebrated every year through special sacrificial offerings.

Though (unlike the Qumran sectarians) the Talmudic rabbis did not accord it full festival status, they did have another special reason for celebrating the first of Nisan: This was the day in which the Temple began to purchase offerings from the new annual fund of shekels. For the Pharisaic sages the way in which the Temple's needs were financed was more than a fiscal question. By insisting that each Jew throughout the world pay an equal share each year, and that no individuals be permitted to purchase public sacrifice out of their own pockets, they were actively asserting the equality of all Jews in worship, a position which aroused concerted opposition among the aristocratic priests of the Sadducee party.

According to the ancient work known as "Megillat Ta`anit" the first eight days of Nisan were designated as a time of rejoicing precisely because they commemorate the victory of the egalitarian Pharisaic position over the elitist view of the Sadducees. We still acknowledge this festive quality through the omission of the penitential "Tachanun" prayers during these days.

Such was the quality of Second Temple Judaism with its many competing interpretations of just about every aspect of Judaism. It makes one wonder: With all these reasons for celebrating, where did our ancestors find time for their Passover cleaning.


This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers


Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

[1]

First Publication:

  • Jewish Free Press, March 31 1992.

Bibliography:

  • H. Lichtenstein, "Die Fastenrolle, Untersuchung zur jüdish-hellenistischen Geschichte," Hebrew Union College Annual 8-9 (1931-2).
  • Y. Yadin, The Temple Scroll, Jerusalem 1983.