PARASHAT HAHODESH: Why do we call this coming month “Nisan”?


חזרנו לקרוא החודשים בשם שנקראים בארץ בבל, להזכיר כי שם עמדנו ומשם העלנו ה’ רמב”ן שמות י”ב , 2

In a few days, on Monday, March 27th at night,  we will begin the month of Nisan. We will read this Shabbat the Perasha of the week Vayaqhel-Pequde, and we will take a second Sefer Tora to read haHodesh haze lakhem, that is, a text from the book of Shemot (Exodus) chapter 12 announcing the coming of the month of Nisan: “This month will be for you the first month … of the months of the year “. In the Hebrew calendar there are 12 months (or 13 when there is a leap year, and a second month of Adar is added, which happens every 3 years or so). In the Tora the names of the months are designed with ordinal numbers: first month, second month, third month, and so on. The month of Nisan is the first of the 12 months of the year. By the way, for those who follow the Gregorian calendar, there is something unusual here, January is the first month of the months of the year, and it is also the first month of the year, that is, January the new year begins. In the Hebrew calendar, however, the year begins in the seventh month of the year, which is the month of Tishri (in modern Hebrew they say “Tishre”), and the first month of the month is Nisan.

The month we call today “Nisan” was designated by the Tora as the first month of the year, because it is the month of Pesah: When we count the months we remember the great miracle of our redemption. So when we say:  “the third month”, we are saying, “the third month, counting from, Nisan, the month of our redemption.”  Something similar, although in the opposite sense, happens with the days of the week. We count the days of the week in Hebrew, as in Portuguese, with ordinal numbers: the first day (יום ראשון) Sunday, second day (יום שני), Monday, etc. And every time we count the days we do it in reference to Shabbat. When we say in Hebrew “Monday,” we are saying, “Today is the second day, counting toward Shabbat” (שני בשבת). So every time we mention a day of the week, we remember Shabbat.

Today, although we continue counting the days of the week with ordinal numbers, we no longer count the months with their ordinal names but we say: Nisan, Iyar, Tishri, etc. Why? These names are not Hebrew names! In fact these were the names of the months in ancient Babylon (and then in Persia, as they appear in Megillat Esther).

The big question is: why we Jews abandoned the Biblical names of the months and adopted the non-Jewish names of the months of Babylon?

Ramban (12: 2) explains that this has to do with a prophecy of Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah). Yirmiyahu had the difficult task of announcing that if the people of Israel persisted in their abandonment of the Tora, the Bet haMiqdash and Yerushalayim would be destroyed, and the survivors would be taken prisoners to Babylon. But Yirmiyahu also comforted the people, announcing that HaShem would miraculously bring them again from Babylon to the land of Israel. This great miracle occurred in 538 BCE, when, as the last Pesuquim of the Tanakh says, the Persian emperor Cyrus, Koresh, announced that HaShem revealed to him, and ordered him to rebuild the Bet haMiqdash in Yerushalayim. Miraculously, Koresh also invited all the Yehudim who wanted to return to Israel to do so under his protection.

Yirmiyahu prophesied the destruction and exile of Israel (chapter 16: 9-13) and also the return of the Jewish people to their land. And he said (16: 14-15) that when this happens, when HaShem would bring the Jewish people back from Babel to the land of Israel: “… it will no longer be remembered [only] that HaShem took us out of the  land of Egypt, but it will be said that HaShem brought back the children of Israel [to their land] from the land of the north (= Babel) and from all the countries where I [HaShem] exiled them. ”

Our sages understood that this does not mean that the memory of the redemption of Babel would completely replace the memory of the redemption of Egypt. In fact, there is no event in Jewish history that is mentioned and remembered as many times as our deliverance from Egypt. There are dozens of Mitzvot, not only Pesah but also Shabbat, Tefillin, Shema, etc. which remind us of the departure of Egypt.

So, what do we do then with the Prophet Yirmiyahu’s indication: to remember the great miracle of the redemption of Babel? Ramban explains that this is the reason that we count the months with the Babylonian non-Jewish names. To follow the indication of the prophet Yirmiyahu. Thus, every time we mention the name of one of the months of our calendar, we should remember our exile in Babel and our miraculous redemption from that captivity.