The First Month
Parshat HaChodesh (Exodus 12:1-20 )
This week we also read Parshat HaChodesh, the portion of the new moon, from Parshat Bo, Exodus Chapter 12. This is the last of the four Parshiot that precede Pesach every year. Parshat HaChodesh always comes on the Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh Nisan. Following is the first and main verse of this section and the Rashi-comment on it.
"This month is for you the first of the months; it shall be for you, the first of the months of the year."
This month - RASHI: He [God] showed him [Moses] the moon in its renewal and said to him "when the moon renews itself it will be the beginning of the month for you." But the verse does not depart from its simple meaning (p'shuto) He really spoke to him about the month of Nisan: This [month] shall be the first in the order of the months, so that Iyar is called the second, Sivan, the third.
A Question: Why does Rashi need the Drash if he brings the P'shat? What is bothering him that leads him to these interpretations? Can you see what's bothering him in this verse?
WHAT IS BOTHERING RASHI?
An Answer: The verse has two parts to it, which seem to repeat themselves in different words. The first part says: "This month is for you the first of the months," the second part says: "it shall be for you the first of the months of the year." This is repetitious. This is what's bothering Rashi. How does his comment deal with this?
An Answer: The Drash interprets the first part of the sentence in a completely different way than does our translation above. It does not refer to the month of Nisan as being the first month, rather it sees these words as a lesson to Moses in how to determine when a new month (any new month) begins. According to the Drash , the first part of the verse indicates that God showed Moses the new moon in the sky to show him what a new moon looks like as far as when the new month can be declared. (The implications are important because it will effect when the holidays fall out.) The second part of the verse, according to this Drash interpretation, tells us that this particular new month in which Moses is showing this is the first month of the calendar year. In this way there is no repetition, since the two halves of the verse tell us two different things.
But if this answers our difficulty, why does Rashi offer the second interpretation, which he calls P'shat ? Can you think of a reason?
THE NEED FOR A P'SHAT INTERPRETATION
An Answer: Rashi makes this clear when he says a verse never departs from its P'shat meaning. Therefore he must also offer the P'shat meaning of this verse. The simple meaning is that both parts of the verse relate to Nisan; the first part tells us that this month – Nisan – is the first month of the year. The second part repeats this but specifies that each month afterwards follows an orderly pattern. And that when the Torah says "the second month" or "the third month" it refers to what we know as Iyar and Sivan etc. (because the Torah only uses numerical designations for the months. In the Torah itself, there are no individual names for the months. This is a later innovation.) This means that a P'shat interpretation is not so demanding of the linguistic structure; what looks like a repetition may actually be repetition for the sake of emphasizing a point. There is a classic dispute between Rabbis Akiva and Yishmael whether " the Torah speaks in the language of man" or not. That means that since common repetitions of the type in this verse are the way people ordinarily speak, therefore the Torah may also speak the same way. One needn't be so "strict" in interpreting every little nuance. This dispute relates basically to Drash. But when it comes to P'shat we see that Rashi takes it for granted that the Torah speaks as people speak.
THE MEANING OF THE WORD "CHODESH"
Notice that these two interpretations understand the word "chodesh" in different ways. How does the P'shat translate the words "hachodesh hazeh"? And how does the Drash translate them?
An Answer: The p'shat translates "chodesh" as: "this month." The Drash, "this new moon" or "the beginning of the month": "Rosh Chodesh." Why do think that the second interpretation is considered P'shat more so than the first?
WHAT IS P'SHAT AND WHAT IS DRASH?
An Answer: The "chodesh" appears many times in the Torah and it always means "month." For example, in Exodus 13:4 it says (referring to Pesach) in the "Spring Month" - "B'chodesh Ha'aviv." So the simple and common meaning of these words is "this month" and not "this new moon." For this reason it is considered P'shat.
However, it should be noted that the word "chodesh" does appear in the Tanach where it has the meaning of "new moon." In the story of David and Jonathan (I Samuel 20:5) the word means "Rosh Chodesh." But this is never its meaning in Chumash.
ANOTHER REASON FOR THE P'SHAT INTERPRETATION
A closer look at this verse reveals another reason supporting the P'shat. The Drash says "This is what the New Moon looks like." But if that were its basic meaning, the verse should have said "Rosh Chodesh" and not "Roshei Chadashim" in the plural.
The plural makes perfect sense according to the P'shat interpretation. "This month is the first of the months" – as Rashi explained, the beginning of the order of the months of the year.