Bo: How About a Date?

A couple of years ago I read about a group of American Jewish teens on a Birthright or similar trip to Israel.  After a meal, one of them apparently said: “It’s time to say the Birkat.”  One of the soldiers guarding them said: “You must not even know what that word means; you can’t say “the Birkat;” it’s not a word you can use by itself.  (The subtext to the remark was, “You think you are superior Jews because you say a prayer in Hebrew, but you don’t even understand what you are saying!”   

The kids responded, “We knew what was meant, the ‘birkat hamazon.’” (Blessing of the food).  “At least we can say prayers in Hebrew, can you?”  The soldiers admitted that they couldn’t.  A lively discussion ensued about who is more authentically Jewish: secular Israelis who live in Israel, speak Hebrew, learn Tanach in public school, and live according to the Jewish calendar [but say no prayers, never go to synagogue, and engage in very little Jewish ritual], or those who live outside of Israel, only read prayerbook Hebrew and speak only very rudimentary Hebrew, but know prayers, more Yiddishkeit than most Israelis, go to religious school and synagogue, and engage in frequent Jewish rituals. 

That’s an issue for another column or columns, but it has stuck with me as a “given” that even secular Jews in Israel live according to the Jewish calendar.  Not just the major holidays and days of the week (in Israel, “Sunday” is “first day,” Monday is “second day,” leading to Saturday – “Shabbat.”) but of course the Hebrew days of the Hebrew months.  I mean, of course they do!

But then, this week, my assumption was dashed.  I read an article in which a secular Israeli woman bitterly complained about religious control in Israel.  She insisted that in a democratic country, there is no place for religious compulsion.  (I also won’t digress right now to agree or disagree on that point).  But in pointing out how unfair, oppressive, and undemocratic religious control in Israel is, she said, in a parenthetical remark, almost as a throw-away line, that the large majority of Israelis do not even know the Hebrew date!  What?  I was very surprised.  Yes, they are secular, but they don’t even know the Hebrew date?  I thought they were living according to the Jewish calendar! 

What’s this have to do with this week’s Parashah, Bo??? 

What was the first thing that G-d said to Moses and Aaron about how the Israelites were to live after liberation from Egypt?   Did G-d say “Mo, You know how you told Pharaoh to let the people go so that you could worship Me?  Well, that’s what you’re going to do as soon as you get out!”  No, G-d didn’t say that.  Did G-d say “As soon as you get out of Egypt, hustle the people back to Mt. Sinai because I have this great book I want them to read.”  No, G-d didn’t say that either.  The very first thing that G-d said about their life as a free people was: “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.  Speak to the whole community of Israel and say that on the tenth of this month each of them shall take a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household.”  [for the pesach sacrifice].  [Ex 12:2-3].

In other words, the very first thing a free Jew needs to be a free Jew is a Jewish calendar!  

If we don’t know the Jewish date, whether we’re in Israel or America, of course we can still know when it’s Shabbat, the Yamim No’arim (Days of Awe), the Shalosh Regalim (pilgrimage festivals: Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot), Hannukah, and Purim because the Jewish world will remind us. 

But in the majority of other ways, we'll be unable to lead an enriched, Jewishly defined daily life.  When is Rosh Chodesh?  We won’t know.  When are our parents’ yahrtzeits so that we can say kaddish for them and light candles at home, not only so that they will be remembered, but that so we'll teach our children to do the same for us?  We won’t know, unless our synagogue sends us an email. 

When, according to our people’s long tradition, shouldn’t we schedule a wedding, a trip, a party, or a haircut?  When are the minor fast days and what events in our history do they recall?  Should prayers be added, deleted, or modified on given days to acknowledge the calendar and/or events?  And so on.  

One could almost say that to not know the Jewish date is to be secular, since it’s impossible to be ritually observant without knowing the date.  Perhaps the test for kosher witnesses at a wedding should not just be whether they are (male and) Shomer Shabbat; that’s too easy!  It should be “are they Shomer Shabbat, and do they know the Hebrew date?”  If they can’t answer, they almost certainly aren’t observant. 

The Etz Hayim (conservative Judaism) Chumash comments as follows:

“One of the first steps in the process of liberation was for the Israelites to have their own calendar, their own way of keeping track of time and recalling the most important days of their people’s history.  A slave does not control his or her own time; it belongs to someone else.  Raphael Samson Hirsch wrote that “the Jewish calendar is the Jewish catechism,” for it is the most concise summary of what we remember and what we stand for.”

It’s not just slaves that don’t control their own time; it’s those who let others control their time.  G-d started the free Jewish nation with a new calendar because each unique cohesive people with its own rituals and memories needs its own calendar.   If we lose this, we lose our unique identity. 

I’m going to start using the Hebrew date as much as possible, such as writing it in emails to Jews, in my postings, and in everything that I consider part of my Jewish life.  I encourage all Jews to do the same. Use the Hebrew date as much as possible, not just for individual practice but as a reminder to others.  Install a Hebrew calendar on computer and mobile devises.  Hang Hebrew calendars above desks and in the kitchen. 

Our Jewish calendar is a critical part of what defines us as Jews.  It’s ours, it’s important, and we don’t want to lose it and all that it signifies.    

Shabbat shalom – the 8th day of She’vat 5773 -- from Jerusalem. 

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3