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The reading for Parashat Hachodesh consists of a single paragraph in the Torah, Exodus 12:1-20, whose main topic is God's commandments related to the Passover offering and holiday observance that would be coming two weeks later, when He would take the Jews out of Egypt. First, however, there is one verse (12:2) that give the commandments to observe Rosh Chodesh upon observing the new moon and to count Nisan as the first Jewish month. These two topics are part of the same speech from God to Moshe and Aharon, without any strong indication, such as a new "And God said," that there's a change of topic.

Why are these commandments mixed together in the same stream of prophecy and in the same paragraph in the Torah?

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When would celebrate Pesach if we didn't declare Rosh Chodesh? –  Double AA Mar 10 '13 at 3:54
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@DoubleAA, You can certainly post a dry logistical answer if you want. Anyway, the commands didn't have to come in the same burst of prophecy, without even another "Vayomer H'" or something to indicate a new topic. –  Isaac Moses Mar 10 '13 at 3:54
    
It's not dry. We invest holidays with kedusah by arranging the calendar. מקדש ישראל והזמנים –  Double AA Mar 10 '13 at 3:55
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@DoubleAA, you can post a lyrical logistical answer if you want, too. –  Isaac Moses Mar 10 '13 at 3:57
    
Allow me to add to my [adjective] logistical answer that Pesach is the anchor of the calendar both as the first month, and the indicator for leap years. –  Double AA Mar 10 '13 at 4:28

4 Answers 4

As others have answered, technically the establishment of the calendar is a prerequisite for observing the Jewish holidays. This commandment is in fact the first mitzva given to the Jewish people as a nation. (The few mitzvot recorded in Bereishit were given to individuals before we became a nation.)

The Seforno explains that setting the Jewish calendar represents taking control of our own time. Now that we are about to become free from Egyptian slavery, we are masters of our own time, rather than having our time controlled by the Egyptian taskmasters:

"החודש הזה לכם ראש חדשים":

מכאן ואילך יהיו חדשים שלכם לעשות בהם כרצונכם.

"ראשון הוא לכם לחדשי השנה":

כי בו התחיל מציאותכם הבחיריי.

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Ari Brodsky, welcome to Mi Yodeya, and thanks very much for this answer! I hope you'll look around and find other material here that interests you, including, for example, our 31 other questions on the topic of rosh-chodesh-new-month. –  Isaac Moses Mar 10 '13 at 15:46

The Kli Yekar explains that Nissan is the month when the sun is in the constellation Aries, a sheep. We know the Egyptians worshiped sheep (Genesis 46:34 and Exodus 8:22). By slaughtering a sheep in the month of the sheep, God was showing the Egyptians his power over their gods. This connection also helps us understand how counting Nissan (the month of the sheep) as the first month helps us remember the Exodus.

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The Ibn Ezra (ad loc.) writes that without the commandment to set the months, we would observe the holidays by season (e.g. shamor es chodesh ha'aviv, v'chag hakatzir bikkurei ma'asecha, etc.). However, setting the halachic calendar is an intrinsic part of the holidays, as mentioned by DoubleAA, so the commandment of "hachodesh hazeh" is appropriately placed with the first instance of holiday related commands.

Additionally, the Ibn Ezra writes that the centrality of y'tzias mitzrayim in terms of the many mitzvos dependent upon it makes it appropriate for Nisan to be the head of the months. This connection makes the placement of "hachodesh hazeh" contextually appropriate.

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R' Samson Raphael Hirsch construes the commandments of both Rosh Chodesh and the Passover offering as means toward fulfilling God's promise/commandment in Exodus 6:7:

... וְלָקַחְתִּי אֶתְכֶם לִי לְעָם, וְהָיִיתִי לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים
and I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God ...

According to R' Hirsch (in his commentary on 6:7 and then on 12:3-13), God designed the Passover offering experience as the process that would transform the crowd of dehumanized, dispossessed slaves that was the Israelites into a nation - His nation. I'll summarize some of the relevant points here, but as usual, I recommend reading through his entire magnificent treatment of this portion yourself.

  • ... וְיִקְחוּ לָהֶם, אִישׁ שֶׂה ...
    ... they shall take to them every man a lamb ...

    Each individual gained personhood by acquiring personal property and by becoming eligible to be an agent for others.

  • שֶׂה לְבֵית-אָבֹת--שֶׂה לַבָּיִת ...
    ... a lamb, according to their fathers' houses, a lamb for a household;

    God gathers the individuals first into families and extended families.

  • וְאִם-יִמְעַט הַבַּיִת, מִהְיוֹת מִשֶּׂה--וְלָקַח הוּא וּשְׁכֵנוֹ הַקָּרֹב אֶל-בֵּיתוֹ, בְּמִכְסַת נְפָשֹׁת: אִישׁ לְפִי אָכְלוֹ, תָּכֹסּוּ עַל-הַשֶּׂה.‏
    and if the household be too little for a lamb, then shall he and his neighbour next unto his house take one according to the number of the souls; according to every man's eating ye shall make your count for the lamb.

    What cements a bunch of agency-endowed individuals into a Jewish nation is mutual aid. If one person has more than he needs, he contributes the extra to help someone else who doesn't have what he needs.

  • The lamb is always associated with the shepherd leading it around. When the Israelites offer one, representing themselves, they're submitting to God's guidance and leadership. A whole nation doing this becomes God's nation.

God took the Israelites to be His nation via this initial Passover offering. He will be to us a God throughout the generations through regular relationship-renewing meetings between God and nation. This section of the Torah describes both monthly and annual meetings.

First, in 12:2:

הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם, רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים: רִאשׁוֹן הוּא לָכֶם, לְחָדְשֵׁי הַשָּׁנָה.‏
This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you.

R' Hirsch notes the significance of the word "לָכֶם" - "unto you (pl.)" here, in light of the rules we have for inaugurating a Rosh Chodesh. Each monthly meeting with God is established not by God, not by astronomical phenomena, not by individual Jews, but by the Jewish nation as a whole, through its leadership - the Beit Din.

R' Hirsch translates "חֹדֶשׁ" not as "month" but as "renewal of the moon," which serves as a reminder for us to renew our relationship with God. As a result of these periodic rejuvenations, we won't slide into the sort of absolutely obstinate God-ignorance that was cultivated in the stagnant culture of Pharaoh's Egypt.

Similarly, the annual holiday of Passover (commanded in 12:14-20) brings us back each year to the original moment of God's taking us to be His nation and invites us to re-commit ourselves to His shepherding. Like the command for Rosh Chodesh, this command (in 12:16) uses the word "לָכֶם" - "unto you (pl.)" to put the responsibility for this annual re-connection on the nation as a whole. Now that God has taken us to be his nation, we and He can work together, month by month, year by year, to forever ensure that He is our God.

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