If I told you that we will be celebrating the world’s creation this month, you would probably not only react with surprise, but also wonder how someone with the title “rabbi” could make such a foolish mistake, as everyone knows that Rosh Hashanah is the holiday that celebrates the world’s creation.
But this is not a mistake.
The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 10b) brings a debate among the sages as to when the world was created. One view – the view that we are familiar with – states that Gd created the world in Tishri, when we celebrate Rosh Hashanah. Another view, however, maintains that the world was created in the month of Nissan, the month which will soon be upon us, and in which we observe the special holiday of Pesach.
The Tosafot commentary (Rosh Hashanah 27a) posits that in truth, there is no debate about this question. Both views concur that the world was created in Nissan, but Gd conceived the idea of creation already in Tishri.
Needless to say, it is very difficult to understand the meaning of this notion – that Gd conceived the idea to create the world and then later executed the plan. Nevertheless, Tosafot’s comments are significant in that they reflect a reluctance to accept that the sages would disagree about something so basic as to the anniversary of the world’s creation.
Following Tosafot’s lead, let us see if perhaps we can suggest a different approach to reconcile these two opinions, and to understand how the world in one sense was created in Tishri, but in a different sense, in Nissan.
The Creation of Time
Each morning, we introduce the Pesukeh De’zimra section of the prayer service with Baruch She’amar, a brief prayer expressing various forms of praise to Gd. Two phrases in this prayer seem, at first glance, repetitive: “Baruch omer ve’oseh… Baruch oseh beresheet – Blessed is He who proclaims and makes… Blessed is He who makes the first creation.” These two clauses both appear to praise Gd for creating the world.
The Gaon of Vilna (1720-1797) explained the difference between these two phrases. “Baruch omer ve’oseh” speaks of the creation of the world generally, whereas “Baruch oseh beresheet” refers to the creation of beresheet – “the beginning.” The very first thing that Gd created before the world could come into existence was time. “Baruch oseh beresheet” gives praise to Gd for creating “the first,” the idea of time, the first moment which would then be followed by a second, and then a third, and so on. At time of creation, Gd not only produced matter, the physical earth that we see and feel, but also the concept of time. We mortals, in our limited comprehension, cannot understand how time could never have existed, but before the world’s creation, there was no time. And time was the first thing that Gd created when bringing the universe into existence.
With this in mind, we can return to the question of whether creation occurred in Tishri or in Nissan.
On the first of Nissan, two weeks before the Exodus from Egypt, Gd appeared to Moshe and Aharon and presented the first mitzvah given to Am Yisrael, the mitzvah of establishing the Jewish calendar. Gd formulated this command by instructing: “Hahodesh hazeh lachem rosh hodashim – This month is for you the first of the months” (Shemot 12:2).
Rav Ovadia Seforno (Italy, 1475-1550) explains: “From now on, the months will be yours to do with them as you wish, whereas during the period of slavery, your days were not yours, but were rather designated for the service and wishes of others.” The significance of this mitzvah, the mitzvah of the Jewish calendar, is that we are to take advantage of the precious gift of time. Now that Beneh Yisrael were being released from bondage, they were told that the “months,” the time which Gd created, is now in their hands, for them to use productively. This is symbolized by the arrangement of the calendar, demonstrating our mastery over time.
Developing this point further, Beneh Yisrael were now for the first time receiving mitzvot – which is precisely the purpose for which we are to utilize the gift of time. The concept of time was created at the first stage of the world’s creation, but the opportunity to properly use time was given for the first time now, when Gd spoke to Moshe and Aharon on the eve of the Exodus to present to them the first mitzvot. It is thus no exaggeration to say that time was, in a sense, created twice – at the beginning of the world’s creation, and on the first of Nissan, when Gd presented mitzvot to Beneh Yisrael for the first time. Time was created not to be wasted, but to be used productively, in the service of Gd. And thus it was only once the process of transmitting mitzvot began that the creation of time reached its purpose.
On this basis, we can reconcile the different statements among the sages as to when the world was created. The physical world was, of course, brought into existence on the first of Tishri, which we celebrate as Rosh Hashanah. But the purpose of creation became realized on the first Nissan, when Gd began communicating mitzvot to Beneh Yisrael. At this point, the most important aspect of creation – the creation of time – was finally ready to achieve its purpose.
What Was the Haggadah Thinking?
This might explain an otherwise perplexing passage in the Haggadah.
Toward the beginning of the maggid section, the Haggadah poses the unusual question, “Yachol me’Rosh Hodesh” – “Perhaps from Rosh Hodesh?” Meaning, we might have entertained the possibility that the obligation to tell the story of the Exodus may be fulfilled even before Pesach, already on Rosh Hodesh, the first day of Nissan. The Haggadah proceeds to finds an indication in the text (“bayom hahu” – Shemot 13:8) that this mitzvah must be fulfilled specifically on the first night of Pesach, the night of the seder.
Why would we have entertained such a notion? Never do we find the suggestion raised that we can fulfill the obligation of sukkah or the arba minim (four species) two weeks before Sukkot. Why would we have thought that the mitzvah to read the Haggadah can be observed already on Rosh Hodesh Nissan?
In light of what we have seen, the answer is clear. Rosh Hodesh Nissan is an exceedingly significant occasion – a day which may be see as a “Rosh Hashanah” of sorts. This is the day when time, for the first time in world history, became valuable. This was the day when we were first given mitzvot – the purpose for which we are given time in this world. Not surprisingly, then, the possibility was raised that we should begin celebrating our freedom already on this day.
The Tragedy of Lost Time
Benjamin Franklin famously wrote, “Time is money.” The idea he was expressing is that time should be used wisely, because it is as valuable as money, insofar as time can be used to work and earn money.
I strongly disagree with this statement.
Time is worth infinitely more than money. The loss of time in exponentially worse than the loss of money. Any money a person loses could potentially be recovered. But the loss of time is permanent. It can never be returned.
As the Seforno taught, we were freed from Egypt so that our time would again be ours, so that we would not squander the precious opportunity of time doing slave labor. Tragically, so many of us voluntarily subjugate our time, wasting it on vanity, instead of using this precious gift for the lofty purpose for which we received it.
Much has been and still needs to be said about the spiritual challenges posed by the devices that we all carry with us in our pockets, notwithstanding the great blessings and valuable conveniences that they offer us. One of the most significant challenges, which is posed to each and every person with a device, is the potential waste of large amounts of time. The creators of the content accessible on our devices specifically aim at grabbing our attention and keeping our interest, consuming enormous quantities of precious time that could be used so much more meaningfully. I will not disrespect this publication by listing the many different things that people do on their phones that waste time. I trust that every reader will honestly assess his or her consumption of digital media to determine the biggest time wasters. From a Torah perspective, the time we waste on nonsense is nothing less than a spiritual crisis. We voluntarily bring ourselves back into Egyptian bondage, surrendering control over our time to a foreign power – in this instance, not the king of a powerful empire, but an electronic device. We are allowing our phones to enslave us, to steal the most precious asset that we have, the very first and most crucial aspect of creation – our time.
Our sages instituted a special Torah reading on the Shabbat preceding Rosh Hodesh Nissan – the portion of “Hahodesh hazeh lachem rosh hodashim,” the commands given to our ancestors in Egypt on Rosh Hodesh Nissan. We are reminded each year of the special importance of this day, the day when the creation of time realized its purpose. And we are reminded that “this month is yours” – that our time must remain under our control, for us to use in the service of Hashem, rather than be surrendered to anyone or anything else.
As we prepare to celebrate our freedom from Egyptian slavery, let us resolve to once and for all free ourselves from our modern-day slavery to screens. Let us commit to take back control over our time, to use our time productively, to stop wasting precious hours of our day, and to devote the time Hashem gives us for the right purposes.