It is a truth universally acknowledged that there are 613 commandments in the Torah…except that it’s not.

That tradition emerged from the Talmud (Makkot 23b), when Rabbi Simlai taught/more or less made up a claim that, “There were 613 mitzvot stated to Moses in the Torah, consisting of 365 prohibitions corresponding to the number of days in the solar year, and 248 positive mitzvot corresponding to the number of a person’s limbs.” Have some fun and try to make a list of those 613, though; Maimonides came up with one that became generally accepted, but many others have found differing amounts (you can read up on that over here). Full disclosure: I have not tried to compile the list, and I won’t be trying anytime soon.

On the commandments front, though, in the run-up to Passover we recently celebrated Shabbat HaChodesh, on which we read what some people believe is God’s first actual commandment in the Torah, from Exodus 12:1-2.

“God said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.”

The next few verses go on to describe various and sundry details about the Pesach holiday. We’ve got the requirement that each family procure their own Passover lamb, the prohibition on eating leavened bread, and more, but it all starts with God’s instruction to start the Jewish calendar.

It’s worth asking why this particular commandment is the first one given to the Israelites, eight chapters before we get the dramatic presentation of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.

Perhaps it’s not too hard to wrap our heads around. With the Israelites now roaming through Sinai and making preparations to enter the Land of Israel (silly Israelites; very few of them actually made it across the Jordan), what was the most important thing for them to remember? The structure of Judaism, its holidays, and the calendar; with this first commandment, God hands control over that cycle to the Jewish people.

Similarly, immediately after the Ten Commandments are given, God’s next set of instructions are also about the calendar, specifically about the commemoration of the three pilgrimage festivals. So, if we really had to parse out what the majority of the early commandments were, TL;DR: Holidays are everything; better keep track of them. Or, to put it even more pithily: Holidays, or else.

Thus, on the first of Nisan we launched the Jewish calendar, somewhere in Sinai and before Sinai, and have been following that cycle for the better part of 3,500 years…maybe. Shabbat HaChodesh both allows us to celebrate that moment of first counting and also give us yet another heads-up that Passover is coming.

Buckle up and grab that family lamb.

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