Nisan Reintroduces the World to Spring
Closing ThoughtsOpinion

Nisan Reintroduces the World to Spring

Rabbi Baroff recounts the historical relevance of the month of Nisan, known in Biblical times as Aviv.

Rabbi Richard Baroff
Rabbi Richard Baroff

April 9, 2024, marks the beginning of the Hebrew month of Nisan. Nisan corresponds to the more ancient month of Aviv — the month of Spring. The Torah speaks of this month as the first of the months, which would make Rosh Hashanah the seventh month a sort of Sabbatical month, more holy than the others as it is set apart for spiritual matters just as the seventh day is set aside from the other six days of the week.

The biblical month of Aviv, and the later Spring month of Nisan, is considered the new year for the counting of the festivals, and for the historical record keeping for the kings of Israel and Judah. Aviv/Nisan also was the time in the land of Israel for the beginning of the harvesting of barley because this vital grain would ripen at this time.

The months mentioned in the Torah were, for the most part, numbered simply second month, third month … seventh month and so on, with the exception of the first month — Aviv. All 12 months were given new names in Babylonia during the sixth century BCE exile. Nisan is a loan word from Akkadian, the main Mesopotamian language for millennia. In Hebrew, based on Akkadian, Nisan refers to the blossoming of a flower — a powerful reference to new life and hope, themes of the springtime.

Passover (Pesach) is of course the major holiday of this month, when the Hebrews were forged into a nation as they escaped slavery and death, passing through the split waters of the Red Sea into freedom. This seminal festival is a weeklong (or eight days), characterized by the seder ritual, the pascal lamb, and the unleavened bread (matzah). Pesach is known as the “Festival of our Freedom” (Chag zman cheruteinu). Beginning at the end of the 14th, and the beginning of the 15th of Nisan, Passover continues until Nisan 21 (or 22 for traditional Diaspora communities).

During the second day of Pesach begins the counting of the barley harvest (Sephirat haOmer). This counting which commences on Nisan 16, will continue for 49 days (or seven weeks), concluding only the day before Shavuoth — the Feast of Weeks — also the beginning of the wheat harvest in ancient Israel. On Shavuoth, the Ten Commandments, and the entire Torah, were given by G-d to Moses at Mt. Sinai. So it is that Passover and Shavuoth are linked together historically, theologically, and agriculturally.

The Great Sabbath — Shabbat haGadol — takes place on the Sabbath right before the week of Passover. Therefore, it is natural to think about the great themes of Pesach. The exact day of the Great Sabbath varies from year to year. Originally, it traditionally occurred on the 10th of Nisan, the same date for Yom Aliya (day of “ascending” into the land of Israel), a relatively new Israeli holiday. Biblical tradition holds that the Israelites, under Joshua’s leadership, first crossed into Eretz Yisrael on 10 Nisan, and so the State of Israel established Yom Aliya in the last decade. As for Shabbat Hagadol, the Haftarah on that day from the prophet Malachi proclaims that Elijah will return on the great (gadol) day of the Lord — and so, perhaps, the special name for this Sabbath.

Nisan, and Aviv before it, contemplate the revivifying powers of Spring renewal. Certainly, in this year of great darkness brought about by the Oct. 7 pogrom, the spirits of all of us are in need of revitalization. During this month of liberation, when we were saved from destruction during Passover, spared from the Moloch haMavis/Angel of Death some 33 centuries ago, we call upon the Holy One to help us persevere yet one more time as a people.

May this Passover season — framed by the month of Nisan — fill us with hope, courage, and special purpose.

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