Shabbat-Table Talks: Bo

To read last year's Table Talk on Bo click here.

By: Rabbi Ralph Tawil <>


[This week's Table Talks is dedicated in memory of Ezra E. Cattan.]


Value: Mastering Time. One of the seeming “givens” of our life is time. The question of “who sets your agenda” is the main difference from the attitude of the slave and the free man. The slave’s agenda is totally set by his master; the free man’s agenda is (ostensibly) set by himself. Mastering time mean’s controlling one’s life. Setting the time and the calendar means molding our days, weeks, months and years to fit the values that we stand for is essential for living a meaningful life.


Background: Our perasha contains what could be considered the first commandment given to the Children of Israel as a nation. That commandment concerns the mastery of time. Pharaoh and his people have been pummeled by nine plagues; with the promise of the most devastating plague to come. At this moment of the narrative, the Torah shifts the topic of discussion to a discussion about the slaughtering of the lamb that eventually became known as “qorban Pesah,” the Passover offering. Before getting into the details of how to carry out that law, God commands Israel to change the calendar—to “master time.”


Text: Shemot 12:1

Hashem said to Moshe and Aharon 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. 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.


Analysis: This verse is seen as the first commandment given to the children of Israel. According to the Midrash quoted by the first comment of Rashi in Bereshit, the Torah should have begun with this verse. Hashem, the creator of time, set the agenda for Israel by letting them know that this month ushers in for Israel a new era. One in which Israel decides which month is first. This commandment includes sanctifying the new month based on witnesses and adding an extra month every few years in order to ensure that the moon-based calendar would remain in alignment with the seasons, which, of course, are based on the sun.


Discussion: Why do you think that the first commandment that God gives to Bne Yisrael is to change the calendar? (Changing the calendar means that a new stage of existence has begun. The event of the Exodus was formative and meant that we start numbering our days and years from then.)


What do you know about the way time is counted according to the Torah? (Months are based on the moon. When there used to be a full Torah legal system, including its highest court, this high court would decree a new month only after they had heard astronomical testimony about the status of the moon. Every few years the court would decide to add another month to reconcile the 365-day solar year with the 354 days that comprise twelve lunar months. This is done so that Pesah would always be in the spring.)


What year are we in? (5762.) This answer reflects the convention of counting the years from the creation of the world. This convention is not found in Scripture, which generally numbers the years based on the reigns of different kings, or the years since the Exodus or the exile. In the Talmudic and Gaonic periods, the years were numbered based on the generally accepted convention in the Hellenistic world; they counted from the year 311 b.c.e.. Today, Western and Christian countries number their years from Jesus death. Generally, when we cite a year according to the Christian calendar we use the letters “c.e.” (“common era”), or b.c.e. (“before the common era”); this reflects our recognition that it is not our calendar, but the one that is commonly used. Muslims number their years from the year 621 c.e., the year of the “hegira,” Mohhammad’s trek to Mecca. The Shomroni community (the Samaritan community in Israel) to this day numbers its years from the Exodus from Egypt.


Who sets a slave’s schedule? Who controls his time? (His master controls his time. He does not have a choice of what to do.)


In Judaism, even the calendar is not set by external events. Rather, the spiritual leaders of Israel set it, when they would decide to sanctify a month, or add an extra month. The blessing that we say on the various festival days is “Blessed are you, Hashem, our God, who sanctifies Israel and the times.” This is explained, that Hashem sanctifies Israel who sanctifies the times. Read the next section and see the powerful (and daring) way in which the rabbis spoke about this point.


R. Hosh’aya learned: If the court below decreed that today is Rosh Hashanah, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to the ministering angels, set up the court, and let the advocates for the defense and scribes stand, because the court below has decreed and said that today is Rosh Hashanah. If the witnesses delayed in coming or the court decided to add an extra day to the year, the Holy One, blessed be He, tells his ministering angels, take away the court and the advocates for the defense and the scribes since the court below has decreed and said that tomorrow is Rosh Hashanah. What is the reason? “It is a law in Israel, a judgment for the God of Jacob,”—if it is not the law of Israel, then, as it were, it is not the judgment of the God of Jacob. R. Pinehas and R. Hizqiyah said in the name of R. Simon: all the ministering angels gather near the Holy One, blessed be He, and say, “Master of the universe, when is Rosh Hashannah?” He says: You are asking Me?! Let you and I ask the court below… (Pesikta Derab Kahana pp. 102-103; Hahhodesh 13).


Slaves of Time (by Yehuda Halevi, Spain, 11-12 century)

The slaves of Time are the slaves of a slave;

          Only the slave of the Lord is free.

Therefore, while other men seek their portion,

          “The Lord is my portion” says my soul.


What does Halevi mean by “the slaves of time”? (People whose agenda is to increase the ephemeral benefits of this world. This line is parallel to the line of “other men seek their portion” which means to increase their wealth. Time was meant to be our slave, but it could become our master, that is why those who serve time are slaves of a slave.)


Why is the “slave of the Lord” really free? He alone masters the drives to increase one’s portion in this world. He frees himself from the shackles of the fleeting pleasures and lives towards a higher ideal.


To read last year's Table Talk on Bo click here.


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