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Our Other Head

Our Other Head


G‑d spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying: This month shall be to you the head of months—the first of the months of your year.

Exodus 12:1–2

Rabbi Eliezer says: The world was created in Tishrei. . . . Rabbi Joshua says: The world was created in Nissan.

Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 10b–11a

The Talmud tells of an exchange between the wise men of Athens and Rabbi Joshua, in which the Greek philosophers challenged the Talmudic sage to identify the exact center of the world. Rabbi Joshua held up his finger and said, “It is right here. You can take ropes and measure it, if you wish.”

As every schoolchild knows today, the earth is a sphere, meaning that its every point can be considered its center. If a certain point is regarded as the top or bottom of the globe, or a certain half is designated as its eastern or western hemisphere, these are expressions of a particular historical or conceptual view of our world. In purely geometrical terms, the surface of a sphere has no definitive top, bottom or center, just as a circle is a line with no definitive beginning or end.

The time we inhabit is also circular in form. As we travel through time, we come in contact with the various qualities imbued in it by its Creator: freedom on Passover, awe on Rosh Hashanah, joy on Sukkot, and so on. But each year we return, like a traveler circling the globe, to the same point in the annual cycle at which we stood a year earlier. Theoretically, any point in this cycle can be regarded as its beginning.

This explains a curiosity of the Jewish calendar. We know that the Jewish year begins on the first of Tishrei—a day we observe as Rosh Hashanah, “the Head of the Year”—and ends twelve (or thirteen) months later, on the 29th of Elul. But if the head of the year is on the first of Tishrei, why does the Torah (in Leviticus 23:24) refer to Tishrei as the seventh month of the year? And why is the month of Nissan, occurring midway through the Tishrei-headed year, designated—in the very first mitzvah commanded to the Jewish people—as “the head of months, the first of the months of your year”?

But like a sphere with two poles, the Jewish year has two “heads” or primary points of reference, each of which is equally its beginning. Our annual journey through time is actually two journeys—a Tishrei-to-Elul journey, and a Nissan-to-Adar journey. Every day on the Jewish calendar can be experienced on two different levels, for it simultaneously exists within these two contexts.

(For example: in the Tishrei-to-Elul year, Yom Kippur is the climax of the Ten Days of Repentance that begin on Rosh HaShanah; on the Nissan-to-Adar calendar, Yom Kippur is the second “giving of the Torah,” culminating a 120-day process that begins on Shavuot. In the Tishrei-to-Elul year, the seventh day of Passover is the cosmic “birth of the souls,” following their “conception” on Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of Sukkot; in the Nissan-to-Adar year, Passover is the first festival, commencing a cycle that culminates in Purim, “the last miracle” and the final frontier in our quest for connection with G‑d.)

A Miraculous People

As already noted, both these beginnings for the Jewish year are referred to in the Torah as “heads.” The first of Tishrei is Rosh Hashanah, “the Head of the Year,” while the month of Nissan is designated as “the head of months.”

The head is the highest part of the body, in both the literal and spatial sense, as well as in that it is the seat of its loftiest and most sophisticated faculties. More significantly, it serves as the body’s nerve and command center, providing the consciousness and direction that guide the body’s diverse components toward a unified goal.

And the Jewish year has not one but two heads. For Jewish life embraces two different—indeed, contrasting—modes of existence, each with its own nerve center and headquarters.

The “Head of the Year” that we’re all familiar with—the one on which we sound the shofar and pray for a healthy and prosperous year—occurs on the first of Tishrei. The first of Tishrei is the anniversary of G‑d’s creation of the universe, particularly His creation of man. On this day we reaffirm our commitment to G‑d as our Creator and King, and ask that He inscribe us in the book of life.

But if the first of Tishrei is the first day of human history, the month of Nissan marks the birth of Jewish time. On the first of Nissan, 2448 years after the creation of Adam, G‑d commanded His first mitzvah to the fledgling nation of Israel—to establish a calendar based on the monthly lunar cycle. On the fifteenth of that month, the Jewish people exited the land of Egypt and embarked on the their seven-week journey to Mount Sinai.

The Jew is a citizen of G‑d’s world—a status he shares with all other peoples and all other creations. As such, his head of the year is the first of Tishrei, the birthday of man and the Rosh Hashanah of the natural world. But the Jew also inhabits another reality—a reality born of the supra-natural events of the Exodus, the splitting of the Red Sea and the divine revelation at Sinai. This dimension of his life has its own “head”—the miraculous month of Nissan.

For the first twenty-five centuries of human history, the basic, natural relationship between Creator and creation held sway. The Torah records miracles and supernatural events prior to the Exodus, but these are exceptions, temporary departures on the part of G‑d from His normal manner of running the world in accordance with the predefined formula we call “the laws of nature.” The Exodus, on the other hand, produced the Jew, a being whose very existence is a perpetual miracle. The Jew makes redemption a constant, living a life in which the miraculous is the norm.

G‑d of the Exodus

This is why, when G‑d revealed Himself to us at Sinai, He proclaimed: “I am the L‑rd your G‑d, who has taken you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.” Would it not have been more appropriate, ask the commentaries, for G‑d to introduce Himself as the creator of the heavens and the earth? Is not the fact that we owe our very existence to G‑d more significant than the fact that He took us out of Egypt?

But G‑d as the creator of the heavens and the earth, G‑d as the author of nature, is the G‑d that Israel shares with the rest of creation. At Sinai, however, G‑d did not speak to us as the G‑d of creation, but as the G‑d of the Exodus. At Sinai, a new chapter was opened in divine-human relations, as G‑d and the people of Israel committed themselves to a miraculous relationship—a relationship that does not recognize the dictates of convention and normalcy.

It is for this reason that our sages question the very inclusion of the first 2448 years of history in the Torah. In his commentary on the very first verse of the Torah, Rashi cites the question posed by Rabbi Yitzchak:

Why does the Torah begin, “In the beginning [G‑d created the heavens and the earth]”? It should have begun, “This month shall be to you [the head of months],” which is the first mitzvah commanded to Israel.

If the Torah is the document that outlines our mandate as a people unconstricted by the laws of nature and history, of what relevance are the events of the pre-Exodus era? And even if they are of historical and educational value, should the Torah begin with these stories?


And yet the Torah does not begin with that first mitzvah, commanded on the first of Nissan, but with the creation of the world on the first of Tishrei. Our covenant with G‑d, though a product of the Exodus and of a Nissan/miraculous character, has its roots in the natural soil of Tishrei.

Indeed, the Exodus itself also has its beginnings in the month of Tishrei: the Talmud notes that the process of our liberation from Egypt began on the first of Tishrei, when the hard labor imposed upon our forefathers by the Egyptians ceased six months before they actually left Egypt.

The reverse is also true: the creation of the natural world on Tishrei has its origins in the month of Nissan. Our sages tell us that while the physical world was created in the six days that culminate in the first of Tishrei, the “thought” or idea of creation was created six months earlier (conceptual months, that is, since physical time is itself part of the physical creation), on the first of Nissan.1

In other words, the natural and the miraculous time-systems are mutually interconnected, each serving as the basis for the other.

As Jews, we follow both cycles, straddling both worlds. On the one hand, even the most natural aspects of our lives are predicated upon the miraculous, and are permeated with a norm-transcending vision. On the other hand, our most miraculous achievements are grounded in the natural reality.

For our mission in life can be achieved only by inhabiting both worlds—only by being a part of the natural world and, at the same time, rising above it to transcend its strictures and limitations.

The Paradox

Our mission in life is to transform the very nature of reality; in the words of the Midrash, to build “a dwelling for G‑d in the lower realms.” “This,” writes Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in his Tanya, “is what man is all about; this is the purpose of his creation and the creation of all the worlds”—that we transform the lower realms (i.e., the natural, material world, which by its nature conceals the face of its Creator) into an environment receptive to the divine truth, into a place in which the goodness and perfection of G‑d is at home and is the dominant reality.

But here comes the paradox, a seemingly closed logical circle: are we ourselves part of this “lower realm” we are to transform, or are we a step above it? If we are part and parcel of the material world, how can we truly change it and uplift it? As the Talmudic axiom goes, “A prisoner cannot release himself from prison”—if he himself is bound by its parameters, from where might derive his ability to supersede them? On the other hand, if we are, in essence, transcendent beings, existing beyond the confines of the natural reality, then whatever effect we have upon the world cannot truly be considered “a dwelling for G‑d in the lower realms.” For the world per se has not been transformed—it has only been overwhelmed by a superior force. The true meaning of “a dwelling in the lower realms” is that the lowly realms themselves change, from within.

So to achieve His aim in creation for a dwelling in the lower realms, G‑d created the Jew, a hybrid of the Tishrei and Nissan realities. For only in incorporating both these time-cycles in our lives, combining a norm-defying approach with a natural-pragmatic modus operandi, can we achieve the redemption of ourselves and our world. Only by drawing from above to change from within can we make our world a home for G‑d.

The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 10b–11a) cites a debate between two sages: “Rabbi Eliezer says: The world was created in Tishrei. . . . Rabbi Joshua says: The world was created in Nissan.” The Kabbalists explain that Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua are not debating the date of G‑d’s actual creation of the universe, which after all is a matter of historical fact. Rather, both sages agree that the physical world was created in Tishrei, and that the idea of creation was created in the month of Nissan. Where they differ is on the question of priority and emphasis: is the day that the physical universe was completed to be regarded as the primary anniversary of creation, or is the world’s true date of birth the day that it was conceived in the divine mind?
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; adapted by Yanki Tauber.
Originally published in Week in Review.
Republished with the permission of If you wish to republish this article in a periodical, book, or website, please email
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Anonymous toronto February 18, 2016

head What is the role of Jewish head of the nation. Directing and guiding the family being responsible for the smooth functioning of the family. Forced retirement of men also takes place if there is corruption by a person or where health is affected. Those who devote themselves to Torah study are exempt from work.I don't gamble so my guess is good as anyone if there will be a redemption. Making half the population to not work is bad for the state. If i was head of the state I would make work compulsory for men. Reply

Melvin S Marsh Augusta January 13, 2016

Actually aren't there four Jewish new years, not two: Tishrei 1, Tu b'Shevat, Nissan 1, Elul 1. We learned that in conversion class and that bit of trivia came in useful when I was being interrogated in Israel because I didn't bring my conversion certificate with me and they thought I was a terrorist because I didn't speak Hebrew so had to go through a Jewish trivia test. Reply

Dan Bruce Atlanta January 13, 2016

It began in ancient Israel In my harmonization of the chronology of the kings of Israel and Judah as found in the Tanakh, I found that the southern kingdom of Judah accounted the years in the reigns of its kings from the first of Tishri, whereas the northern kingdom of Israel accounted the years in the reigns of its kings from the first of Nisan. It can be speculated that, after the demise of the northern kingdom in 721 BCE, the customs of the kingdom of Judah prevailed in Jewish life, meaning that the New Year began in Tishri. While the Temple of Solomon stood, the priests probably observed the sacred New Year in Nisan, but after the Exile, the New Year was probably celebrated in Tishri by the remnant of Judah that returned to the Promised Land, retaining the custom that had prevailed for Judah before the Exile. Reply

Anonymous April 1, 2014

Thank you for the teaching. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma May 3, 2011

How we "SAVE" the world Some years ago I attended a beautiful Sukkot retreat led by Marcia Prager, at Eilat Chayyim.
In the Sukka we raised our lulav, and Reb Marcia said, imagine you are drawing down the light from on high, and bringing this light down to earth. It was a beautiful ceremony, and I felt we ARE, we surely ARE!

Holly's statement/question directly above reminded me of this. my answer is that we are all receiving the light, and the awareness of this, is the dawning new consciousness for us all. In essence, All is coming from the Divine Source.

A Messianic era will entail total consciousness of the Divine spirit pervading all Creation. I believe, since we are all aspects of the Divine, that we will do this together. The Messiah is another name for Messenger. The work is for us all. Reply

holly holmstrom poplar bluff, mo usa April 30, 2011

Can we achieve the redemption of ourselves? Can we acheive the redemption of our world? Only by drawing from above? Is this not the work of the Messiah? Reply

Alexandra New York, NY April 22, 2011

Ruth, your poetry is beautiful!

What is this “conception” of the souls on Shemini Atzeret, followed by the “birth of the souls” on the seventh day of Passover? Is this from Kabbalah? I have never heard of this, but it sounds beautiful.

I am trying to reconstruct the story. The time and space were conceived a year earlier, i.e. were created by Divine thought, as well as the idea of the souls. Half a year later, the world of souls emanated, and so the souls gained their existence. And then, time and space were populated with material things by Divine utterances, each thing mirrored by its soul. Thus, the year of thought was completed and the year of material world began., please correct me where I am wrong!

Thanks Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma April 18, 2011

It's only words There is a song by the Rolling Stones that goes, it's only words, and words are all I have, to take your heart away.

The Hebrew letter RESH stands for, HEAD. Look to meaning. Look up the symbolic meanings of the Hebrew letters. Meditate on the letters. Why? The creation of the world began with the letters (Jewish mysticism). There is a deep spiritual truth to be accessed here.

Now to go aHEAD of people is to perhaps see, that there is a story, that involves heart and mind, that is deeply about love, and that is deeply contained within the Hebrew letters and across all languages. A Master Key that does open all doors.

We are now celebrating another PASSOVER and we do say, Next Year in Jerusalem! Make this prayer, this YEAR for RESH, think ahead. A fRESH view of the world, a letter that is deeply about a Story that will wind its way back to Jerusalem.

This symphony HAS a conductor. G_d does not renege on a Promise. The resolution of this promise might surprise everyone. About LOVE. Reply

Sandy ST PETERSBURG, Florida via April 10, 2011

"Shiksa" in St Pete This speaks of true spirituality, it truly transcends all the stuff of today. It speaks to my heart. Reply

Ruth Housman Marshfield , Ma April 9, 2011

Temples in the Wilderness This is so Be You T full! Sheer poetry as beauty is truth! Reply

Sandra L. Johnson highland, indiana April 7, 2011

Two Jewish heads Are we not all temples in the wilderness? Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, MA April 6, 2011

to thirst for knowledge, as People of, The BOOK This is a beautiful explication of the truth of All is ONE and all in ONE. IN fact every day could be: the First and we can also split this into elements of our lives, in terms of what happened here and what ensued. As world is whirled so are we whirled without end. Stop. Listen to the sound of words. They are like birds, like wings, whirring in your ears, and telling stories, about our world. One might expect this, since all being ONE, that words themselves would carry the story of ONE.

There is a deep significance to fire and the Bush that was not consumed. Why? Because fire itself, in its vast metaphoric connect with our language, our existential lives, is about THIS.

I am a poet and I perceive as a poet does, that life, that metaphor itself, deeply informs our lives, at every possible level, and surely, like Adobe Photo Shop, we pull away at layers, in doing Midrash, and in fact, live in many perhaps hidden layers, all the days of our lives. In this is ONE, ONE DER

FIrst/Thirst Reply

tzip April 5, 2011

I thought the Exodus created the Israelites ... the term "Jews" doesn't appear until Book of Esther" I thought ... and this because ten of the tribes were already dispersed and what was left was primarily the tribe of Judah? Just wonnerin .... Reply

Sandy St Pete, FL via April 3, 2011

This is beautiful, the "Jew" described here is not only a birthright but a choice we each make.I was born of gentile parentage, it has never felt right. This article describes the Truth and beauty I seek to live. Thank you. Reply

George Miller Orl., , Fla. March 21, 2009

Anonymous, S.F. California Your recap of the article was eloquently accurate, in my opinion. Reply

Anonymous San Francisco, California January 30, 2006

Your article is so interesting! Sounds like two births of man: the first: physical birth with a natural head directed by animal inclination; the second: spiritual birth with a spiritual head directed by Shchinah. Everyone is born (Tishrei), but not everyone leaves Egypt (Nissan)...

Conclusion: The second birth is the primary birth: Teshuvah (leaving Egypt), Mikvah (through the sea), and Torah (Sinai), grows into tabernacles in the wilderness, displaying a "dwelling for G-d in the lower realms" and igniting transformation of this world. Reply