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.