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|Rambam - Sefer HaMitzvos
As Divided for The Daily Learning Schedule
Positive Mitzvot 171, 153
Positive Mitzvah 171: Yearly Giving of the Half Shekel
Exodus 30:12 "Then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul to the L-rd"
The fourth grade class of Yeshiva Academy was studying about the Mishkan - the Tabernacle in the desert - during their Chumash class.
They found out about a magnificent model for sale equipped with all the vessels and movable parts. It even had dolls dressed up as priests in their special and beautiful clothes.
They wanted to purchase this model to help them learn more about the Mishkan. However, when the class priced the model, they were very disappointed. The model was unique and, therefore, quite expensive.
As they were debating how to raise the money, Benny came up with a suggestion.
"I have an idea," he said.
"This model will remain in the school for many years. Every class in the school will also be able to use this model and benefit from it. Why don't we make it a school project? If all the students chip in, we'll have enough money to cover the cost!"
Everybody thought that this was a great plan. They spoke to their teacher and principal who readily agreed. The principal informed the fourth grade that the company who made the model would give the school hundreds of cardboard kits enabling every student to build their own mini-Mishkan!
Since everybody was going to enjoy the grand model and also receive a kit, it seemed fair that each student should pitch in and contribute towards the purchase.
At the time of the Beit HaMikdash, sacrifices were brought to atone for the entire nation.
These sacrifices were considered "general," and the animals used were purchased from a specific account funded by the people.
These funds were collected in the form of a half-Shekel per-person each year.
HaShem commanded every Jew to make this yearly payment.
By contributing to this fund, every Jew benefits from the sacrifice presented as a "general" atonement.
Positive Mitzvah 153: The New Moon - Calculating the Months and Years
Exodus 12:2 "This month shall be to you the beginning of months"
Have you noticed how the moon changes its shape throughout the month?
At times, it shines brightly like a cream-colored ball.
Other times, we can compare it to a slice of honeydew. On some nights, it looks like a split banana! Sometimes, you can't see it at all!
While in bed watching the moon, take a peek through your window, shut your eyes for a moment and imagine a scene taking place many years ago in Eretz Yisrael.
In the Great Beit-Din, the chief Rabbi sits in his honored place, greeting the Jew who just arrived in the court.
"I saw the moon last night, Rabbi, and I believe it is the beginning of a new month," reports the Jew.
The Rabbi motions to a chart with many different moon shapes hanging on the wall. "Is this the shape you saw?" asks the Rabbi, pointing to a particular shape.
The man who witnessed the moon would be questioned until the judges were satisfied. When the judges heard proper testimony from at least two witnesses, they would declare that a new month had arrived.
Determining the new month is very important to the Jewish calendar.
HaShem commands us to celebrate specific holidays in their set seasons and on particular dates. In order to fulfill these commandments, we must know when a new month begins and count the days accordingly.
This way, we will be assured of celebrating the holiday on the correct date.
The Great Beit-Din (Sanhedrin) in Eretz Yisrael is commanded to determine and calculate the counting of the months.
The Rabbis knew when the moon would first begin to shine again. They informed the people to be alert and immediately report their findings.
Proper eye-witness testimony would serve as proof of the new month's arrival. Afterwards, news of the new moon would be spread promptly enabling all Jews to count the days of the month in a unified manner.
In this way, the Jewish calendar was set and followed.
In addition, HaShem commanded that the holidays of Pesach and Sukkot be celebrated in the spring and fall.
The Jewish calendar is a "Lunar Calendar" which means that it follows the phases of the moon. However, the seasons change according to the sun's yearly cycle.
There is an eleven and a quarter day difference between the cycle of the sun and the twelve lunar months.
Because of this, we might reach the proper Hebrew date for Passover, but the spring season will not yet have arrived!
There is a way to overcome this problem.
If such a situation arises, the Rabbis would foresee it and the Beit- Din would declare a leap-year.
The last month of the Hebrew calendar - Adar, would be doubled, (First-Adar and Second-Adar) and Pesach would then arrive in the spring time!
The Torah commands the Beit-Din to calculate the months and declare the necessary leap years. The manner in which it was done, as described above, applies only to the time of the Great Beit-Din in Eretz Yisrael.
Today, we follow the Jewish calendar which was established by Rabbi Hillel HaNasi, a descendant of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi.
He calculated the precise arrivals of the new moon and the years which would be considered leap years.
We rely on this calendar until the arrival of Mashiach, when we will return to the original method of the eye-witness report.
Why do you celebrate your birthday?
In your mother's womb, you were comfortable, warm and cared for. According to our sages, you learned there the entire Torah from an angel. Then, you left. It was an ordeal, a trauma. The world you entered was cold and harsh. The mere act of living became a struggle. You cried. Yet, every year you celebrate that day. Because the day you were born was the day you became your own entity. No longer an extension of someone else. A proactive force in the world. So celebrate your birthday. And take time to think: What have I given the world that was not given to me? Was I really born?
From: Bringing Heaven Down to Earth by Tzvi Freeman - firstname.lastname@example.org