In the Jewish calendar, the first of the month of Nisan is the
beginning to spring, and falls close to the spring equinox. It
comes halfway between the playful holiday of Purim and the festival
of Passover, when birds are beginning to sing and warmth and growth
are beginning to take hold. The first of Nisan is one of the four
new years of the Jewish calendar1,
marking the “first of the months” (rosh chadashim)2,
or the beginning of time itself. Nisan is also the date when the
Shekhinah first appeared within the mishkan (Divine dwelling-place.
It is the moment of the descent of the Divine into the world—the
budding of divinity within creation. If Tu B’Shevat represents
the Divine sap flowing within the world, the 1st
of Nisan is the moment when that sap bursts forth in new buds.
The new revelation of the Divine is paired with the new life and
beauty that appears in the spring. Within two weeks, the full
moon festival of freedom, Passover, will arrive.
There is a blessing for this newness occurring in the world.
The Talmud speaks of Tekufat Nisan, the spring equinox,
and the sages knew that the spring equinox does not always fall
on the first of Nisan. They established a blessing for the years
when the 1st of Nisan did fall on the spring equinox: Baruch
ata adonai, eloheinu melekh ha’olam, oseh vereishit.
Blessed are You, God, sovereign of the world, who makes creation.3
“The buds appear in the land, the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the dove is heard in our land…” —Song
of Songs 2:12
Sefirah: Tiferet/Binah (Compassion/Understanding)
World: Beriyah (Intellect)
One Talmudic passage claims that the
1st of Nisan might be the anniversary of creation.4
A medieval tradition (see note
2) says that the first of Tishrei, near the fall equinox,
is the “mother of the year,” a new year celebrating
how God gave birth to the world, while the “first of the
moons,” the first of Nisan, is the “father of the
year”’—a celebration of the Holy One’s
joyful “entry” into the universe. In ancient Israel,
the reigns of kings were counted a year longer on the first of
Nisan, not the first of Tishrei. So the first of Nisan is an appropriate
time to celebrate and reaffirm the kingdom/queendom of the Holy
One and the Shekhinah, and the budding of the tree of life. If
Tishrei celebrates the day the world is born, this day celebrates
the courtship between the Holy One and the world.
“On the first month, the Tabernacle was
set up. … When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered
the tent of meeting, and the Divine Presence filled the tabernacle.
Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had
settled upon it and the Divine Presence was filling the Tabernacle.”
—Exodus 40:17, 33-35
“There are those who say that one should draw water at
the end of every Sabbath, because the well of Miriam moves around
at the end of every Sabbath to all the wells, and one who is wounded
may drink from it and be healed from all hurt.” —Joseph
Caro, Shulkhan Arukh (medieval Jewish law code), vol. 3, 299:8.
The Story of the Season
According to the Zohar, the Shekhinah’s descent into the
universe is not easy. Many angels and demons stand in Her way,
wanting to keep her from Her creation. So too, many forces keep
us from claiming our own place, our own truth. The spring season
is a time to gather up our own strength and fully enter into the
world, using our gifts for good, knowing that we can embody the
Shekhinah through our love and our righteous actions. It is a
time when we nourish the buds that will blossom into our best
selves. How do we nourish these buds? With the wind of Miriam’s
drum and the waters of her well.
According to the Torah, the first of Nisan is the death date
of Miriam the prophetess.5
This day is known as Ilui Miriam, the raising up of Miriam.6
Miriam is best known for dancing at the shores of the Sea
of Reeds when the Israelites became free, playing a hand drum.
Later, she led the people through the wilderness along with her
brothers Moses and Aaron, providing healing and wisdom.7
A mysterious well of water followed her, sustaining the people
and quenching their thirst.8
At the moment that Miriam’s breath departed, the mysterious
well of water disappeared. Moses and the people had to search
for the well and discover it in a new place. Miriam’s moving
well represents the ever-flowing, ever-moving, Divine source,
and the first of Nisan celebrates the journey toward freedom and
change. On the first of Nisan, it is Miriam’s drum that
sustains us—the heartbeat-rhythm that we feel only when
we allow ourselves to be as free as the wind.
Miriam, the drumming prophetess who danced at the shore of the
Sea of Reeds, is like other prophetesses in the ancient world
who used the drum to represent the rhythm of time and the heartbeat
of the Divine Mother.9
Miriam combines the air-ripples of the drum with the waters
of birth. According to rabbinic legend, Miriam is a midwife. In
Nisan, she midwives us into the flow of time, and on Passover
she shows to us the Divine face of dancer, drummer, musician,
The 1st of Nisan is also a good time to remember Moses, who first
set up the Tabernacle so that God’s presence could enter.
In a rabbinic legend, the Holy One gives Moses the task of guiding
the slaves to freedom because Moses gives water to a thirsty lamb.
Moses, who parts the sea and who meets his wife-to-be by a well,
also partakes of the water of life.
And, it is water that we use to begin to clean for Passover.
The journey from slavery to freedom, like the journey from winter
to spring, gives a sense of expansiveness and purpose. The intense
cleaning that goes on before Passover, often beginning around
the 1st of Nisan, is a physical reminder of the difficult journey
into a new life. The hard work gives us a bodily action that points
us toward change and growth.
Perhaps the story of the building of the mishkan, in
which all the Israelites generously gave gifts to build a house
for God, is related to the story of Miriam’s well. The mishkan,
completed on the 1st of Nisan, travels with the people, and is
taken apart and put back together over and over again, just as
we take apart our houses every year before Passover and put them
back together. The mishkan gets put together using connecting
sockets called “adanim”— a word that
sounds very much like Adonai, God. The work of the mishkan,
like the water in Miriam’s well and the cleaning for Passover
is a purification rite that readies us for the promise of spring.
This month, as the trees bud, we will read texts that remind us
of the loving connection between the Holy One and human beings,
between the Divine and the earth.
“When the Tabernacle was completed and
the Shekhinah came down to earth, a celestial satan (accuser)
stood at Her side and covered her face with a veil of thick darkness
to prevent her from finding Her way down to earth. And a thousand
five hundred myriads of accusing angels were around her. A multitude
of exalted angels flew up before the throne of the Holy One, and
said: Lord of the world! Our splendor and radiance comes from
the Shekhinah of your Glory, and should she now descend to those
below? But in that hour, the Shekhinah gathered up all her strength
and, breaking through that darkness, like one breaking through
strong barriers, came down to earth. As soon as they saw this
the celestial beings cried mightily together: O God, how powerful
is your name in all the earth!” —Zohar II, 140b
“If you listen to me once, you will have to go on listening.”
—Alicia Ostriker, “The Song of Miriam.”
the shekhinah frees herself
the sea just past the horizon
it comes into her heart
its shifting language
sky falling rain
a taste of water
music that comes from nowhere
Steps of the Season
Passover, the first-mentioned biblical
festival, occurs on the 14th of Nisan, the full moon. Jews remove
all leaven (“puffed-up-ness” or “sourness,”
representing slavery, arrogance and wrongdoing) from the home.
Then we celebrate Passover with a festive ritual meal and songs
of praise. We tell stories and interpretations of the Exodus,
and drink four cups of wine, representing God’s four promises
of liberation. Mystical seder texts tell us that the Passover
seder is the “meal of the Holy One and the Shekhinah”
when masculine and feminine, transcendent and immanent are reconciled.
Passover is a time both to remember what slavery was like in Egypt,
and how God freed the people to follow their own destiny. On Passover
we do our own spiritual work so that we can move into the future.
As it says in the Passover seder, “One must see oneself
as if one personally went out of Egypt.”10
Passover is also a spring harvest festival, when we celebrate
the sprouting of the barley. Though the Jewish calendar is mostly
lunar, it is always calculated so that Passover falls at the right
time of spring. On the Sabbath that falls during the Passover
holiday, we recite the Song of Songs, a biblical love poem, both
as a lovesong between God and God’s people, and as a reminder
of the beauty of the spring. The end of the eight-day festival
of Passover marks the anniversary of the day the Israelites crossed
the sea into freedom and danced to Miriam’s song.
From the second night of Passover through the revelation festival
of Shavuot fifty days later, Jews count the omer. In Temple times,
Jews set aside a bundle of grain for every day that passed—forty-nine
days of the omer in all. In rabbinic, medieval, and modern times,
Jews have counted each day, reciting a blessing over the act of
counting. This time of counting the omer is a “wilderness”
between Passover and Shavuot, a seven-week period of journeying
from freedom to covenant, a “visionquest” for the
Jewish people. In rabbinic times, the omer became a sad period,
recalling plagues upon Torah students that happened then. In modern
times, observances like Holocaust Rememberance Day (Yom haShoah)
and Israeli Independence Day (Yom ha’Atzma’ut)
fall during this time, as well as the festival of Lag B’Omer,
which celebrates mystical nourishment and union. Kabbalists assign
a unique combination of Divine qualities to each day of the omer:
love within strength, compassion within severity, eternity within
foundation, and so forth. The forty-nine days are thus a meditation
on Divine qualities we wish to plant within ourselves.
Perhaps the most radical midrash about the forty-nine days of
the omer is a mystical one: that these seven weeks represents
the menstruation, as it were, of the Shekhinah, a time when She
separates herself before Her wedding with the Holy One at Shavuot,
the holiday of revelation. The Shekhinah has left Egypt with the
Israelites and gone into freedom, but She requires time to prepare
Herself before the great marriage of heaven and earth at Mount
Mount Sinai, the Shekhinah and Her people will come face to face.
Lag B’Omer, the holiday marking the 33rd day of the Omer,
represents a pause on this journey toward revelation, and is the
gateway to the next season: summer.
Spring Equinox Prayer
Place four objects representing earth, water, air, and fire around
you and recite the following verses from Ecclesiastes:
Earth: One generation goes and another comes,
And the earth remains forever.
Fire: The sun rises and the sun sets
and returns to its place and shines there.
Air: Blowing to the south, turning northward,
Ever turning blows the wind.
Water: The rivers run to the sea, but the sea
is never full, To the place from which they flow, the waters flow
Mah ta’iri u’mah t’oreri (see Song
of Songs 8:4)
You have awakened and aroused everything.
Shekhinah whose drum is time,
who moves the heavens
and turns the earth,
who draws worlds together
and breaks moons open,
who is light and darkness,
you have set this world on a tilt
so that we may dance with the sun,
knowing the cold deep thoughts of winter
and the bursting growth of spring,
knowing patience and balance.
May this planting time yield us a good harvest
Of blessing rather than curse
Of abundance rather than scarcity,
Of life rather than death.
May we consider carefully what seeds we plant
And nurture them to a good life in your presence.
May we know how to cleanse ourselves of what has stained us.
May the arks we build find their way to safe harbor.
May we be midwives to new redemption.
O you from whose womb come seeds and seas,
guide us to a new shore of sun-colored sand.
You are the tree of life;
we are your branches and your holy fruit.
Blessed are You, Holy One/Shekhinah, our divinity, Ruler of the
universe, who has kept us in life, sustained, us, and helped us
arrive at this time.
(Dedicate flowers, seeds, and/or cleaning objects for Pesach)
We give you only what is yours,
for we and all we have are yours.
(If it will be Shabbat this evening, light candles and say: Blessed
are You, Holy One/Shekhinah, our divinity, Ruler of the universe,
who has sanctified us with your covenant-wishes, and asked us
to light the Sabbath candles.)
May your light increase in us as it increases in the world.
Kein yehi ratzon.
If you wish, sing a song blessing the four angels/four directions:
Ve’al roshi Shekhinah
On my right is Michael (angel of love, water, the south).
On my left is Gabriel (angel of strength, fire, the north).
Before me is Uriel (angel of balance, air, the east).
Behind me is Raphael (angel of healing, earth, the west).
And above my head is the Shekhinah.
The spring equinox is celebrated by
many cultures as a time of rebirth. In Greek culture, the spring
equinox was the time Persephone arose from the underworld to return
to her mother, Demeter, bringing the spring with her. The Iranian
new year also falls near the spring equinox. Europeans celebrated
March 21 in honor of Eostre or Ostara, the goddess of spring,
often represented by a hare. The Christian holiday of Easter celebrates
the resurrection of Jesus (though the English name for the holiday,
Easter, refers to Eostre). Like Passover, these festivals celebrate
the arising out of darkness toward new life.
Ideas for Celebration
One way to celebrate the first of
Nisan is to make journeys to open fields or mountaintops to prepare
ourselves for the spring festival season. I like to go out to
see the signs of spring and make blessings over the new flowering
trees, a traditional Jewish practice. A drum circle to celebrate
the Israelites’ dancing at the Sea of Reeds is another way
to bring in this joyful time. It is also a good custom from Jewish
feminist practice to fill a Cup of Miriam (ritual object that
represents Miriam’s well) with fresh water, and include
it at the seder. Alternatively, put the cup in a special place
on the first of Nisan, keeping it filled until the 21st of Nisan,
the anniversary of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. I also use
the first of Nisan to begin to clean my house for Passover, sweeping
dirt and debris away, knowing that this cleaning is a spiritual
process of preparing myself as a Tabernacle for the Divine presence.
 Babylonian Talmud, Rosh haShanah 2a. The other four new
years are 1 Tishrei (the date of creation, directly opposite
from 1 Nisan on the calendar), 15 Shevat (the new year for trees)
and the first of Elul (the new year for animals). Back
 According to the commentator Rashi, the commandment “this
month shall be to you the beginning of months” (Exodus
12:1) is the first commandment in the Torah. The baalei
Tosafot (commentators on Rashi), claim that Nisan is associated
with chesed, or abundant love. Later commentators call
Nisan “the father of the year” because chesed
is associated with the image of God as father, creator, and
divine wisdom. Back
 Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 59b. Back
 Babylonian Talmud, Rosh haShanah 11a. Back
 Numbers 20:1. Back
 Adelman, Penina. Miriam’s Well: Rituals for Jewish
Women Around the Year (Biblio Press, 1986). Back
 Exodus 15:20, Micah 6:4. Back
 Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 9a, Bava Metzia 17a, Shabbat
35a; Song of Songs Rabbah 5:2. Back
 Redmond, Layne. When the Drummers Were Women: A Spiritual
History of Rhythm (Three Rivers Press, 1997). Back
 Arthur Waskow, Seasons of Our Joy (Beacon Press, 1991).
Back to 
 Zohar II, 183a. There is no denying that this midrash
represents a negative attitude toward menstruation, associating
it with impurity and with the slavery of Egypt. Yet we can also
read the “menses” of the Shekhinah as the
Divine womb preparing for growth, just as the earth breaks up
and becomes rich at the time of planting. Back
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