Hizkiyahu’s Leap Year – A Bold Move by a Courageous Spiritual Leader

Adar I has begun; the extra month of the Jewish leap year.

How does the nation of Israel “commemorate” its leap year?

There is an addition of 2 words in the extra (mussaf) prayer of the Rosh Hodesh prayers: “וּלְכַפָּרַת פָּשַׁע” (for atoning iniquity), and that’s more or less it.

חַדֵּשׁ עָלֵינוּ אֶת הַחדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לְטובָה וְלִבְרָכָה. לְששון וּלְשמְחָה. לִישׁוּעָה וּלְנֶחָמָה. לְפֶרְנָסָה וּלְכַלְכָּלָה. לְחַיִּים וּלְשָׁלום. לִמְחִילַת חֵטְא וְלִסְלִיחַת עָון. בשנת העיבור עד חודש ניסן: וּלְכַפָּרַת פָּשַׁע
“Renew this month for us for good and for blessing, for joy and for happiness, for salvation and for comfort, for livelihood and for prosperity, for life and for peace, for forgiving sin and for pardoning transgression (in a leap year, until Rosh Hodesh Nissan: for atoning iniquity).”

Both Ashkenazim and Sefardim conduct themselves this way.

Once I stood beside a Torah scholar during the Rosh Hodesh prayers, and I asked him: Why do we add the words “וּלְכַפָּרַת פָּשַׁע” to the list of blessings during a leap year.

He answered me in 2 words: “Count them!”

Sure enough, there are 12 blessings that we pray for, and on a leap year, which has 1 extra month, we ask for 13.

Sweet.

Indeed there are a number of commentators on the siddur who mention this count, among them, Rav Yaakov Emden in his siddur “Beit Yaakov.”

However, the question remains: why these 2 words? Why “וּלְכַפָּרַת פָּשַׁע“?
What is the connection between a leap year and לְכַפָּרַת פָּשַׁע?

Hebrew books on wooden shelves.On Shaul Hamelech Boulevard in Tel Aviv there is a glorious, beautiful library, called the Rambam Library. It is a library with countless books and journals on all aspects of Jewish literature.

The library was founded and led by its librarian for over a generation, a major Torah scholar called Rav Reuven Margoliyot. In his spare time, Rav Margoliyot wrote over 50 books, and in one of them, called “Margaliyot Hayam” (“Jewels of the sea”, a pun on his name), Rav Margoliyot provides a wonderful explanation to the context of “וּלְכַפָּרַת פָּשַׁע“.

These words are connected to a captivating story which unfortunately is not well known, for to its detriment, it appears at the end of the Bible, in Chronicles; and not only in Chronicles, but Chronicles II … chapter 29!

There is a story there of King Hizkiyahu, which makes him not only one of the few righteous kings that we had, but also turns him into a brave spiritual leader, insightful and inspirational, the likes of which we so sorely need today.

The Temple is Closed Off for 16 Years

The story begins with his father Ahaz, who competently competes for the title of the most wicked king of Yehuda to take the throne. Ahaz ruled for 16 years, incited the nation to worship Baal, and sacrificed his sons in the Gei-hi-nom valley. The Bible reports that “He sacrificed and burned incense on the high places, on the hills and under every green tree”, but most importantly to our topic: “he cut the utensils of the house of God in pieces; and he closed the doors of the house of God…” The temple was desecrated and abandoned for 16 years.

Consider the situation: 3000 years ago, the house of God is closed off for 16 years. Today, how does your house look after 1 week without cleaning? In what condition then, would the temple have been 16 years after its doors were closed? Upon this dismal background, with all the nation worshiping Baal, with no temple for a long period, faith in God disappeared, Hizkiyahu takes the stage of history.

Second Temple Model of the ancient Jerusalem.Immediately, on the very first day on his throne, Hizkiyahu opens the temple doors, and begins the purification process. He assembles the Cohanim and Levi’im, and announces to them his intention to renew the covenant with God, and to renew the temple worship. However, as we have seen, he inherited a catastrophe: the process of purifying the temple and making it fit for worship, as speedy as he was, still took 16 days (interestingly, 1 day for each year that it was closed.)
 

This intense work, of swiftly purifying the temple and renewing its services, generated great excitement among the nation over such a successful completion to their mission:

“Hizkiyahu and all the people rejoiced … because it happened suddenly.”

But Hizkiyahu didn’t enjoy any days of grace. He was immediately confronted with an enormous problem in the first month of his reign: he began his rule on the first day of Nissan; 16 days later it is already time for Pessah.

We have then, a fresh king, full of the fear God and with extraordinary leadership abilities; he has already manufactured a tangible religious revival in the life of the nation, brought them back to love Torah, and fortified the Torah’s status. But who has participated so far? Cohanim? Levi’im? The residents of Jerusalem? What of the rest of the nation? He must immediately go up a gear and sweep them into the large wave he has generated, and bring them as well; the entire nation, back into the covenant with God. Will he have another opportunity comparable to the ingathering of the whole nation for the festival of Pessah? If they don’t arrive en masse for Pessah, he will lose his momentum, everything he has accomplished will fizzle away, with all of the nation outside Jerusalem continuing their ways, worshiping Baal!
Holding a Piece of Matza
But the purification process can only be finished by the 16th of Nissan, and he also needs time to send envoys to all the land with a message of the nature “Come in your masses! We are all renewing the covenant with the God of our fathers, on Pessah in Jerusalem!” Then the people would need time to organize themselves for the long trip to Jerusalem and they would need to undergo purification. There are a lot of logistics, and it is impossible to accomplish the task before Pessah.

A Creative and Courageous Solution to a Halachic Problem

At this point, according to the traditional reading of the verses of our Sages, Hizkiyahu has an outside the box brainwave: let’s make the year a leap year! We’ll turn Nissan into Adar II, and we shall celebrate Pessah in another month, in purity and joy. We shall renew the covenant and return to days of glory in an orderly and dignified manner.

Brilliant! But there are a number of halachic problems with this stroke of genius. There are clear, if not particularly simple, criteria, under which circumstances may one declare a leap year, and Hizkiyahu’s situation doesn’t exactly jive with any of them. And of course, the most blatant obstacle: he has missed the boat! One cannot declare a leap year in the month of Nissan! The deadline has passed; one cannot in the middle of Nissan turn it into Adar II.

And here is the moment of Hizkiyahu’s greatness. He was fully aware of this problem, but he also clearly saw the big picture. He did not fall into the terrible but all too common trap, of only considering the narrow halachic issue under examination, without taking into account the wider view, all the circumstances involved, and what else sits on the scales. You are strict in one constricted area, and perhaps it is the correct ruling for this particular topic, when it is not in conflict with any other issue, but you pay a horrific price in areas which are far more central and significant to Torah values and aspirations. What do you choose? Forego declaring the leap year, and the nation will continue to worship Baal; or you instigate a revolutionary idea, only temporary and only for such extenuating circumstances, and declare the leap year, because this time, and only this time, it is so crucial?

Thinking differentlyThe Mishnah tells us that Hizkiyahu “declared a leap year in Nissan, and the Sages did not concur.” Indeed, he even defied the Sages and went against the tide, for he understood what he would achieve by doing so; and what he stood to lose if he would be “strict”.

Immediately after this move, of course, he swings into action, and sends emissaries to all the land, even to the tribes of Israel, although he is the king of Yehuda, and invites them all to make the pilgrimage:

“He sent letters also to Efraim and Menashe, to come to the house of God in Jerusalem, to celebrate Pessah before God, the Lord of Israel… from Beer Sheva to Dan … Children of Israel! Return to God the Lord of Avraham, Yitzhak and Israel… give allegiance to God and come to his temple.”

And it works! “A large multitude gathered at Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Matzot in the second month, a very large assembly. Then they arose and removed the altars which were in Jerusalem; they also removed all the incense altars and cast them into the Kidron brook.”

Bottom line: This was an outstanding success to the point that the midrash describes that in the days of Hizkiyahu “They checked from Dan to Beer Sheva and they did not find one man ignorant of Torah … [nor] a baby boy or a baby girl, a man or a woman who were not proficient in laws of impurity and purity.”

God Listened to Hizkiyahu

It is very unclear from the verses what actually happened on that Pessah, and there is even a dispute amongst the Tannaic sages on the question, but in the end we see that Hizkiyahu was extremely conscious of the complexity of his decision: “for they ate the Pessah otherwise than prescribed. For Hizkiyahu prayed for them, saying, ‘May the good Lord pardon’’”, or in the original:
ה’ הַטּ֖וֹב יְכַפֵּ֥ר בְּעַֽד

And indeed, God immediately condones Hizkiyahu’s acts “God listened to Hizkiyahu and healed the people.”

When we add the 2 words “וּלְכַפָּרַת פָּשַׁע”in the mussaf service of Rosh Hodesh during a leap year, Rav Margoliyot explains that this is a literary allusion to this verse, to the prayer of Hizkiyahu “ה’ הַטּ֖וֹב יְכַפֵּ֥ר בְּעַֽד“. It is as if we are praying “He who atoned for King Hizkiyahu in that momentous leap year, may He atone for our sins as well, in this current leap year.” It is a reminder of a courageous and astonishing halachic ruling, that was taken to save the people of Israel.

And perhaps we also have a promise here, that when our deeds are truly and purely for the sake of God, if we are functioning solely to sanctify His name, on occasions when that goal is far more significant and prominent than the particular law at hand, even if the decision may temporarily impair the specific law, and obviously only in such circumstances, then we are promised that “God [will] listen” – He will accept our decision, understand our motives, and agree.

Such a “פָּשַׁע“(sin), He always יְכַפֵּר (will forgive)!

Rav Yitzhak AjznerRav Yitzhak Ajzner came on Aliya from Australia immediately after high school. He spent 10 years in education in Israel, in various positions ranging from a school principal to a teacher at the Hesder Yeshiva in Ma’ale Adumim. He also served as a community rabbi for a few years. He currently works as a software engineer, and is a member of the Beit Midrash for Halacha and the Beit Midrash for Ideology of Beit Hillel.

 
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