As the Torah begins in Parshas Bereishis, the second verse tells us that there was a great darkness that encompassed the vast, nascent world. The Midrash explains to us that this darkness is represented by Galus Yavan, as the Greeks sought to darken the eyes of the Jewish people through the restrictive laws they imposed upon them. In particular, the Jews were prohibited from blessing the new month, keeping Shabbos, or performing bris milah.
These three mitzvos are indeed unique, yet all of our mitzvot are. What is special about this particular collection of mitzvos that the Yevanim sought to erase from Jewish life entirely?
First, the mitzvah of kiddush hachodesh is the first that the newly-freed-from-Egypt Jewish people were given. At first glance, that may not make sense in itself. Out of all of the mitzvos in the torah, this is first one. Do we consider this to even be a major commandment? If you were woken up in the middle of the night and were told to name the most important mitzvos we have been given, I’d expect to hear probably one of the Aseres Hadibros. Anochi Hashem Elokecha, Not to have other Gods, Shabbos, honoring your parents, any one of the “Thou Shalt Nots.” While close in proximity, just a few parshios away from the Ten Commandments, that’s really the closest that “Hachodesh Hazeh Lachem” gets to our top ten, so to speak. Sforno explains that this mitzvah provides structure for the Jewish people, something that sets the tone for their existence as a free people. When one is a slave, their time was not their own. Each month had an agenda that was created by their taskmasters. When this would no longer be the case, God instructed the leaders of Klal Yisrael to set boundaries in order to provide them with a structure of time that will set them up for success.
The second of the forbidden three mitzvos under Greek rule was Shabbos observance. One could easily describe Shabbos as the most important day of the week. Its splendor stems from when the Almighty Himself rested after taking stock of all that He had created during the sheishes yemei Bereishis. The very notion that God rested seems a bit peculiar. The Master of the Universe was fatigued? Not exactly. Just as He rested, we rest. Shabbos itself appears much earlier than the notion of marking Rosh Chodesh in the Torah. Our liturgy extols the unique nature of Shabbos. We recite in Lecha Dodi that this day is the source of all blessing, and later in the Amidah for Maariv that Hashem blessed this day more so than any other, sanctified it more than any other of the zmanim. We honor Shabbos and keep it holy, concepts that trace back to the Torah and that help us become closer with the Ribono Shel Olam. Sometimes the day of rest seems like anything but that. We find menucha in the tefillot and through out Shabbat meals. They say more than the Jews have kept the Shabbos, the Shabbos has kept the Jews. Knowing what we do about the central role of the seventh day to the Jewish experience, we would be a wandering people without it.
Bris Milah was the covenant that Hashem made with Avraham Avinu, and noted as a symbol between God and Bnai Yisrael throughout Tanach. The act itself is a removal of a barrier that hinders our connection to God. Rabbi Nosson Scherman notes in Artscroll’s book on Bris Milah that the term “orlah” is found in Scripture refers to some sort of roadblock in the way of holiness. Some think of orlah as it manifests in reference prohibiting the fruit from a tree within the first three years of its blooming. Additionally, the Torah (Vayikra 19:23) comments that one who is obstinate to doing teshuva is exhibiting “orlas halev”, an orlah on their heart. Without removing this barrier, their is a tremendous lack of kedusha, even on one who is very young.
By penalizing Klal Yisrael for kiddush hachodesh, the Jewish people were not able to consecrate their time to the Almighty. Without the ability to keep Shabbos, the Jewish people would not be privy to the blessings during the rest of the week. By ‘assur-ing” bris milah, the Greeks sought to maintain the physical, yet spiritual barrier between Hashem and His people.