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Mishnah Rosh HaShanah, Chapters 1 & 2

Rosh Hashanah
 Chapter 1 – Chapter 2
The Search for Holy Time

ראש השנה
פרקים א’-ב’

Commentary

A. The Mishna’s Calendar in Contrast to the Calendar of Second Temple Sects

One of the most important characteristics of human existence is time-consciousness. Animals live in the continual present, in which the contiguous past and present exist on the horizon, as stimuli or as immediate goals. Only man experiences life as a “narrative” that plots many events, from the remote past until the future, along a time line and connects them by means of causal and teleological explanations. Only man makes both short- and long-term plans for the future and imagines alternate extensions of his life’s narrative. Only man divides time into measured units, enabling him to scrutinize the past and plan the future rationally and efficiently. And of course, time poses a philosophical enigma and an existential riddle to man alone.

Various cultures created different ways to orient themselves within the dimension of time, and one can learn much about the principles and morals of a particular culture from the way it addresses time’s challenge. It goes without saying that there is no culture that ignores earth-bound time frames like days and years. The cyclical alternation of light and dark, cold and warmth, forces everyone everywhere to organize and plan his time around the natural time units of day and night, summer and winter. The difference between cultures is manifest in two main ways: 1) At what point does it complete one cycle and begin the next? From the beginning of dark, the beginning of light, or one of the midpoints? Is the year measured from the beginning of autumn, the beginning of spring, the beginning of winter, or the beginning of summer? 2) How does this culture organize the intermediate units of time like weeks and months? Regarding these two points there are very large differences between various cultures, and through these differences we can determine the characteristic theoretical and moral foundations of any human group or culture. It is no wonder some of the worst controversies in Jewish history revolved around the calendar.

The foundations of the Hebrew calendar are first described in the Mishna, in the first two chapters of tractate Rosh Hashana. In Scripture there are separate and parallel systems for measuring time: a system of months that begins with Nisan, the spring month, as “it is your first month of the year” (Exod. 12:2); and a system of years that change at the “end of the year” (ibid. 23:16) in Tishrei, which marks the end of one agricultural season and the beginning of preparations for the next. Although the beginning of each month is marked with a festive holy day, and the first of Tishrei is established as “a day of commemoration with shofar blasts,” Scripture offers no instruction for calculating months and years, nor how to conform the lunar year of twelve months (c. 354 days) with the solar year of 365 days

The Apocrypha and the Dead Sea Scrolls document various version of a 364-day solar calendar, a fixed and orderly calendar in which every holiday coincides with the same day of the week each year. There is never any conflict between Shabbat and the mitzvot linked to the festivals and holidays. In one presentation of the sectarian calendar, from the Book of Jubilees, the author objects: “There were those who observe the moon, and this will wreck the seasons and make each successive year ten days earlier” (Jubilees 6:36). He preserves the fixed and orderly solar calendar to observation of the moon – observation that introduces an unstable and uncertain human element into the calculation of seasons and holidays, ‘wrecking’ the fixed divine order.

The calendar described in the Mishna is the diametric opposite of the sectarian calendar. This calendar is defined, first and foremost, in relation to the changing and hard-to-spot moon, whose first appearance at the beginning of each month is immediately after sunset on one of two days: the thirtieth or thirty-first day of the outgoing month. Though the Sages knew how to calculate when the molad  (the conjunction of the sun and moon) would occur each month, they established that “it is a mitzva to consecrate [the new month] based on observation” (b. Rosh Hashana 20a).

Thus, determining the beginning of each month became a process that required a social mechanism that confirms that the new moon was in fact seen on the anticipated date. Particularly on months that contain holidays, this generates a good deal of tension due to the uncertainty about when the new month would be declared. Mishnaic law placed the declaration of the new month in the hands of the high court, and as such the consecration of the new month obtained all aspects of judicial proceedings: the identity and status of the “witnesses” who saw the new moon, the manner of collecting the testimony, and reaching a verdict.

B. Consecration of the Month as a Source of Authority

In contrast to the orderly and efficient clockwork of the Second Temple sectarian calendar, the process of consecrating the new month as described in the Mishna seems unnecessarily convoluted. Why did halakha insist on observation-based consecration? Why did the observation have to be subject to judicial supervision, with all the convoluted court proceedings it implies? Jewish historians are wont to suggest answers to such questions from the sociopolitical realm. The court proceedings that determine the Jewish holidays gives the court a central place in the spiritual life of the Jewish people. During the Second Temple era and the first few generations after its destruction, the Pharisees and their rabbinic heirs strove to establish their status as the spiritual leadership of the Jewish people against rivals who drew their power from the Temple rite and the priestly class.

Mishna Rosh Hashana lays a substantial foundation for understanding the procedure for consecrating the new month as a monthly ceremony designed to reinforce the high court’s status as the people’s spiritual center. For example, the Mishna tells of conflicts between the Sages of the Pharisee/rabbinic court, of a halakhic dispute with a “court of priests” (1:7), and of addressing the efforts of sectarians (Boethusians) and Samaritans to skew the calendar toward their opinions (2:1-2).

Moreover, in several places the Mishna shows how the proceedings for consecrating the new month establishes the court at the center of consciousness of the Jewish people. We will  discuss two examples. First, the Mishna’s statement: “The head of the court says, ‘consecrated,’ and all the people respond, ‘consecrated, consecrated’” (2:7). This implies that the new month was consecrated in the presence of a mass of people. Secondly, the Mishna describes an earlier practice at length (2:2-4): the court would notify the people in Eretz Yisrael and in the Babylonian Diaspora by means of a series of beacons, “until he sees the entire Diaspora before him like a lit torch.” The festive language of this mishna teaches that the beacons were not only intended as a form of rapid communication, but also as an impressive visual link between the Jew mired in exile and the center of spiritual authority and inspiration in Jerusalem.

C. Consecration by Observation as a Spiritual Experience

In my opinion, the consecration of the new month undoubtedly played an important role in reinforcing the status of the Sages and the court in the eyes of the people. Yet the Mishna has not been studied devotedly by generations of students because of its ideological and political statements. One who delves into the Mishna’s content, language, organization, and editorial methods will find profound religious and spiritual statements beneath its social pronouncements. A close reading of the first two chapters of Rosh Hashana will allow me to elaborate upon several points that can shed light on the spiritual significance of consecrating the moon on the basis of observation.

The keyword for understanding Chapter 2 of Rosh Hashana is the root R-A-H  – to see – which appears 12 times throughout the chapter and plays various roles. This word appears another six times in Chapter 1 and three times (in context of consecrating the new month) in the first  mishna of Chapter 3, but each appearance of the word in Chapters 1 and 3 fulfills a self-evident, “trivial” purpose, as it refers to the witnesses’ seeing the new moon. Only in Chapter 2 does it serve as a leitwort, that is, “a word or word root that is meaningfully repeated within a text or sequence of texts or complex of texts” (M. Buber, Scripture and Translation, 114). In Chapter 2, R-A-H relates to various stages of the proceedings and even holds different meanings. Sometimes it describes the moment that the new moon is seen (the same meaning it has in Chapters 1 and 3): “whether or not it is seen at the proper time” (2:7). Sometimes it describes how the witnesses testify before the court: “We saw it in the morning” (2:8). In mishnayot 3 and 4 it describes how the beacons were seen, and in one place its usage is metaphoric – “seeing” as understanding, not as a physical process: “R. Yehoshua said to him, “I agree with (lit. ‘I see’) your statement.” The multiple senses of this word make its recurrence meaningful. We must therefore undertake to find the meaning of this leitwort.

The root R-A-H weaves together every phase of the proceedings to consecrate the new month: the witnesses see the new moon, after their eyewitness testimony (edut re’iyah) is accepted by the court, the court uses a visual means of spreading the news of the new month to all Israel – “until he sees the entire Diaspora before him like a lit torch.” The two witnesses’ visual experience of the new moon becomes, by means of the legal procedure for consecrating the new month, the visual experience of all Israel. Here, as elsewhere in Scripture and rabbinic literature, sight represents the experiential aspect. The consecration of the new month is more than just a technique for determining the calendar and consecrating the holidays; through the consecration of the new month, all Israel is enjoined to give expression to the experience of seeing the new moon, an experience of renewal that contains a theological aspect: “Israel is not satisfied unless they lift their eyes to their Father in heaven once every thirty days” (Mekhilta, Pischa 1). It is interesting that even today, when months are consecrated by calculation and not by observation, we preserve this experience through the Kiddush Levana prayer.

The Mishna teaches that mass Jewish participation in the experience of seeing the new moon is indirect: the witnesses’ observation is transferred, by means of their testimony, the acceptance of their testimony, and the lighting of beacons, to Jewish communities everywhere. Here we must examine the court’s major role in transferring this experience; after all, mediating between the witnesses’ observation and what Jewish communities everywhere see is the cognitive “seeing” of the sages on the court (“I agree with/see your statement”). Thus, the court serves not only as leadership and as a source of authority, but also as something that processes experiences, transforming the spiritual experience of two individuals into the heritage of everyone. Only through the court can all Israel lift its eyes to their Father in heaven every thirty days.

D. The World of Sanctity and Human Weakness

At the end of the first two chapters of Rosh Hashana, a particularly fascinating phenomenon is disclosed to the learner. The concluding mishna of each chapter relates to the same verse, but in two very different contexts. At the end of Chapter 1, as a prooftext for the law that witnesses of the new moon may desecrate Shabbat to travel to the court in time, the Mishna quotes the verse: “These are the holidays of the Lord, sacred convocations, that you shall proclaim at their appointed times” (Lev. 23:4). The Mishna emphasizes “at their appointed times” (be-mo’adam) – the duty to consecrate the month at the proper time, that is, the time that coincides with the new moon’s appearance in the heavens, is so important that it overrides the prohibitions of Shabbat.

At the end of Chapter 2, the Mishna cites the same verse, but attributes to it a meaning that is almost the complete opposite. The context for the verse’s citation is the well-known conflict between Rabban Gamliel and R. Yehoshua. Rabban Gamliel accepted testimony to consecrate the month of Tishrei (that is, to set the date of Rosh Hashana), despite the fact that it was self-contradictory. R. Yehoshua rejected Rabban Gamliel’s ruling and accepted the position of R. Dosa b. Hyrcanus that such testimony may not be used to consecrate months and holidays. To make it clear that there is only one authority that consecrates the months and holidays, Rabban Gamliel decreed that R. Yehoshua must appear at Rabban Gamliel’s court at Yavneh with his walking stick and wallet on the day that would be Yom Kippur according to R. Yehoshua’s reckoning. To persuade R. Yehoshua to submit to the nasi’s decree, R. Akiva offered the following exegesis: “‘These are the holidays of the Lord, sacred convocations, that you shall proclaim’ – whether at their appointed season or not.” Without delving too deeply into the details of the interpretive method that enables R. Akiva’s bold exegesis, which ignores the word “be-mo’adam” at the end of the verse, substituting “at their appointed times” with “whether at their appointed season or not.” For our purposes, the important point is the tight but paradoxical link between the exegesis that concludes the Chapter 1 of Rosh Hashana and R. Akiva’s exegesis at the end of Chapter 2. The same verse is cited at the end of each chapter to infer opposite conclusions about man’s duty to conform the declaration of the holidays to astronomical data. At the level of halakha, the “contradiction” between these two inferences can be reconciled. Yet it seems that the Mishna’s editor consciously inserted these opposing interpretations at the end of these two chapters in order to highlight two different and even opposing components of the consecration of the new month. On one hand, man has a duty toward the appointed time ordained by the heavens – to the point that he may desecrate Shabbat on its behalf. On the other hand, the absolute authority to consecrate the holidays has been granted to man.

The tension between these two aspects of the consecration of the new month is quite intense. On one hand, man lifts his eyes heavenward, sees that the celestial bodies move in accordance with a divine precision – “He made a rule that shall not be trespassed” – and turn his heart toward his Father in heaven. On the other hand, the authority granted man to consecrate God’s holidays casts this sacred task into the whirlwind of human activity, with all its limitations, errors, rivalries, and conflicts. The story of the conflict between R. Yehoshua and Rabban Gamliel, which concludes the two chapters in Rosh Hashana on the consecration of the new month, dramatically illustrates the ramifications of placing the determination of holiest holy days – the Days of Judgment, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – into human hands. Even the wisest of men operate with uncertainty and with limited human intelligence, while social considerations lurk in the background. Moreover, it is hard to completely negate the element of personal interest. Nevertheless, R. Akiva declares: “I (that is, God) have no holidays but these!”

The new months and the holidays, consecrated on the basis of observation, embody two important spiritual principles. On one hand, time is quantified and managed in a way that brings each Jew into an encounter with his Father in heaven, Who created and governs time, at specific intervals. On the other hand, giving man the authority to determine the festivals obligates the entire people of Israel to organize the nation properly, to properly establish of spiritual leadership, and to set norms for making decisions and obtaining authority. The consecration of the new month declares that these two elements can be integrated, that human behavior is capable of directing itself toward divine sanctity.

מסכת ראש השנה פרק א

א,א ארבעה ראשי שנים הם: באחד בניסן, ראש השנה למלכים ולרגלים. באחד באלול, ראש השנה למעשר בהמה; רבי אלעזר ורבי שמעון אומרין, באחד בתשרי. באחד בתשרי, ראש השנה לשנים לשמיטים וליובלות, ולנטיעה ולירקות. באחד בשבט, ראש השנה לאילן, כדברי בית שמאי; בית הלל אומרין, בחמישה עשר בו.

א,ב בארבעה פרקים העולם נידון: בפסח, על התבואה. בעצרת, על פירות האילן. בראש השנה, כל באי עולם עוברין לפניו כבני מרון, שנאמר “היוצר יחד, ליבם; המבין, אל כל מעשיהם” (תהילים לג,טו). ובחג, נידונים על המים.

א,ג על שישה חודשים שלוחים יוצאים: על ניסן, מפני הפסח; על אב, מפני התענית; על אלול, מפני ראש השנה; על תשרי, מפני תקנת המועדות; על כסליו, מפני חנוכה; ועל אדר, מפני הפורים. וכשהיה בית המקדש קיים–יוצאין אף על אייר, מפני פסח קטן.

א,ד על שני חודשים מחללין את השבת, על ניסן ועל תשרי–שבהם שלוחים יוצאים לסוריה, ובהם מתקנים את המועדות. וכשהיה בית המקדש קיים–מחללין אף על כולם, מפני תקנת הקרבן.

א,ה בין שנראה בעליל, בין שלא נראה בעליל–מחללין עליו את השבת; רבי יוסי אומר, אם נראה בעליל, אין מחללין עליו את השבת.

א,ו מעשה שעברו יתר מארבעים זוג, ועיכבם רבי עקיבה בלוד; שלח לו רבן גמליאל, אם מעכב אתה את הרבים, נמצאת מכשילם לעתיד לבוא.

א,ז אב ובנו שראו את החודש, ילכו: לא שמצטרפין זה עם זה; אלא שאם ייפסל אחד מהם, יצטרף השני עם אחר. רבי שמעון אומר, אב ובנו וכל הקרובים, כשרים לעדות החודש. אמר רבי יוסי, מעשה בטובייה הרופא, שראה את החודש בירושלים–הוא, ובנו, ועבדו משוחרר. קיבלו הכוהנים אותו ואת בנו, ופסלו את עבדו; וכשבאו לבית דין–קיבלו אותו ואת עבדו, ופסלו את בנו.

א,ח ואלו הן הפסולים–המשחק בקוביה, והמלווה בריבית, ומפריחי יונים, וסוחרי שביעית, ועבדים. זה הכלל–כל עדות שאין האישה כשרה לה, אף הן אינן כשרים לה.

א,ט מי שראה את החודש, ואינו יכול להלך–מוליכין אותו על החמור, ואפילו במיטה; ואם צודה להן, לוקחין בידם מקלות; ואם הייתה דרך רחוקה, לוקחין בידם מזונות: שעל מהלך לילה ויום, מחללין את השבת ויוצאים לעדות החודש–שנאמר “אלה מועדי ה’, מקראי קודש, אשר תקראו אותם, במועדם” (ויקרא כג,ד).

מסכת ראש השנה פרק ב

ב,א אם אינן מכירין אותו, משלחין עימו אחר להעידו. בראשונה, היו מקבלין עדות החודש מכל אדם; משקילקלו המינים, התקינו שלא יהו מקבלין אלא מן המכירין.

ב,ב בראשונה, היו משיאין משואות; משקילקלו הכותים, התקינו שיהו שלוחים יוצאים.

ב,ג כיצד משיאין משואות: מביאין כלונסות של ארז ארוכים וקנים ועצי שמן ונעורת של פשתן, וכורכן במשיחה; ועולה לראש ההר, ומצית בהן את האור, ומוליך, ומביא ומעלה ומוריד–עד שהוא רואה את חברו שהוא עושה כן בראש ההר השני, וכן בראש ההר השלישי.

ב,ד ומניין היו משיאין משואות: מהר המשחה לסרטבה, ומסרטבה לאגריפנה, ומאגריפנה לחוורן, ומחוורן לבית בלתין; ומבית בלתין לא זזו, אלא מוליך ומביא ומעלה ומוריד, עד שהוא רואה את כל הגולה לפניו כמדורת האש.

ב,ה חצר גדולה הייתה בירושלים, ובית יעזק הייתה נקראת; ולשם כל העדים מתכנסין, ובית דין בודקין אותם שם. וסעודות גדולות עושין להם, בשביל שיהו רגילין לבוא.

ב,ו בראשונה, לא היו זזים משם כל היום; התקין רבן גמליאל הזקן, שיהו מהלכין אלפיים אמה לכל רוח. ולא אלו בלבד, אלא אף החכמה הבאה לילד, והבא להציל מיד הגיס, מיד הנהר, מיד הדליקה, מיד המפולת–הרי אלו כאנשי העיר, ויש להן אלפיים אמה לכל רוח.

ב,ז [ו] כיצד בודקין את העדים: זוג שבא ראשון, בודקין אותו ראשון. מכניסין את הגדול שבהן ואומרין לו, אמור כיצד ראית את הלבנה–לפני החמה, לאחר החמה, לצפונה, לדרומה, כמה היה גבוה, ולאין היה נוטה, וכמה היה רחב. אם אמר לפני החמה, לא אמר כלום. ואחר כך היו מכניסין את השני, ובודקין אותו. נמצאו דבריהן מכוונין, עדותן קיימת. ושאר כל הזוגות, שואלין אותן ראשי דברים: לא שצריכין להן; אלא שלא ייצאו בפחי נפש, בשביל שיהו רגילין לבוא.

ב,ח [ז] ראש בית דין אומר מקודש, וכל העם עונין אחריו מקודש מקודש. בין שנראה בזמנו, ובין שלא נראה בזמנו–מקדשין אותו; רבי אלעזר ברבי צדוק אומר, אם לא נראה בזמנו–אין מקדשין אותו, שכבר קידשוהו שמיים.

ב,ט [ח] דמות צורות לבנות היו לו לרבן גמליאל בעלייתו על הטבלה בכותל, שבהן מראה את ההדיוטות ואומר להם, הכזה ראית, או כזה. מעשה שבאו שניים ואמרו, ראינוהו שחרית במזרח וערבית במערב; אמר רבי יוחנן בן נורי, עדי שקר הם, וכשבאו ליבנה, קיבלם רבן גמליאל. ועוד באו שניים ואמרו, ראינוהו בזמנו, ובלילי עיבורו לא נראה; וקיבלם רבן גמליאל. אמר רבי דוסא בן הרכינס, עדי שקר הם–היאך מעידים על האישה שילדה, ולמחר כרסה בין שיניה; אמר לו רבי יהושוע, רואה אני את דבריך.

ב,י [ט] שלח לו רבן גמליאל, גוזר אני עליך שתבוא אצלי במקלך ובמעותיך ביום שחל יום הכיפורים להיות בחשבונך. הלך ומצאו רבי עקיבה מצר. אמר לו, יש לי ללמוד שכל מה שעשה רבן גמליאל עשוי, שנאמר “אלה מועדי ה’, מקראי קודש, אשר תקראו אותם” (ויקרא כג,ד)–“אשר תקראו אותם”, בין בזמנן בין שלא בזמנן; אין לי מועדות אלא אלו. בא לו אצל רבי דוסא בן הרכינס; אמר לו, אם באים אנו לדון אחר בית דינו של רבן גמליאל–צריכין אנו לדון אחר כל בית דין ובית דין שעמד מימות משה ועד עכשיו, שנאמר “ויעל משה, ואהרון–נדב, ואביהוא, ושבעים, מזקני ישראל” (שמות כד,ט). למה לא נתפרשו שמותן של זקנים: אלא ללמדך, שכל שלושה ושלושה שיעמדו בית דין על ישראל–הרי הם כבית דינו של משה. נטל מקלו ומעותיו בידו, והלך ליבנה אצל רבן גמליאל ביום שחל יום הכיפורים להיות בחשבונו.