Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Roll over Beethoven

Rosh Hashanah 30a-31b:

Back to our pal Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. We see a number of his decrees as he helped Judaism evolve and survive after the Temple, and the Mishnah demonstrates its literary artistry. Chapter 4 begins with RYbZ's decree that the shofar can be blown on Shabbat anywhere that there is a beit din -- in the time of the Temple, the shofar was blown on Shabbat only in the Temple. (This follows on the heels of chapter 3, which discusses the shofar.) Then, mishnah 3 (on 30a) is total plagiarism from Sukkah 3:12, but it fits perfectly here, because it has an identical structure to mishnah 1: Originally X was done at time Y only in the Temple, but then RYbZ decreed that X should be done at time Y elsewhere (now that there is no Temple). In this case, X is taking the lulav, and Y is all 7 days of Sukkot (rather than only the 1st day commanded in the Torah). The last clause of this mishnah is another decree: sheyehei yom haneif kulo asur. In the time of the Temple, the grain of the new harvest was permitted from the time the omer was offered on 16 Nisan (the 2nd day of Pesach). After the Temple was destroyed (and the omer wasn't offered anymore), RYbZ decreed that new grain was forbidden for the entire day of 16 Nisan, and not permitted until 17 Nisan. Mishnah 4 (on 30b) continues with the exact same structure of "In the time of the Temple, X until a certain time, but then after the Temple was destroyed, RYbZ decreed that X all day." And what's the X? Receiving testimony for the new moon! WOW!!! With unbroken segues, we've come full circle to the subject matter of much of the earlier part of the masechet! Beethoven would be proud!

The Gemara also plagiarizes from Sukkah with the whole sugya about yom haneif, so it was easy going because I had already seen it once. Why is the whole day forbidden? Because by default (in the absence of a Temple and the absence of RYbZ's enactment) the new grain is permitted from sunrise on 16 Nisan. But then when the Temple is rebuilt, people will say "Last year we ate the new grain starting from sunrise", not realizing that they now have to wait a few hours for the omer to be offered. Hence the fence. We then try to pinpoint the exact date and time that the Temple will be rebuilt in this hypothetical situation, in order for this explanation to make sense. (This sugya definitely adheres to the "Nisan" theory of redemption, where redemption happens in the blink of an eye, and the Temple descends fully formed from the head of Zeus sky, as opposed to the "Tishrei" model, where redemption is a long process. This explanation of Nisan vs Tishrei thanks to R. David Ellenson in the name of R. Chayim David Halevi.) If the Temple is built on the 16th, then there's no problem eating the new grain, because it was already permitted from sunrise (and then the Temple appeared after that). So this must be referring to a case where the Temple is dropped on the 15th. (Why the 15th specifically, rather than, say, any other time after 16 Nisan of the previous year? I don't know.) But wait, why forbid it all day, rather than just for the morning? Surely the omer will have been offered by noon. In fact, in the time of the Temple, people in faraway places started eating new grain at noon on 16 Nisan, under the assumption that the omer had been offered by then, rather than waiting for the telegram. Ah, but what if the Temple is built on 15 Nisan, late afternoon or evening? Then the Temple rules kick in (and you have to wait for the omer before eating new grain), but there isn't actually time to harvest, grind, etc., the omer and get it all done before noon, so it's probably not going to be offered until the afternoon of 16 Nisan. That possibility is why RYbZ had to forbid it all day. I'm sure that's what he was thinking.

Then we get the opinion that the Torah itself forbids new grain for the whole day of 16 Nisan, and RYbZ's "decree" was really just a new interpretation of the Torah.

Back to the calendar! Originally they would accept testimony of the new moon all day, but witnesses didn't arrive until late afternoon, so the Levites got messed up with singing the right song (opinions differ on what happened: some say they did the weekday song rather than the Rosh Chodesh song because it hadn't yet been declared as Rosh Chodesh, others say they were on the edge of their seats waiting for the testimony and didn't sing anything). Therefore, they decreed that testimony would only be accepted until the time of mincha; if the witnesses came after that, then both days would be observed as Rosh Chodesh. After the destruction of the Temple, RYbZ went back to accepting testimony all day, since there were no singing Levites anyway.

This is the basis for our present observance of 2-day Rosh Chodesh and "one long day" (lasting 48 hours) of Rosh Hashanah. The 30th day of the previous month is automatically observed as Rosh Chodesh (because if we wait to find out for sure, then we could find out in the afternoon that it's Rosh Chodesh, and then we incorrectly observed the last 20 hours or so as a weekday), and then the following day might also be Rosh Chodesh (if the new moon was not successfully declared the first time). So why are the two days of Rosh Hashanah counted as 1 and 2 Tishrei, rather than 30 Elul and 1 Tishrei like a normal 2-day Rosh Chodesh? I think I might have known the answer, but I forgot. Any assistance?

Note that the reasons for observing a 48-hour Rosh Hashanah (in Israel or anywhere) are completely unrelated to the reasons for 2-day yom tov in the Diaspora. In the former case, the issue is ontological uncertainty (it is fundamentally unknown whether today is Rosh Hashanah), whereas in the latter case it is merely epistemological uncertainty (someone knows whether today is yom tov, just not us).

Then we get a discussion of shir shel yom, the psalm belonging to each day. Each daily psalm is matched with the corresponding day in the creation story. Some of the connections are better than others. On the first day, God ruled alone in the universe, thus Sunday's psalm is Psalm 24, "The earth belongs to God, and everything in it". And so forth.

The Levites' daily psalms have survived into our morning service, but then we learn about some other liturgical traditions that we don't do anymore! In the musaf service on Shabbat, there was a 6-week cycle, each week singing one aliyah from the song in Parshat Ha'azinu (only the first 6 aliyot, since the seventh is back to narrative). Shabbat mincha was on a 3-week cycle, with the first half of Shirat Hayam, the second half of Shirat Hayam, and the song in Numbers 21:17-20.

Then we hear about the 10 stages in the exile of the Shechinah, and the 10 stages in the exile of the Sanhedrin. I thought that the connection between this and everything else was just the whole theme of life after the destruction of the Temple (in fact, we discussed Yavneh last week), but it occurred to me just now that the Gemara's narrative structure of these journeys ("from A to B, from B to C, from C to D") is the same structure found in the aforementioned song in Numbers 21. Wow!

The Shechinah was exiled from the ark-cover to the cherub to the other cherub to the porch to the courtyard to the altar to the roof to the wall to the city to the mountain to the desert, and then waited in the desert 6 months for Israel to repent, but finally gave up. Each of these transitions is backed up by a prooftext. Some of the prooftexts are classic examples of the rabbis wrenching a verse out of its context, but a number of them come from the powerful narrative of Ezekiel 8-11, so the context is actually germane. Ezekiel's account of the destruction differs from the basic story that recurs in Kings, Jeremiah, and Chronicles. Those other three books tell what dates everything happened, how many people were killed and taken captive, and what was destroyed. Ezekiel sees it as a spiritual destruction, and tells the story of God's Presence flying away.

Likewise, the Sanhedrin (like the Continental Congress) kept moving around to various waystations after leaving Jerusalem. I have been to some of those places with SHF. I haven't been to Yavneh (which is now the home of the Israeli Ben & Jerry's factory), but we went to Beit Shearim and Tzipori. Beit Shearim's claim to fame (other than as one temporary location of the Sanhedrin) is that Yehuda "Rebbi" Hanasi is buried there. Once he was buried there, everyone who was anyone in subsequent centuries, all over the Middle East, made sure to be buried there. Thus, the necropolis that has been dug up contains tombstones testifying to their inhabitants' places of origin: all the way from present-day Syria to Yemen. And Tzipori has the cool mosaics.

Tiberias (where the Talmud Yerushalmi was compiled) was the lowest point of all. The exile went all the way down into the dust, but the dust is whence we will be redeemed! Hitna'ari, me'afar kumi!

I had been waiting with bated breath to get to the part where Hillel II sanctified all future new moons and established our modern mathematical version of the calendar, but this was the penultimate mishnah having anything to do with the calendar, and we still haven't gotten there. So then I looked at Wikipedia's article on the Hebrew calendar and it says "A popular tradition holds that Patriarch Hillel II revealed the continuous calendar in 359 due to Christian persecution, formerly a secret known only to the 'calendar committee', a council of sages. This tradition was first mentioned quite late by Hai Gaon (died 1038). But the Talmud, which did not reach its final form until c. 500, does not mention it." So there you have it. We're never going to get there. I hope to learn about all this and more when I move on to the Rambam's Hilchot Kiddush Hachodesh, and then I'll teach about it in my class at the NHC Summer Institute.

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