Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Amen amen amen selah va'ed!

Tonight MAK and I made our siyyum on Masechet Rosh Hashanah! (This blog is now the third Google hit for "hadran alach"!)

We started with an overview of the masechet: The first mishnah deals with the four new years, and the first 15 pages of the Gemara are for the first mishnah alone! Then, we have another mishnah and its discussion in the Gemara, dealing with God judging the world, as well as judging individuals, on Rosh Hashanah. By then we're up to daf 18 (half of the masechet, which ends on 35!) before we get into the main themes of the mishnah (i.e. everything after the first two mishnayot). The three major topics are: 1) the calendar and the procedure of determining the new month, 2) the laws of shofar, 3) the liturgy of the holiday that we now call Rosh Hashanah. However, these topics are not exactly taught sequentially; we keep hopping back and forth between them. And the reason is the gravitational field of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, who is a powerful presence in the second half of Masechet Rosh Hashanah, where we learn about his various decrees to adjust Judaism to post-Temple existence, and these decrees touch on all the major themes above.

I taught two stories from chapter 2, showing that our calendar has a colorful history, filled with intrigue and espionage.

Chapter 2 begins:
If the beit din (rabbinical court) doesn't know the witnesses, they send along another witness to testify as to their character. (Law student RLK noted that this is done today if a lawyer is appearing in court in a jurisdiction where s/he is not a member of the bar.) Originally they would accept testimony for the new moon from anyone, but when the Baitusim (Boethusians) messed things up, they decreed that they would only accept testimony from people they knew (who were members of the bar).

A baraita in the Gemara (22b) specifies exactly how the Boethusians messed things up.

Rashi adds depth to the story by explaining their motivations. The Boethusians interpreted "the day after Shabbat" (Leviticus 23:15) literally to mean Sunday, like any reasonable person would. The rabbis, as we do today, interpreted "shabbat" to refer to the first day of Pesach, so that Shavuot is observed 7 weeks after the 2nd day of Pesach. In the year when this story happened, 30 Adar was on Shabbat. The Boethusians really wanted the new month to be declared on that day, so that 1 Nisan would be Shabbat, 15 Nisan (the first day of Pesach) would be Shabbat, and Shavuot would be observed on Sunday. But the moon hadn't actually been observed, so the Boethusians had to take matters into their own hands.

The Gemara picks up the story here. The Boethusians hired two people (at 200 zuz each -- enough to stay above the poverty line (this is the amount specified in the ketubah) or to buy 100 goats, so we're talking thousands of dollars) to testify that they had seen the moon. These two were "one of theirs" and "one of ours". Clearly, the rabbis were writing the story. And the "one of ours" was a double agent. So their guy goes in and testifies, and then our guy goes in next. The beit din asks him "What did the moon look like?" He says "I was going up to Ma'aleh Adumim and I saw it crouched between two rocks. Its head was like a calf, its ears were like a goat, its horns were like a gazelle, and its tail was resting between its legs. I looked at it and I fainted and fell backwards. And if you don't believe me, I have 200 zuz here in my cloak." They asked "Who put you up to this?" He said "I had heard that the Boethusians were trying to mess up the rabbis, so I said 'I'll go myself and let them know; otherwise other people will go who aren't so honest, and they'll lead the rabbis astray.'" They said "Keep the 200 zuz as a gift, and the one who hired you is going to be beaten." At that point they decreed that they would only accept testimony from people they knew and trusted. (I wonder if any state bar associations have stories like that!)

The next mishnah: Originally they would light beacons to signal that the new month had been declared. They would light a torch on top of a hill, and wave it back and forth until the person on the next hill had seen it and lit his torch and started waving it, and then the person on the third hill would light his torch and wave it, and so on all the way from Jerusalem to Bavel (Iraq). The process is very reminiscent of a famous scene in The Return of the King (the movie).

This was a very efficient method of transmitting the message, because it traveled at the speed of light, except for some latency due to the time it took on each hilltop to react and light the torch, but still very fast. Very little bandwidth was necessary, because it was a 1-bit binary message: either the new moon had been declared on the 30th day (meaning that the previous month had 29 days) or it hadn't (meaning that the previous month had 30 days). 0 or 1 (signal fires or no signal fires).

This was all well and good until the Kutim (Cutheans/Samaritans), the very first hackers, came into the picture. The problem with this system was that there was no encryption or verification, so anyone could spoof the message, like those emails that purport to be from PayPal or your bank that say "Please enter your account information", except that everyone knows that your bank doesn't actually send emails like that, whereas there's little room for nuance in a 1-bit message. So sure enough, the Kutim went up to the mountains and lit fires of their own when the new month hadn't actually been declared, and it threw everyone off.

Because of this fundamental security flaw, the whole system of beacons was abandoned, and instead they just sent out messengers. This system was more verifiable and harder to hack, but also much slower. Messengers who left Jerusalem on the 1 Nisan wouldn't necessarily reach the Diaspora by 15 Nisan, so the Diaspora Jews didn't know the correct date on which to observe Pesach, and the rest is history. Those of you who still observe two days of yom tov can thank the Kutim.

Time was running short, so I didn't do the story (on 25a) that is the locus classicus for "David melech Yisrael chai v'kayam" (David, king of Israel, is alive and well.). It's a song that we all learned in Hebrew school when we were 6, but the phrase was originally a secret code meaning "Success! I have sanctified the new moon", along the lines of "The eagle has landed".

MAK then taught in depth about why the shofar must be a ram's horn (rather than another animal) and how this relates to creation, revelation, and redemption (complete with pictures of ram's horns, bovine horns, and straight horns belonging to a ya'el (whatever animal that is)), and taught the very end of the masechet. He will share his teaching in an upcoming post.

Then we concluded with the hadran, the recitation of the sons of Rav Papa (except really they were all sons of different Papas -- it's not like saying "Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Tito Jackson, ..." but more like "Michael Jackson, Andrew Jackson, Jesse Jackson, Stonewall Jackson, ..."), the prayer for studying Torah, and finally the extended version of the kaddish d'rabbanan. And then food.

The menu:
  • Ok, starting with hamelech (NOOOO WAIT!!!): KING-size Reese's peanut butter cups
  • For the four new years: apples & honey (Tishrei), dates (Shevat), matzah (Nisan), Animal Cookies (Elul)
  • For the shofar: Bugles
  • For the phases of the moon: black-and-white (aka half moon) cookies, a Luna bar
  • For Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai: Ben & Jerry's ice cream (whose Israeli factory is in Yavneh). They no longer seem to make Jerry's Jubilee (for the yovel) or Bovinity Divinity (for the golden calf, the reason we don't use cows' horns for the shofar), but we had Cherry Garcia (and cherries have pits; there is discussion of blowing a shofar inside a pit).
We don't know yet what we're learning next, but we'll take suggestions in the comments box. Whatever it is, rest assured that it will be blogged.

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