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There are four New Years. The first day of Nisan is the New Year for Kings and Festivals. The first day of Ellul is the New Year for animal tithes (Rabbi Eli'ezer and Rabbi Shim'on say that this is on first day of Tishri). The first day of Tishri is the New Year for Years, for Shemittah, for Jubilees, for plantings and for vegetables. The first day of Shevat is the New Year for Trees, according to Bet Shammai; Bet Hillel say that it is on the fifteenth day of that month.


There are two main themes in the tractate which we begin studying with this shiur. The first is the mechanics of the regulation of the Jewish calendar, and the other main theme is the sounding of the Shofar on the festival of Rosh ha-Shanah. The first two mishnayot of chapter one serve as a kind of general introduction to the concept of "New Year".

At first blush it seems strange to us that a system can have more than one "New Year's" day. However, the Hebrew term Rosh ha-Shanah serves to indicate the point of commencement for a system of calendrical counting and that point of commencement does not even have to be the "first day of the first month". In fact, however, even in our western culture there is more than one "New Year's" in the sense that the term is used in our present mishnah. In the State of Israel until comparatively recently there was a financial "New Year" (which commenced on 1st April), and to this very day there is a "New Year for Schools", which falls annually on 1st September. I am sure that all western countries have similar "New Years": for example, in the terms of our present mishnah in the United States of America "New Year for Presidents" falls on January 20th. Indeed, until the middle of 18th century CE the New Year in the western world began annually in mid-March! It should thus be clear that the term Rosh ha-Shanah as used in our present mishnah indicates that for certain purposes certain days of the year serve as a cut-off point: everything that precedes that day belongs to the previous unit while from that point on everything belongs to the current unit.

The term "Rosh ha-Shanah" is not really biblical. The term occurs once only [Ezekiel 40:1] in the Bible and its meaning there is not clear. The prophet obviously intends to indicate a specific date, but it is far from clear what the term Rosh ha-Shanah means as he uses it.


In the twenty-fifth year of our exile, at the start of the year [be-Rosh ha-Shanah - SR], on the tenth day of the month in the fourteenth year after the fall of The City..."

The exile that Ezekiel refers to is the first deportation from Judah to Babylon, which took place in the spring of the year 597 BCE. (We know the date from surviving Babylonian records recording military maneuvers.) This would place the vision described in chapter 40 in the year 573 BCE. And this would also correspond to the fourteenth year after Jerusalem was finally sacked by the Babylonians in the summer of 587 BCE. However, what the term "the start of the year" (Rosh ha-Shanah) is meant to describe is not clear. It cannot refer to the anniversary of either of the previously mentioned events since they did not occur on the same day - one was in March and the other was in August. However, it cannot refer to "New Years day" either, since the prophet specifically dates his vision to the tenth day of whichever month he intended to indicate. (The classical commentators such as Rashi take the month to be Tishri and the tenth day of that month to be Yom Kippur, which - as we shall see later in our present mishnah - was the start of the Jubilee year, once every fifty years.) However, it seems much more likely that the term Rosh ha-Shanah as used by Ezekiel in this context simply refers to the "start of the year", which in Babylon was in the fall of the year.

It does not seem unreasonable to assume that "the start of the year" in Israel was also in the autumn. The so-called "Gezer Calendar" was most likely a child's educational exercise. It is a shard, inscribed in Hebrew, that dates to the beginning of the first millennium BCE, about 3000 years ago - around the time of Kings Saul and David, or perhaps slightly earlier. The calendar is a kind of catechismal description of the agricultural year and starts off with "two months of ingathering" of the harvest at the end of summer. So it seems reasonable that the "start of the year" in Israel was also at the start of autumn, when the sale of the harvested produce indicated the start of a new financial year and the end of agricultural activities until the spring. However, the Bible [Exodus 12:2] also recognizes the month of Nisan as being the start of the year:

This month shall be the beginning of months for you: it is the first of the months of the year.

- and this is also the order of the months as the festivals are detailed in Leviticus 23. So it seems that the "start of the year" changed from time to time, and possibly from area to area. However, by the time we reach the tannaïtic period in which our mishnah was compiled the term Rosh ha-Shanah bears the meaning that we now associate with it: the calendrical point where a certain reckoning changes.

Our present mishnah recognizes four different "Rashei Shanim" (the plural of Rosh ha-Shanah): Nisan 1st (in the spring in Eretz-Israel); Ellul 1st (late summer); Tishri 1st (as summer gives way to fall); and Shevat 1st (or 15th) (in the height of Israel's winter). We shall now start to explain them in the order that they occur in our mishnah.

Our mishnah states that "the first day of Nisan is the New Year for Kings". As becomes clear from the discussion in the Gemara [Rosh ha-Shanah 2a onwards] the term New Year for Kings is slightly misleading. What the term means is that for technical reasons the dating of the regnal years of kings in the ancient world was standardized to one day in the year. This was to prevent mistakes in the dating of legal documents, especially loans, mortgages and IOU's. It was the universal custom to use a dating system that identified years not by a number, as we do today, but by the name of the incumbent head of state. In republican Rome events were identified as occurring during the consulate of A and B (since consular elections were annual, two heads of government, consuls, being elected together, each to serve for six months). Similarly, in Athens documents were dated "during the Archonship of...". In monarchies it was the custom to date documents according to the regnal years of the royal incumbent. Human mortality being what it is, it could be that two kings would serve during the same twelvemonth, if one died during the year (or if his term of office was otherwise ended) and another succeeded him. If one legal document was dated as having been effected during the "18th year of King Fred" and another document concerning the same principals but containing different stipulations is dated "in the 1st year of King Jim" - which of them is effective and legally binding? (This is particularly important since in Jewish law a borrower's property is effectively mortgaged to the person making the loan from the moment of the transaction taking place, and property to the value of the loan becomes forfeit if the loan is not repaid on time.) The Gemara quotes the following Baraita as obviating this problem:

If a king begins his reign on 29th Adar, when 1st Nisan arrives [the very next day - SR] he has reigned one year. But if he begins his reign on 1st Nisan he will not have reigned for one year until the next 1st Nisan [one year later].

In order to further complicate matters the Gemara [Rosh ha-Shanah 3a] points out that the fixing of 1st Nisan as the "New Year for Kings" is only valid for the kings of Israel; in the rest of the world it was the custom to fix the "New Year for Kings" as being on 1st Tishri, in the fall. Rabbi Ovadyah of Bertinoro in his classic commentary on our mishnah makes a very interesting comment:

Non-Jewish kings date from Tishri, which is the meaning of the clause later in this mishnah that "1st Tishri is the New Year for Years" - i.e. the years of gentile kings.

We shall refer back to this comment when we reach the later clause that he mentions, since it must reflect in some measure, however small, the emphasis that rabbinic sources place on the concept of Divine Kingship in association with the festival of Rosh ha-Shanah.

Our mishnah states that Nisan 1st is not only the "New Year" for kings, but it is also the New Year for festivals. At first blush it might seem that this is simply a reference to the order in which the festivals are presented in all the resumés given by the Torah: Exodus 23:14-16, Exodus 34:18-22, Leviticus 23, Deuteronomy 15:1-16 - all of these resumés start with the spring festival of Pesaĥ and work through to the festival of Sukkot in the fall. But this is not the intention of our mishnah. In order to understand the true intention of our mishnah we must consider the following biblical injunction [Deuteronomy 23:22-24]:

If you promise God something do not delay payment, for God will certainly require it of you and you will be found to be sinning. It is no sin to refrain from making [such] promises, but what you have uttered you must fulfill and make the donation that you promised God you would make.

In moments of great joy it is not uncommon for people to make promises to God. These promises usually take the form of a donation to some institution which is presumed to have divine blessing. In ancient times it was almost universal that expressions of such gratitude to heaven be made through the offering of "a free-will offering" brought to the Bet Mikdash. One classic example is the reaction of Elkanah and Ĥannah to the birth of their long-awaited son, Samuel [1Samuel 1:22-25]:

[After the child was born] the man Elkanah and all his household went to make their celebratory sacrifice and to pay off his promise... Thus she [Ĥannah] took him after weaning him, together with three bulls, one Efah of flour and a flask of wine... They slaughtered the bull and presented the lad to Eli.

However, even in the case of Ĥannah we perceive a certain reticence to actually fulfill the promise: she postpones payment until the child is weaned. One can imagine that less-motivated people would postpone the fulfillment of their promises indefinitely. It is to combat this tendency that the sages interpreted the verses from Deuteronomy 23 that we quoted above, as referring to the duty to make immediate payment of promises made to God.

However, we should note carefully that the text of the Torah is "if you promise God something do not delay payment". Such a wording obviously requires the sages to consider what constitutes delay [Rosh ha-Shanah 4a]. The point is detailed in a long Baraita, part of which we quote:

Whether it be a vow, a donation, an assessment, once three festivals have passed one has transgressed "do not delay". Rabbi Shim'on says that the three festivals must be in chronological order starting with Passover...

Several points in this Baraita required a modicum of explanation. First of all let us note, for future reference, that there are two opinions quoted in this Baraita. One of the sages is named: Rabbi Shim'on bar-Yoĥai, but the first is not. This is a Tannaïtic convention designed to indicate which of more than one view is accepted Halakhah: the anonymous view reflects accepted Halakhah; it is the view of "the rest of the sages" with whom, in our case, Rabbi Shim'on disagrees. Conventionally we speak of Rabbi Shim'on - in our case - as disagreeing with Tanna Kamma, the "first, unidentified, Tanna".

A 'vow' is a promise to offer a sacrifice to God; a 'donation' is the offering of a material substance to the Bet Mikdash - money, an object and so forth; an 'assessment' refers to the custom of donating a person's "value" to the Bet Mikdash. (This was done by "assessing" what the value of the person would be if he or she were being sold to the highest bidder in the slave market.)

Tanna Kamma says that once three of the festivals (only Pesaĥ, Shavu'ot and Sukkot count here) have passed the person making the promise is "in arrears" to Heaven. Rabbi Shim'on bar-Yoĥai gives a longer period; he requires the three festivals to have passed in chronological order. Thus, if someone made a vow in August to donate a sacrifice or a large amount of money to the Bet Mikdash, according to Tanna Kamma they would already be "in arrears" the following June after the incidence of Sukkot, then Pesaĥ and then Shavu'ot. According to Rabbi Shim'on they would not be "in arrears" until October of the following year, after the incidence of Sukkot and then the three festivals in their calendrical sequence.

It is a commonplace in Rabbinics that the Halakhah is not decided directly from the Mishnah or Gemara, but only from the decisions of the great decisors [Poskim] of the Middle Ages which are based thereon. Here there is a surprising divergence. Most of the really great Poskim (Rif, Rosh, Ran) decide Halakhah according to Rabbi Shim'on. Rambam, probably the greatest of them all, starts off (in his book Sefer ha-Mitzvot) by deciding according to Rabbi Shim'on, but he seems to have changed his mind later on in life since in his definitive work, Mishneh Torah, he decides according to Tanna Kamma. (Rif is the sobriquet of Rabbi Yitzĥak Alfassi [North Africa, 11th century CE]; Rosh is the sobriquet of Rabbi Asher ben-Yeĥi'el [Western Europe, 13th century CE]; Ran is the sobriquet of Rabbi Nissim Gerondi [Spain, 14th century CE]; and Rambam is the sobriquet of Rabbi Moshe ben-Maimon (Moses Maimonides) [North Africa, 12th century CE].)

We must now consider another Baraita which is quoted by the Gemara [Rosh ha-Shanah 7a] since this Baraita and its amplification in the Gemara will have repercussions on our later discussions on the Jewish calendar:

Nisan 1st is [also] the New Year for months, for intercalations, for the Shekel donation - and some say also for housing rentals.

It will be helpful if we mention in passing that "housing rentals" is a concept somewhat similar to the "kings" that we explained above: if someone rents a house "for a year" the rental is deemed to be valid for twelve months; but if the rental was made for "this year" then the contract is deemed to end at the end of Adar. The donation of half of one Shekel was made by Jews from all over the world. The money was paid into the treasury of the Bet Mikdash and was used for the general maintenance of the sacrificial cult (so that the sacrifices technically belonged to all Israel). Monies received by Adar of any given year were to be used for the purposes of that year; every effort was made that as from Rosh ĥodesh Nisan the upkeep of the sacrifices was effected through monies received for the current year.

The Torah stipulates that "this month [of Nisan] shall be for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first month of the year for you" [Exodus 12:2]. But the Torah also stipulates in several places that the Exodus took place in the spring and that the annual celebration of the Exodus must also take place in the spring [Exodus 13:4, Exodus 23:15, Exodus 34:18, Deuteronomy 16:1]. The Hebrew word for month is "ĥodesh" or "Yeraĥ". Both terms are connected with the moon (as is also the English word 'month'): Ĥodesh refers to the beginning of the monthly cycle of the moon from new to quarter to full to three-quarters and back to new - a cycle which takes approximately 29 and one half days. Yeraĥ is quite simply the Hebrew word for moon. Thus the Baraita which we quoted above means that the annual calculation of the months begins from the new moon of Nisan.

The moon is considered to be new when it is invisible. It has no light of its own and when it "shines" it is merely reflecting the light of the sun. When the conjunction of the moon, the sun and Earth is such that the moon is placed exactly between Earth and the sun, Earth prevents the light of the sun from reaching the moon which thus becomes completely dark. As the moon moves away from thus conjunction an arc of light becomes visible, which grows as the shadow of the Earth on the moon decreases. The moment when the moon is completely invisible is called in Hebrew the "Molad" (birth). The interval between one Molad and the next is one Jewish month and is defined by the time it takes the moon to make one revolution on the Earth's axis. This interval is approximately 29 and one half days. However, if we multiply 29.5 by twelve, to get a year, we fall short of the solar year. The solar year is defined as the time it takes the Earth to make one revolution on the sun's axis - approximately 365.25 days. There is thus a difference of some eleven days between the lunar year and the solar year. If this difference is not accounted for the anniversaries will gradually recede. This is the actual case in the Moslem calendar, where the great festivals "wander" back in the year, the fast of Ramadan falling first in the summer, then in the spring, then in winter and so forth.

Such a state of affairs cannot be tolerated by the Jewish calendar which requires the months to be regulated by the lunar cycle but the festivals to be regulated by the solar cycle. This requires an "adjusted" lunar year. The adjustment is called "intercalation". Later on in this trcatate we shall return to this topic.

The Torah [Deuteronomy 14:22]stipulates:

– :

Tithe, you must tithe the produce of your field, year by year.

According to this verse 10 per cent of the agricultural produce (of Eretz-Israel) must be donated to the priests and Levites. (I do not go into details here so as not to interrupt the flow of discussion.) However, my awkward translation was designed to reproduce the Hebrew, where the word 'tithe' is repeated. This prompted the sages to understand that the verse is referring to two different tithes: not only agricultural produce but also flocks and herds must be tithed. Furthermore, the phrase at the end of the verse was interpreted as indicating that flocks and herds should be tithed annually, but the tithe of one year should not be paid through animals born in another year. Our mishnah teaches that the cut-off date for this purpose is Ellul 1st, according to Tanna Kamma. Animals born before Ellul 1st should not be tithed by donating animals born after Ellul 1st.

Rabbi Eli'ezer ben-Hyrkenos and Rabbi Shim'on bar-Yoĥai disagree with Tanna Kamma. Since both the agricultural and the animal tithes are derived from the same verse they are of the opinion that the cut-off date should be the same, and the cut-off date for agricultural tithes is Rosh ha-Shanah. Tanna Kamma is of the opinion that the cut-off date in both cases must be immediately after the end of the process. The agricultural harvest continues right up to the end of summer (Ellul) whereas the animals give birth during the height of Summer (the month of Av). Halakhah, of course, follows Tanna Kamma.


Several people have written with information concerning the heavenly bodies and conjunction.

Yiftach Shapir:

It is interesting to look at our neighbors, the Muslims. Their calendar is Lunar as well but they still rely on actual sighting of the moon. This is important mostly for the beginning and the end of the fast of Ramadan. most Moslems rely on their local or regional "Beit Din" to announce the beginning of the holy month, but the "frum" will not begin (nor end) fasting before they actually see the new moon, with their own eyes. Muslims in America have a vast network of trained observers for that, and they have interesting websites to train these observers. I admit I learnt a thing or two about our own system in these sites!

Steve Kuperberg::

The path of the Earth around the Sun draws out a plane that astronomers refer to as the "ecliptic." The Moon's path around the Earth also draws out a plane, but it varies by about five degrees from the ecliptic. As the Moon moves away from the Sun relative to the position of the Earth, observers on Earth are able to see more reflected light from the Moon and observe the Moon "waxing," i.e., the observer sees more of the illuminated portion of the Moon. As the Moon moves toward the Sun relative to the position of the Earth, observers on Earth see less reflected light from the Moon and therefore observe it "waning." When the Moon's path crosses the plane of the ecliptic at the same time that the Moon is "new," i.e., directly between the Earth and the Sun, the Moon's shadow will trace its way across the surface of the Earth, leaving the familiar "trail" of a solar eclipse (such as that witnessed across Europe in the summer of 1999). By contrast, if the Moon's path crosses the plane of the ecliptic at the same time that the Moon is "full," i.e., the Earth is directly between the Moon and the Sun, the Earth's shadow obscures the light that would otherwise strike the Moon, causing the full Moon to disappear from view during the night - a lunar eclipse.

Steven Weinberg began his message to me with the words, "I hate to contradict you, Rabbi". But, Steven, rabbis in factual error should always be corrected. There is a verse in Proverbs 21:30 which reads: There is no wisdom, no understanding, no counsel that contravenes God. Our sages interpreted this verse as indicating that "wherever respect for God is in danger we do not honour the rabbi" [Sanhedrin 82a and several other places]. Rambam [Mishneh Torah, Mada, Yesodei ha-Torah, 4:12] says that the study of physics in general and astronomy in particular inevitably lead to "love of God". This being the case, it is necessary to present the facts correctly. It is no shame on a rabbi (or any one else) to be in error, but when it comes to "love of God" and "God's honour" he must be politely but emphatically corrected.

: In our last Shiur I gave Ĥannah as an example of someone not immediately fulfilling a vow. Naomi Koltun-Fromm writes:

I would like to offer a different reading on Channah's "delayed" offering. In a time when an infant probably lived exclusively on breast milk for the first few months of life, if not a year (or two) - when there was no substitute for breast milk then as there is now (infant formula)- it would seem highly unlikely to expect a mother to give over her child before it had been weaned - perhaps it would seem irrational or improper even. One might even suspect that an unweaned child would not survive in such a situation. So, to me, it seems that giving him over when he was weaned was exactly the right time and the fulfillment of the vow. I do not get the sense from the passage that Channah was delaying in any way.

Still in connection with the payment of vows (essentially of promises to bring a sacrifice), William Friedman writes:

I have a question concerning these vows. Is this whole discussion moot in our day, when we recite Kol Nidré every Yom Kippur, annulling the vows we have made with God for the past year? The only relevance it might have is if we pasken according to Tanna Kamma (as Rambam eventually does, and so do we?), in which case we would be "in arrears" if we made a vow in the period between Yom Kippur and Sukkot and failed to repay it between Shavuot and Yom Kippur the following year. However, do we not even have a liturgical\legal formula for the annulment of vows (hatarat nedarim) which can actually be recited at any time, rendering the entirety of this moot?

I respond:

The promise to make a donation to the Bet Mikdash is different from a vow in the sense that we usually ascribe to the term. It would be more helpful in this context to compare the vow to an undertaking to contribute to a charitable cause in modern times. In other words, something material is involved whose ownership is to be transferred by the person making the undertaking to the cause involved. In Halakhah, the moment one makes a promise to donate something to the Bet Mikdash - money, goods, a sacrifice - the "something" technically becomes the possession of God, in the keeping of the Temple Treasurer. The article is termed "Hekdesh". On 11th August 1997 I explained Hekdesh:

"Hekdesh" refers to commodities that owners have donated to the Bet Mikdash. From the moment that the donor so decided in his or her mind the commodities become the property of the Bet Mikdash and anyone eating them is guilty of sacrilegious embezzlement ["me'ilah"]. More recently I wrote that "Hekdesh" is the status of material goods or monies declared by their owner to be dedicated (i.e. donated) to the Bet Mikdash. From that moment they cease to be the property of their erstwhile owner and become the property of the Bet Mikdash under the control of the Temple's treasurer - or, in more picturesque language - they become the property of Heaven.

From the moment the vow is made the property becomes "the property of Heaven" and profane use of it constitutes "Me'ilah". Thus the biblical verse we have been discussing is in fact a moratorium on the duty to pay off the promise. Such a vow cannot be rescinded since the article no longer technically belongs to the person making the vow.

I wrote that the Jewish calendar requires the months to be regulated by the lunar cycle but the festivals to be regulated by the solar cycle. This requires an "adjusted" lunar year. The adjustment is called "intercalation".

William Friedman writes:

I suppose then it would be premature of me to ask why, if this mishnah deems Nissan the first month for intercalation, why it is actually Adar I that is intercalated in Jewish leap years?

I respond:

We shall, as William surmises, go into this in greater detail in the future, but the short answer is that the festival of Pesaĥ may not fall before the spring equinox (21st March). Should the calendar indicate that this would occur, an extra month is intercalated before Nisan. (In an age not blessed with the possibilities of telecommunication it would wreak havoc in the Jewish world if people living at a distance from the religious epicentre thought that the month was already Nisan.)

Finally, William also asks a more general question:

When did the months start to be called by their common Hebrew names as opposed to their Biblical names (Aviv, and so forth), and why did this happen?

I respond:

The names of the months which we now use derive from Babylon. It is commonly assumed that this usage began with the returnees from the Babylonian Exile - from the year 539 BCE onwards. The book if Esther gives the names of the months Nisan, Sivan, Tevet and Adar; the book of Nehemiah gives Nisan and Kislev; and the book of Ezra gives Adar. Since the prophets of the period of the Return (Haggai and Zechariah) do give dates and do not use the Babylonian names I think we can safely say that the Babylonian names were introduced by Ezra and Nehemiah in mid 5th century BCE.

EXPLANATIONS (continued):

Our mishnah states that Tishri 1st is the New Year for years. Obviously, this cannot mean that the months of the year begin with Tishri because we have already learned from a Baraita that the months of the year begin in the spring (in Eretz-Israel) with Nisan. Rambam in his commentary to our mishnah gives the explanation that to us seems most obvious:

"Rosh ha-Shanah for Years" indicates the counting from the Creation. It is also useful for the counting for documents.

However, in these two sentences Rambam is indicating that there is more than one way of counting years. The "counting from the creation", which is commonly used today among Jews, is only one method of counting years; in his second sentence Rambam refers to another method of counting, "the Documentary Era". Before we explain these two concepts let us not forget that we have already noted that in his commentary on our mishnah Rabbi Ovadyah of Bertinoro gives a different explanation of the phrase "Rosh ha-Shanah for Years":

The counting of years for non-Jewish kings.

Just as kings of Israel counted their regnal years from Nisan, as we have explained, so the kings of Assyria, Babylon and Persia counted their regnal years from Tishri. The Gemara [Rosh ha-Shanah 8a] seems to be the source for this explanation, since it says what we have already indicated - that the kings of Mesopotamia counted their regnal years from Tishri and this is important for Jews for the accurate dating of legal documents: if a loan was dated according to the years of the current non-Jewish monarch it was imperative to know when those years begin so as to be able to ascertain the chronology of conflicting documents.

Let us note parenthetically four things. Firstly, that the Torah does not indicate any celebratory reason for the festival of Rosh ha-Shanah. Rosh ha-Shanah is not included in any of the summaries of the festivals except two: in Leviticus 23 and in Numbers 28, where its sacrificial aspects are detailed. Secondly, let us note that there is no further mention of Rosh ha-Shanah in the Bible (with the possible exception of Ezekiel 40 as we have noted previously). Thirdly, when the exiles return from Babylon they instinctively assemble in Jerusalem for the month of Tishri: Ezra chapter 3, which describes the events in the fall of the year 538 BCE, makes no mention whatsoever of Rosh ha-Shanah, simply noting that as from 1st Tishri regular sacrificial worship was maintained on the makeshift altar that the returnees had managed to erect. Fourthly, let us note that almost 100 years later, in the year 444 BCE, the people again assemble in Jerusalem, but it seems that it was in order to celebrate the festival of Sukkot. Indeed, "on the first day of the month" [Nehemiah 8:2] the people assemble in order to ratify their allegiance to the Torah, but there is no indication that a festival is being observed. (However, Rashi, in his commentary on verse 9, points out that Nehemiah tells the people that "this day is holy to God" and assumes that he is referring to the incidence of Rosh ha-Shanah.)

All these elements tend to suggest that Rosh ha-Shanah began to be observed in earnest either during or after the 5th century BCE. This suggestion gains further strength when we note that the Festival of the New Year on Tishri 1st was the most impressive of all the festivals in the Mesopotamian calendar. It was on this day annually that the people solemnly celebrated the divine kingship of the god Marduk. An impressive liturgical poem was declaimed by the king, a poem (Enuma Elish) which described how the world was created by Marduk and how his kingship was recognized by the rest of the gods. (I refrain from going into the details of the Babylonian Creation Story since it is rather unsavoury and irrelevant to our discussion.) One of the major theological and liturgical elements of the festival of Rosh ha-Shanah today is God's divine sovereignty and the celebration of the creation of the world.

We must now return to the comment made by Rambam in his commentary, that Rosh ha-Shanah indicates the counting of years from creation. Judaism has known several systems for counting the years - and in some cases there were varying details even within a system. (This is why in legal documents, such as a Ketubbah - Deed of Matrimony, the date is given "according to the system used by us in this town of...") The Bible knows of a counting from the Exodus [1Kings 6:1]; there are a couple of systems for counting the years "from the destruction of the Bet Mikdash"; the "Documentary Era" counts from the establishment of the Seleucid dynasty in the year 312 BCE. The latter was used extensively during the middle ages. However, the era in common use among Jews today is the "Creation Era", which counts from the supposed moment of creation. I use the word "supposed" deliberately, not because of clashes with scientific data, but because even according to Jewish tradition the starting point of the Creation Era is a calendrical fiction.

We shall no doubt go into the mathematical details later on in our study. For the moment let me try to explain as briefly as possible. The basic astronomic fact in the Jewish calendar is a lunation - the time it takes the moon to make one revolution on the Earth's axis. As I have already indicated this takes almost 29 days and 13 hours. Thus, once you have ascertained the precise moment (Molad) of the start of any given lunation, you can extrapolate backwards endlessly. The extrapolation is governed by data gleaned from the Bible and amplified by rabbinic midrash. The earliest and most basic attempt to assemble this biblical-rabbinic reckoning is called Seder Olam which is attributed to the Tanna Rabbi Yosé ben-Ĥalafta. Basing itself on the Seder Olam the system extrapolates backwards until it reaches the year of creation according to the data of Seder Olam. However, the start of the system is the molad of Tishri of the year 1, a molad which even according to the Seder Olam preceded creation by almost twelve months! This first Molad is thus referred to by the sages as Molad Tohu, a fictional extrapolation.


William Friedman writes:

In the Rosh Ĥodesh musaf, there is an addition for leap years. According to the Artscroll Siddur, "most congregations recite the additional phrase only until Second Adar, the extra month, while some recite it all year long". It seems that we should apply the "first of Tishrei is the New Year for Years" clause here, and recite the extra words every Rosh Ĥodesh from Tishrei to Tishrei of leap years. To do otherwise seems to be mixing two types of New Years, the "New Year for Years" year and the "New Year for Festivals" year (i.e., the Rosh Ĥodesh "year" starts from Nisan, but the leap year starts from Tishrei, so we only recite the extra words when the two years intersect, from Tishrei to Nisan). I find this custom very confusing and incorrect - is there a different basis for it of which I am unaware, or should we really be saying the extra words from Tishrei to Tishrei?

I respond:

I would hesitate to denigrate any established custom. However, I agree with William that including the extra words from Tishri to Tishri makes more sense. This is my own personal custom.

EXPLANATIONS (continued):

Our mishnah states that Tishri 1st is also the New Year for Shemittah. The Hebrew term "Shemittah" means "relinquishing", "abandoning", "letting go". There are two kinds of Shemittah: agricultural Shemittah and Economic Shemittah. Both kinds of Shemittah were obviously designed for an economy whose basic structure was rural and agricultural, and the fact that our modern society is urban and industrialized (or technological) raises many difficult issues as regards the observance of this Mitzvah.

We shall first outline the agricultural form of Shemittah. The Torah [Leviticus 25:2-5] requires that one year in every cycle of seven the land (of Israel) be left completely fallow.

...When you enter the land that I am giving you the land shall enjoy God's Sabbath. For six years you may seed your field and your vineyard and harvest their produce, but in the seventh year the land shall enjoy a solemn cessation [Shabbat]: you shall not seed your field or vineyard, nor may you harvest the outcrop of your field or the grapes of your vineyard. The land shall enjoy a solemn cessation...

Nothing is to be planted and nothing, except that which has sprouted spontaneously, is to be harvested. The spontaneously sprouting produce does not belong to the owner of the land, but is common property [Hefker] and anyone may claim it. There seem to be two purposes to this Shemittah. The first purpose is obvious: to ensure the continued fertility of the land. Without benefit of fertilizers and so forth agricultural land cannot be worked indefinitely or it loses fertility. In the middle ages in Europe the solution was found in rotation: agricultural land was divided up into three parts, one part always being left fallow. The solution of the Torah is different: all land is to be left fallow once every seven years. The reason for this difference is probably to be found in the second purpose of Shemittah. In a tribal economy each household has its own piece of land which is a veritable inheritance: the family plot was passed on from one generation to the next, and in an agricultural economy it was from this plot of land that the family unit sustained itself. Anyone who did not have an ancestral plot, for any reason, was doomed to destitution. (Those who particularly suffered from this were foreign settlers [gerim], widows and orphans: that is why the Torah always singles them out for compassionate charity.) The tribe of Levi was also landless, but a different solution was found for them. This complete dependence on the ancestral plot created a compulsive sense of ownership: "my land". The Torah does not recognize private ownership of the land: the land belongs to God who leases it out, as it were, to the tribes and their members. In order to regularly reinforce this concept the farmer was required once every seven years to refrain from working his fields and to allow anyone access to them to take whatever they could find: it is not the farmer's land, but God's, and God disposes of it as God chooses.

The second form of Shemittah is the economic form. The Torah [Deuteronomy 15:1-3] describes it thus:

Every seven years you shall have a Shemittah, and this is its nature: all creditors must relinquish, must relinquish their debts. They may not pressure their brethren [to repay the debt] since God's Shemittah has been proclaimed...

Once in every seven years all debts are canceled. This aspect of Shemittah, too, presupposes a predominately tribal and agricultural society. When people are self-sustaining off their own land the need for borrowing is small and the debts are also usually small and very short-term. Indeed, most debts were probably paid off in kind - livestock, grain, vegetables or fruit.

As the economy gradually moved from tribal-agricultural towards urbanization all the old provisions began to break down. In a town, the people closest to one are neighbours and not necessarily members of the same tribe. In a town people need cash and borrow, get into debt to people who have no family connection with them. These creditors will be loathe to forego their debts once every seven years; the result is obvious: credit will just not be available. The Torah [Deuteronomy 15:9-10] recognizes this problem, but does not have a really effective solution:

Be very careful not to entertain dastardly thoughts and say that the seventh year is approaching, the year of cancellation: you will not look kindly on your destitute brother and will not give him [credit]. He will cry out about you to God and you will be a sinner...

On the assumption that the basic characteristics of creditors does not change from clime to clime or from age to age it does not seem that the exhortation of the Torah would have been very effective. (Imagine how your bank manager would react to giving you credit when he or she knows that within a couple of months all the debt will be lost...)

The problematica of Shemittah have been the subject of varying halakhic developments. In Tannaïtic times it seems that the sages wanted to utilize their powers of hermeneutic interpretation in order to "explain away" the problem. There is a Baraita in the Talmud of Eretz-Israel [Shevi'it 39c] which seeks to reinterpret the biblical command:

"And this is its nature: all creditors must relinquish, must relinquish" [Deuteronomy 15:2] - Rabbi says that the duplication indicates two kinds of Shemittah, Shemittah and Jubilee: as long as the Jubilee is operative Shemittah is also operative by Torah law; now that the Jubilee system is defunct the Shemittah is only operative by rabbinic law.

"Rabbi" in this Baraita is Rabbi Yehudah the President of the Sanhedrin and the compiler of the Mishnah. Later on we shall explain the Jubilee system in detail; for now suffice to say that it was universally agreed that already in biblical times the Jubilee system had become defunct. The ĥiddush [new insight] of Rabbi is that in post-biblical times the Shemittah systems operates only through force of rabbinic law, not Torah law. (The Babylonian Talmud [Gittin 36a] explains that the rabbis retained the outward forms of Shemittah so that the institution would not become completely obsolete.) According the another source [Talmud of Eretz-Israel, Ta'anit 66c] Rabbi intended to go much further and to officially declare Shemittah obsolete, but opposition from more "conservative" quarters (Rabbi Pinĥas ben-Ya'ir) frustrated his intention. Unofficially, there are several examples of sages instructing people collapsing under Roman taxation to ignore the Shemittah year completely [Sanhedrin 26a, for example].

In his comprehensive responsum on Shemittah [Responsa of the Halakhah Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel (vol. 1), Jerusalem, 1986], Rabbi David Golinkin quotes several post Talmudic sages of great repute who were of the opinion that in Tannaïtic times Shemittah was operative by force of rabbinic law, because there was still a Sanhedrin in Eretz-Israel, but in the post-Talmudic era the observance of Shemittah is nothing but an act of piety! These sages include luminaries such as Rabbi Avraham ben-David of Posquières and Rabbi Zeraĥyah ha-Levi.

When Jews began settling once again in Eretz-Israel towards the end of the 19th century CE the question of Shemittah observance became "active" after 1500 years of dissuetude. Completely ignoring the opinion of medieval sages that "Shemittah in this day and age is only an act of piety", two solutions were proposed by the rabbis of the age. One solution, accepted by the ultra-orthodox in Israel, is to rely entirely on non-Jewish (i.e. Arab) produce resold collectively through a Bet Din - and, of course, on imported products. The other solution, accepted by the orthodox, is to formally sell the land of Israel to non-Jews for the whole of the Shemittah year. Since I am a Conservative rabbi I have no hesitation in categorizing both of these modern solutions as quite ludicrous - and completely contrary to everything that Zionism stands for. (I think that it is curious that even though it is not directly connected with the subject of our discussion, in the very same context in which the Torah institutes agricultural Shemittah it categorically states: "the land shall never be sold for the land is Mine: you are only My tenants" [Leviticus 25:23].) Surely, the most appropriate modern solution is to recognize that "Shemittah in this day and age is only an act of piety" and its most rigorous aspects may be ignored.

If we take the current Jewish year and divide by seven we arrive at the position of that year in the Shemittah cycle. For example, 5760 divided by seven yields 822 with a remainder of 6, which indicates that 5760 is the sixth of the seven-year cycle. This appears to indicate that the cycles start at the creation of the world. But this is not the case, and that neat mathematical "trick" is purely fortuitous. In chapter 10 of the Laws of Shemittah and Jubilee in his halakhic magnum opus Mishneh Torah, Rambam explains:

[The Israelites] started their reckoning after the 14th year of their residence in Eretz-Israel ... which was 2503 AM [Anno Mundi, Creation Era, Jewish Reckoning]... They counted seven Shemittah cycles and then celebrated the Jubilee... There were seventeen Jubilees before they were exiled in the 36th year of that Jubilee... The cycles then ceased altogether. After their return they declared the 13th year of the existence of the second Bet Mikdash to be a Shemittah year... It thus transpires that the year in which the Bet Mikdash was last destroyed [August 70 CE] was the year 3830 AM... This this present year [in which Rambam is composing this chapter] is 1107 since the Destruction, 1487 of the Seleucidan Era and 4936 AM [1176 CE ]. This year is a Shemittah year...

You can do the rest of the calculation yourself!


Ze'ev Orzech sent me the following message concerning calendrical intercalation:

You may be interested in knowing that the Chinese have the same problem we do: they operate on a lunar calendar, but celebrate holidays (such as the important Spring Festival) which are tied to the solar calendar. They solve the problem the way we do, but - as far as I could find out - not as well. I've been told by a Buddhist monk in Thailand that they intercalate a thirteenth month every three years. Since we add a thirteenth month seven times in 19 years (slightly more than one in three) which reconciles the two calendars very closely, their system will still cause a given lunar date to creep slowly around the seasons.

We had a comparatively long discussion in the explanations concerning the meaning of the phrase in our mishnah "New Year for Years". Richard Friedman writes:

A thought on R.H. 1:1. The mishna uses for 1 Tishrei the locution "New Year for years," although this does not have the same obvious halachic application as do the other statements in the mishna - the application to tithing "classes," the dating of notes by the year of the Jewish king, etc. There was such a halachic application for 1 Tishrei - dating of notes by the year of the non-Jewish king - so why didn't the mishna say that 1 Tishrei is the "New Year for gentile kings"? Perhaps the mishna uses the language that it does precisely to teach us that 1 Tishrei is the real anniversary of creation, the "natural" new year. Then 1 Nisan, the new year for Jewish kings and festivals, can be seen as the Jewish "national" new year. Then the mishna is teaching us that Judaism's calendar year is not natural, it's artificial or conventional. This accords perfectly with the understanding of Exod. 12:2 that you cited - "This month [Nisan] is to be for you the first month" - we are to have a calendar separate from the "real" or "natural" calendar. Thus, perhaps we ought to stop thinking about Rosh Hashana (1 Tishrei) as "the Jewish new year" - we really ought to think of it as the Jewish understanding of the universal (natural, physical, true) new year.

I respond:

Richard's idea is a very nice one and can certainly exist as a "stand alone" idea for those who appreciate it. However, Richard also seeks to suggest that the intention of our mishnah is consonant with his idea. This is not nearly as problematic as it seems at first blush. As we have noted, the Gemara [Rosh ha-Shanah 8a] certainly reflects two opinions as to the meaning of "New Year for Years". Rav Pappa (a Babylonian Amora) gives the view that the phrase is concerned with the regnal years of Mesopotamian monarchs; but Rabbi Zera (an Amora of Eretz-Israel) gives the view that the phrase is connected with "the Tekufah" - which we can render as solstices and equinoxes (which occur annually on March 21st, June 21st, September 20th and December 21st). Rashi explains that solstices and equinoxes are connected with the sun and the moon, and that therefore Rabbi Zera is saying that Rosh ha-Shanah celebrates their creation and the celestial mechanics. (Despite Rashi, I know of no connection between the moon and solstices and equinoxes, which are only connected with the annual passage of the Earth round the sun; but this does not vitiate the general thrust of his comment.)

However, we must also bear in mind that the Gemara recognizes that Rabbi Zera's view is based on the view of another. The Gemara [Rosh ha-Shanah 10a-b] records a Maĥloket [difference of opinion] between two giants of the Tannaïtic age, Rabbi Eli'ezer and Rabbi Yeshoshu'a. Rabbi Eli'ezer is of the opinion that the world was created in Tishri, whereas Rabbi Yeshoshu'a is of the opinion that the world was created in Nisan. (Actually, both of these are circumlocutions, since according to accepted calendrical calculations the "First Day" of the creation story must have been on 25th Ellul according to Rabbi Eli'ezer and on 25th Adar according to Rabbi Yehoshu'a.) The Gemara makes no attempt there to decide between these two opinions, thus suggesting that it has no practical significance - which would not be the case if Richard's suggestion were correct. However, Richard can point out that custom has indeed decided between the two views, and that our present calendrical system is based on a mathematical extrapolation which progresses backwards to an assumed starting point on Sunday, 1st Tishri, 3760 BCE at 11 minutes and 20 seconds after 11 pm. (More on this much later on.)

I expressed my view concerning the attempts made by orthodoxy in modern times to circumvent the requirements of Shemittah. Joshua Peri demurs:

Whereas formally selling the land is symbolically opposed to zionist ideology, I think that if we wish to relate at all to shmitta, it is preferable to proclaiming that it is only an act of piety. The formal sale gives at least a minor importance to something that would otherwise be forgotten. There are also many other ways , halachic and agro-technical, to help observe agricultural shmitta. No one has yet dealt seriously with the idea of observing an industrial or economic shmitta.

I respond:

I believe that this issue has been seriously addressed. At the end of his responsum on the issue, a responsum that I have already referenced, Rabbi David Golinkin suggests that all of us can now return in some small measure to the original ethos of Shemittah by making a solemn undertaking at the start of the year to forego a certain percentage of our income and donate it to charities that help Jews in need.

EXPLANATIONS (continued):

The institution of the Jubilee is outlined in the Torah [Leviticus 25]. After every seventh cycle of seven years a special year is proclaimed in which all slaves are automatically manumitted and all property is restored to its original owner. Both these provisions obviously reflect an agricultural and tribal society. In such a society, as I have pointed out previously, it is essential that tribal property remain intact within tribal territory. Therefore, no person's allotment within the tribal area could be sold for more than fifty years.

The Torah [Leviticus 25:8-10] stipulates:

You shall count seven Sabbaths of years - seven times seven years - so that there is a total of forty-nine years in these seven Sabbaths of years. In the seventh month on the tenth day of the month, on the Day of Atonement, you shall sound a shofar blast throughout your land, and you shall sanctify the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants: it shall be your Jubilee. Each person shall return to his own allotment and to his own clan...

The English term "Jubilee" derives directly from the Hebrew Yovel. But this latter term does not indicate primarily a period of fifty years, but it is a synonym for Shofar. Thus, originally, the Jubilee year was so called because of the shofar blast which announced its arrival ten days into the year. (Although the shofar was not sounded until Yom Kippur the provisions of the Jubilee began on Rosh ha-Shanah, as stated in our mishnah.) In a Jubilee year the shofar was sounded on Yom Kippur in the same way as it is still sounded by us on Rosh ha-Shanah. With the cessation of the Jubilee system this sounding of the Shofar, of course, also stopped; but it is customary to make one sound of the Shofar at the end of Yom Kippur in memory of that ancient ceremony. We do so every year since we no longer know which year is a Jubilee year.


Aryeh Abramovitz writes:

My understanding was that Yevul Nochrim and Heiter Mechira were based on the same understanding (that the obligation to let the land lie fallow during shemita was incumbent on the owner - i.e. a Jew - and not on the land), whereas Otzar Beit-Din seeks to work within the framework of the original D'oraita commandment of leaving the harvest as 'hefker', but taking into account the fact that most people don't live in agricultural areas, appoints 'Shlichei beit Din' (usually the farmer who usually owns the land) to harvest the hefker harvest for the Beit-Din, and then the Beit-Din markets it, charging a price to cover the cost of labor.

I respond:

All this is correct. Let me just translate for those Hebraically challenged:

Yevul Nokhrim - produce grown by non-Jews
Heter Mekhirah - the "license" to sell the land.

Both of these concepts are connected with the "solution" of Rabbi Kuk (and implemented by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel) by which the land is sold to a non-Jew (for two years) every Shemittah.

Otzar Bet-Din - Storehouse of the Court
Shelichei Bet-Din - Officials of the Court

Both of these concepts are connected with the "solution" of Rabbi Karelitz (the Ĥazon Ish) whereby all produce grown by Jews becomes the property of the Shemittah Bet-Din which is then distributed throughout the country through the good offices of private citizens (called colloquially "Shemittah shops").

As I have already explained, neither of these "solutions" (with enormous ideological and halakhic drawbacks) is necessary, since there are very great poskim [decisors] of the Middle Ages who state quite categorically that Shemittah in our day and age (when there is no Sanhedrin) is purely an act of piety and not a mitzvah [religious requirement].

I wrote: Our present calendrical system is based on a mathematical extrapolation which progresses backwards to an assumed starting point on Sunday, 1st Tishri, 3760 BCE at 11 minutes and 20 seconds after 11 pm. Ed Frankel writes:

Is this common knowledge, or did you do this calculation yourself?

I respond:

This is common (rabbinic) knowledge. I will not explain any more at this stage since, as I wrote then: "More on this much later on."

EXPLANATIONS (continued):

Our mishnah states that Tishri 1st is also the New Year for plantings and vegetables. In order to understand the former we must first review the mitzvah as stated in the Torah [Leviticus 19:23-25]:

When you arrive in the land and you plant fruit trees you must consider its fruit to be uncircumcised for a period of three years. In the fourth year its fruit shall be sacred to praising God. In the fifth year you may eat its fruit...
Since the Torah uses the term "uncircumcised" to describe the fruit of trees before it is permitted for consumption the whole concept is termed Orlah in Hebrew. While Orlah would usually be translated "foreskin", in this context it would seem clearer to leave it untranslated. (The classical commentators try to connect the two meanings and suggest that in our present context the fruit is "blocked off". In the bible other organs are described as being "uncircumcised" - the heart, the lips and the ears - and the term seems to indicate something that blocks or prevents the appropriate functioning of that organ.) The basic idea is simple: during the first three years after planting the fruit of a tree is forbidden; the fruit of the fourth year is to be taken to celebrate in the Bet Mikdash as a thanksgiving. From the fifth year after planting the fruit may be treated as the owner chooses.

We have already noted that in other matters as well part of a year is considered to be a complete year. This is the case with Orlah as well. From two weeks after planting a fruit tree is considered viable; 30 days in a year are considered to constitute a whole year for the purposes of reckoning years. Thus - and this is the point of our mishnah - any tree planted more than 44 days before Rosh ha-Shanah is considered to be in its second year of Orlah from Tishri 1st onwards. Thus, for the sake of illustration, a tree originally planted on July 15th 1999 will become fully permitted on Rosh ha-Shanah of the year 2003 even though that is many months before the end of the fourth year of planting.

According to Torah law produce must be subjected to several kinds of tithe. (Tithes were levies on produce that were the perquisite of various groups - priests, levites, the city of Jerusalem and the indigent.) Tithes on vegetables had to be paid from the same crop as they were tithing. Thus the tithe from vegetables that were harvested before Rosh ha-Shanah may not be taken from a stock of vegetables that were harvested after Rosh ha-Shanah.

Our mishnah also mentions a New Year for Trees (not to be confused with Orlah). This is also connected with the tithing system. Just as vegetables could not be tithed from produce from a different year whose "cut-off" day was Tishri 1st, so also the tithes from trees could not be taken from the yield of a different year. However, the "cut-off" date is not Tishri 1st. Our mishnah reveals a "maĥloket" [difference of opinion] between two great schools of interpretation: Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel.

A "shammuti" was a follower of the school of Shammai, a school of opinion known to be generally more stringent than the majority school of Hillel. Louis Finkelstein z"l may be right in assuming that social and economic factors also distinguish the views of these two schools of halakhic thought, the school of Shammai being more 'bourgeois' and the school of Hillel more 'proletarian'. Our discussion concerning the development of Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai would be incomplete (and dishonest) if it did not include an account of the terrible tensions that existed between the two groups that comprised the Pharisaic branch of Judaism. I quote from a book by Louis Finkelstein - Akiba: Scholar, Saint & Martyr (page 43 ff).

For many generations the two groups worked together without the encumbrance of separate organizations. But the long reign of Herod [37-4 BCE - SR], with its bitterness, its absolutism and its subservience to Rome, aroused the dormant nationalism of the provincials and lower patricians. Acting on the principle established by his Roman masters, divide et impere, the astute king showed special favour to the peace-loving plebeians, fomenting dissension between them and their patrician colleagues.

The factional quarrel became more bitter when, immediately after the death of Herod, the nationalists sought to destroy his dynasty. He had designated his son, Archelaus, as his successor, but before the new king could go to Rome for confirmation by the Caesar, the pilgrims, who had gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover celebration, declared a revolt against him... He sent his whole army against the rebels' killing three thousand of them and dispersing the rest to their homes. Having apparently settled the rebellion with this decisive blow, Archelaus sailed for the imperial capital with a light heart. Little did he realize the depth of the resentment against his father's house. His absence enabled the nationalists to increase their forces and prepare better plans. Their boldness rose with their enthusiasm. They would drive from the country not only the Herodian, but his Roman masters. They would restore the glorious days of the Maccabean theocracy. Their war-fever infected even the Sanhedrin, which now voted for war. "On that day, Hillel sat bent before Shammai, like one of the disciples," records the Talmud; "and," the pacifist chronicler adds, "it was as grave a catastrophe for Israel as when they made the Golden Calf." [Shabbat 17a - SR]

Shammai, however, did not content himself with the victory for his foreign policy; he took advantage of the situation, as party men are wont to do, to force also the acceptance of his social and ceremonial program. "If you anger me, I will declare impurity also against the gathering of olives," he cried out to Hillel, who had apparently been outvoted, if not temporarily removed from office...

It was probably during this Passover, while the nationalists controlled the approaches to the Temple, that there occurred the almost incredible incident of Hillel's narrow escape from physical violence at the hands of the enthusiastic Shammaites. The old sage had brought a whole burnt offering to the Temple on a festival day, and had put his hands on its head in accordance with the usual custom. In the eyes of the Shammaites, his action constituted a double offense... Being apparently in control of the outer courts of the sanctuary, the excited partisans of Shammai gathered about Hillel threateningly when they saw him violate their traditions...

Seeing his danger, Hillel resorted to stratagem. "It is not a whole burnt offering," he said, "but a peace offering." This mitigated the offense, and during the discussion which ensued about the other half of the charge, Hillel made his way to safety...

Encouraged and strengthened by their victory in the Sanhedrin, the nationalists gathered in hosts for the next pilgrimage, that of Pentecost, which occurs six weeks after the end of Passover. They seized the Temple mount... thus completely surrounding the Roman garrison in the center. A terrific battle ensued, in which hundreds of nationalists were slain, the cloisters surrounding the temple courts were burned, and the festival celebration was broken up. Yet the uprising was not crushed until Varus, Governor of Syria, came into the country with two additional legions, burned several important towns, entered Jerusalem and crucified two thousand rebels.

It is most necessary in our day and age (where factional violence is rife) to also recount what is recorded by the Talmud of Eretz-Israel [Shabbat 3c]:-

Mishnah: The following are the halakhot resolved upon in the first-story chamber of Ĥananyah ben-Ĥizkiyah ben-Garon, when they went up to visit him and took a vote, and Bet Shammai outnumbered Bet Hillel. Eighteen laws were decreed on that day.

Gemara: That day was as difficult for Israel as the day upon which the [Golden] Calf was made... Disciples of Bet Shammai stationed themselves below and killed disciples of Bet Hillel [in order to thus create the majority]. Six of them went up and the rest stationed themselves with swords and spears.

Let us now return to a less violent difference between the two schools. In our mishnah Bet Shammai holds that the New Year for trees falls on Shevat 1st, whereas Bet Hillel hold that the cut-off date is 15th of that month. The month of Shevat is the depths of winter in Eretz-Israel. The 15th of that month is exactly six months before mid-summer's day, Av 15th. The Gemara [Rosh ha-Shanah 14a] explains that by Shevat 15th "most of the year's rains are past, the sap begins to rise in the trees and from then on they start to blossom".

We have at last managed to complete our review of the first mishnah of this tractate!

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On four occasions the world is judged: on Pesaĥ regarding grain; on Shavu'ot regarding the fruit of trees; on Rosh ha-Shanah all mankind passes muster before Him (as it is said, "It is He who creates their heart, who comprehends all their deeds"; and on Sukkot we are judged regarding water.


The first mishnah in our present chapter described four days in the year which are seen as being "New Years" in the Jewish calendar - "cut-off" days for various purposes. Our present mishnah also refers to four occasions in the Jewish year, four occasions upon which the world is seen as being judged. Judgment here means that on four occasions in the year decisions are made in Heaven regarding what is going to be.

It is because of this sense of judgment that on these four occasions, when the Torah is taken from the Ark in the synagogue, we add into the liturgy the quotation from the Torah [Exodus 34:6-7] concerning the Thirteen Divine Attributes. This serves as reminder that God's judgment is tempered with mercy, that God is "a compassionate and merciful Deity..." Since, on Shabbat, we are not supposed to think about the rather mundane matters that are the subject of this judgment, when these days fall on Shabbat we omit the quotation.

The festival of Pesaĥ, Passover, in the spring, is the time of year when the fate of the grain harvest is uppermost in the ancient farmer's mind: will there be a good and abundant crop? You will recall from our study of the previous mishnah that the grain harvest began after Pesaĥ, reaching its high point around Shavu'ot. If the cereal crops fail to give a good yield, in a society whose economic base is entirely agricultural the result will be misery, illness and starvation for almost the whole population.

Seven weeks after Pesaĥ is the festival of Shavu'ot, Pentecost. In rabbinic literature (as in our present mishnah) the preferred name of this festival is "Atzeret", which has the meaning of "conclusion". Shavu'ot is seen as the conclusion of the festival of Pesaĥ - to which it is ideationally linked by the institution of the counting of the Omer. (In the days when the Bet Mikdash still existed Jews would come from all over the Jewish world to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem; it was customary to arrive from Pesaĥ and to stay until after Shavu'ot, thus making the trip worth while.) Our mishnah teaches that on Shavu'ot the fate of the fruit harvest is judged - wine, oil, and date honey in particular were essential to the economy.

On Sukkot the fate of the rainy season, which is due to begin soon after this autumn festival of Tabernacles, is decided: will the coming winter bring all the rain that the Land of Israel so needs - even to this very day - in order for society to function properly. In the agricultural economy of Eretz-Israel in Biblical and Talmudic times the falling of the rain at the appropriate time (and, of course, its not falling at inappropriate times) were quite literally matters of life and death ... We can now understand the comment of a famous sage, reported in the Talmud of Eretz-Israel [Ta'anit 63d] that "the rains falling at the appropriate time are welcome as [being] the resurrection of the dead". Without them there can be no life and death is inevitable. The Gemara, in Tractate Ta'anit, explains that logically we should begin mentioning the rains on the first day of Sukkot, but we postpone the mentioning of rain until after we have completed the mitzvah of living in the Sukkah for seven days: it would be folly to ask for the one element that would completely ruin our performance of the mitzvah! Thus it is that we start "mentioning" the rains at the end of the festival of Sukkot, at the tail end of summer in Eretz-Israel. This day is called "Shemini Atzeret" - "the concluding eighth day" - which in Israel is also Simĥat Torah, but in the Diaspora is the day before Simĥat Torah). The mentioning of the rains - by adding to the second Berakhah of the Amidah the simple phrase "[God] causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall" - continues without a break in every Amidah (three or four times a day) until the first day of Pessaĥ, when we omit this mentioning for the whole of the period of the summer (in Eretz-Israel). So essential is the life-giving moisture from heaven, that it is the universal custom in the State of Israel to add during these summer months the mention that "[God] causes the dew to descend"; but this custom is mostly not followed in the Diaspora.

Our mishnah also refers to judgment on Rosh ha-Shanah, and it is this judgment, of course, that is uppermost in the mind of most people. I have translated that "on Rosh ha-Shanah all mankind passes muster before Him". This translation is based upon a reading of the Hebrew text which is to be found in some codices and is superior to the erroneous text found in most popular editions. The original text read that all mankind passes before Him "kivenumeron", as in a regiment. (The "numeron" was the Greek term for a military unit.) When this term was no longer understood the text was "emended" to read "kivnei maron", which yields little sense, but can be understood somehow as meaning "a flock of sheep". This corrupt reading of the text gave rise to the beautiful image in the liturgical prose-poem of the high holidays, "U-netanneh Tokef" of God counting all human souls as a shepherd counts his flock passing them one by one under his crook. But the better understanding of the phrase in our mishnah is as I have translated: "all mankind passes muster", suggesting that on Rosh ha-Shanah every human being passes God, in the reviewing stand as it were, just as soldiers are reviewed by their commanding officer.


Concerning the Jubilee, I wrote: The Torah [Leviticus 25:8-10] stipulates: You shall count seven Sabbaths of years - seven times seven years - so that there is a total of forty-nine years in these seven Sabbaths of years. In the seventh month on the tenth day of the month, on the Day of Atonement, you shall sound a Shofar blast throughout your land, and you shall sanctify the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants: it shall be your Jubilee. Each person shall return to his own allotment and to his own clan...

Juan-Carlos Kiel writes:

I read the above as follows: After the 7th shmita year, the first year is a Yovel, which is the first of a Shmita Cycle. Seven Shmita cycles pass - 49 years, and the first year after the seventh Shmita is a Yovel. Therefore, the distance between two Yovalim is just 49 years - not 50. Is that correct?

I respond:

No it is not, though this way of understanding the Torah text is not unknown to the sages, who rejected it. I quote directly from Rambam, Hilkhot Shemittah and Yovel, 10:7 -

The jubilee year is not counted as one of the years in the septade [of seven years - SR]. The forty-ninth year is Shemittah and the fiftieth year is Jubilee. The fifty-first year is the first of the next septade - and thus for every Jubilee cycle.

Juan-Carlos continues:

If it would be 50, then the Yovel would move with respect to the Shmita year, the first cycle would it be the 1st after the shmita, in the 2nd cycle it would be the 2nd year, etc., which would make after 7 Jubilees, the Yovel to fall on a Shmita year.

I respond:

All of which is contrary to the plain meaning of the text of the Torah which clearly institutes two cycles, one of seven years and another of fifty years.

Juan-Carlos continues:

Going back to Jubilees, I believe we still have some remains of that: The Keren Kayemet [The Jewish National Fund - SR] used to lease the land for periods of 50 years, after which - theoretically - the ownership of the land would return to the Keren Kayemet - to the people itself.

EXPLANATIONS (continued):

The discussion on the Gemara [Rosh ha-Shanah 16a] sheds some light on the rather ambiguous wording of our mishnah as regards the judgment of Rosh ha-Shanah. We note that our mishnah is not attributed to any sage in particular - what is technically called "mishnah stamit" or "anonymous mishnah". This does not necessarily mean that the name of the sage whose view the mishnah reflects is unknown: Rabbi Yehudah, the President of the Sanhedrin, who compiled the Mishnah bases himself on a system in which any view that is anonymous actually reflects the view of the majority of the sages, and is therefore, in the view of Rabbi Yehudah, Halakhah. Sometimes the Gemara tries to identify the "anonymous" sage who is the actual author of the mishnah in question, and this is the case with our present mishnah. The methodology is usually one of elimination: it can't be sage A and it can't be sage B since their differing view is on record. Thus the Gemara asks (and responds): "Who is the author of our mishnah? - It cannot be Rabbi Me'ir, nor can it be Rabbi Yehudah (bar-Ilai), nor can it be Rabbi Yosé, nor can it be Rabbi Natan". The Gemara then gives details:

There is a Baraita which reads as follows: All of them [cereals, fruit, water and mankind] are judged on Rosh ha-Shanah but the sentence is not handed down until Yom Kippur - this is the view of Rabbi Me'ir, whereas Rabbi Yehudah says that all of them are judged on Rosh ha-Shanah but the sentence of each is handed down at its appropriate time - cereals on Pesaĥ, fruit on Shavu'ot, water on Sukkot and people are judged on Rosh ha-Shanah but their sentence is handed down on Yom Kippur.

We interrupt the Baraita at this point for the sake of clarity to point out that the view of Rabbi Me'ir in the Baraita contradicts our mishnah in that our mishnah seems to hold that the fate of each item is decided at the appropriate time, whereas Rabbi Me'ir holds that all are decided on Yom Kippur. On the other hand Rabbi Yehudah contradicts our mishnah in that he places the judgment of all items on Rosh ha-Shanah, which is plainly not the view of our mishnah.

Rabbi Yosé says that people are judged daily (basing himself on Job 6:18), whereas Rabbi Natan says that people are judged hourly (basing himself on the same verse).

Both Rabbi Yosé and Rabbi Natan obviously contradict our mishnah in the matter of the judgment of humans, since according to our mishnah that is reserved to Rosh ha-Shanah, whereas according to these two sages man is continuously under divine scrutiny.

Having presented the evidence of the Baraita the Gemara now continues:

You can't say that Rabbi Yehudah's view can be squared with our mishnah if we assume that he merely differentiates between judgment and sentencing which is not clear from the mishnah; you can't say this since his view that people are sentenced on Yom Kippur cannot be squared with the mishnah (which only mentions Rosh ha-Shanah). [The Babylonian Amora] Rava says that the author of our mishnah belongs to the school of Rabbi Yishma'el, for Rabbi Yishma'el says: "On four occasions is the world judged, on Pesaĥ concerning cereals, on Shavu'ot concerning fruit, on Sukkot concerning water, and man is judged on Rosh ha-Shanah and his sentence is ratified on Yom Kippur.

According to this solution, our mishnah teaches that man is both judged and sentenced on Rosh ha-Shanah, but the sentence is ratified on Yom Kippur. While this view seems to be different from the popularly held view it does seem to be the accepted view of the Gemara.

There is no Halakhah to determine here, so there is no practical difference which opinion is held. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is an very great philosophical issue at stake here. I shall try to describe the issue as briefly as possible, even though only a dissertation would really do it justice.

For those people who have a simplistic conception of the Deity the whole issue of God's annual judgment and sentencing of each individual human being presents no philosophic problems. For these people, the medieval metaphor of a King reviewing his subjects and sentencing them to life or death on the basis of their actions during the year is appropriate and helpful. However, most moderns will have a problem with this issue. We know that righteous people die between one Rosh ha-Shanah and the next and that far too many really wicked people seem to slip through the divine net year after year. (Was Adolph Hitler any more wicked on Rosh ha-Shanah of 1944 than he was on Rosh ha-Shanah of 1942?) We cannot piously opine that God's ways are too obscure for us to question, since if the system of judgment is to have any ethical meaning it must be abundantly clear that not only is justice done but that it is seen to be done according to the principles set forth.

The facts themselves seem to indicate that there is no annual divine judgment. Before we reject this view out of hand as being heretical, let us ask ourselves why Rabbi Yishma'el requires a three-staged review process: judgment, sentencing, ratification; in what way is the ratification different from the sentencing? Ratification is usually the prerogative of an agency other than the sentencing agency. If we assume that God is the agency of ratification on Yom Kippur - and can there be any higher court of the last instance!? - then we must as ourselves the nature of the agency for judgment and sentencing on Rosh ha-Shanah.

Our age is vastly different from all previous ages, so different that it hardly bears comparison. Our knowledge of the mechanisms of the universe is infinitely greater than ever before thanks to the efforts of people such as Copernicus, Newton and Einstein. Our knowledge of the mechanisms of animal development is infinitely greater than ever before thanks to efforts of people such as Darwin. And our knowledge of the dark workings of the human psyche is infinitely greater than ever before thanks to the efforts of people such a Freud.

Any religious philosophy of sin after Freud that is the same as before Freud is outdated, anachronistic and unserviceable. We live in an age when all the old values are being jettisoned, because we really do live in a "brave new world". The old morals are crumbling before our very eyes, and "each man does that which is right in his own eyes" [Judges 17:6] because "there is no King", no new mechanism of moral and ethical constriction. God is no longer perceived as being actively involved with the course of human destiny; mankind is perceived more and more as being the captain of his own ship. (I make no judgment as to the correctness of this view, only note that it is the predominant perception. To be true, people continue to mouth the old platitudes, but their true - subconscious? - perceptions may be judged from their actions.)

I set before you, for your consideration, a post-Freudian view of "the wages of sin". (The concept that "the wages of sin is death" was first propounded by the greatest propagandist that the Jewish people ever produced [Romans 6:23], but despite its Christian provenance it reflects a basic view of divine judgment that is also Jewish.) We are not judged for our sins; we are judged by our sins. Rosh ha-Shanah is the day of "Remembering", the day in which we must make the effort to review ourselves as we really are: we judge ourselves against our perceived sins. Can we find the sincerity needed to recognize them? Can we find the willpower to withstand them? Can we really change ourselves? That is the judgment of Rosh ha-Shanah. We ourselves are accused, prosecution, defence, jury and judge all at the same time. What we decide as we pass muster on that Day of Judgment will be ratified by the Court of Ultimate Instance on Yom Kippur. On Rosh ha-Shanah we must decide what kind of person we are and, more importantly, what kind of person we want to be. After we have sentenced ourselves, on Yom Kippur, God will respond "Amen, so be it, it is ratified" - for better of for worse.

It is in this light that we should understand the famous passage in the Gemara [Rosh ha-Shanah 16b]:

Rabbi Khruspedai quotes Rabbi Yoĥanan: Three Books are opened on Rosh ha-Shanah; one of the completely wicked, one of the completely righteous and one of the average. The completely righteous are immediately inscribed for life; the completely wicked are immediately inscribed for death; the average [that's you and me, folks!] are held over from Rosh ha-Shanah until Yom Kippur. If they merit it they are inscribed for life; if they do not merit it they are inscribed for death.


I suggested a view of sin, repentance and judgment that might possibly appeal to post-Freudian sensibilities. Zackary Berger has sent me a very long critique which I feel that I must share with you. It is long even though I have savagely edited it already.

Zackary writes:

I must take issue with your post-Freudian view of sin for the simple reason that it does not, in fact, help me understand what the connection is between God, us "moderns", and the resulting facts on the ground. Although your attempt is noble, your statement that We ourselves are accused, prosecution, defence, jury and judge all at the same time. What we decide as we pass muster on that Day of Judgment will be ratified by the Court of Ultimate Instance on Yom Kippur. On Rosh ha-Shanah we must decide what kind of person we are and, more importantly, what kind of person we want to be. is platitudinous. We "moderns" realize, to our great distress and incomprehension, that much in the moral universe is beyond our control. No matter what we do to better ourselves, punishment is meted out, and reward granted, out of all proportion to our personal "decisions." To call an admission of this existential loneliness some sort of "pious" evasion of the matter is itself naive. Are you saying that Hitler, if only he had "worked on himself" a little more, could have been morally "healed"?

I interject:

I don't know whence Zackary got this idea; it is certainly not mine. On the contrary, only recently I had the opportunity to expound to an audience of rabbis my personal view that most of Hitler's actions after his attack on Russia were a perfect example of "God hardening Pharaoh's heart" so that he would be denied the possibility of repentance. (This is straight out of Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuvah 6:3.)

Zackary continues:

It's an interesting idea (it certainly places blame on Hitler, where it at least partially belongs) but our moral compass is limited thereby to the individual. Many people make exactly the right sort of moral decisions you place at the crux of the matter, only to see their families and prosperity ruined by some misplaced outbreak of evil.

I interject:

We have discussed the ethos of evil (in the sense of wrong, suffering) before. Very briefly, and again basing myself on Rambam (this time from the Guide of the Perplexed part three) where Maimonides identifies three categories of human suffering. One is suffering caused by the fact that we are human and subject by nature to systemic malfunctions; these are not Divine judgments, just nature taking its course (examples: leukemia, being in the way of an erupting volcano). Rambam's second category of suffering is that which we bring upon ourselves (example: lung cancer in the wake of cigarette smoking). His third category of suffering (and he claims that this accounts for by far the largest amount of human suffering throughout the history of the human race) is suffering that man brings upon man (example: the holocaust). Unfortunately there is not room in this interpolation to expound why none of these is to be seen as Divine judgment.

Zackary continues:

The main question of mine, elicited by your idea of God as Chief Ratifier, is this: if God is not the author of the Torah (as implied by the Documentary Hypothesis), nor the arbiter of moral consequence, nor the One who renders immortality to the soul - why do we need God at all? This is not a sarcastic question, but the issue that plagues me (and many similarly religious people) day in and day out. Sadly, the standard you yourself suggest, ... if the system of judgment is to have any ethical meaning it must be abundantly clear that not only is justice done but that it is seen to be done according to the principles set forth renders your suggestions irrelevant. Who can claim (do you?) that justice is "seen" to be done? Can you name "principles" according to which justice is meted out in a consistent and predictable fashion? I do not see those principles. Either I am forced to rely on the views of Chazal - incomprehensible, because of a different age, but at least hallowed by tradition, however misguided - or, as you say, piously opine that God's ways are too obscure for us to question for this at least gives a comprehensible answer which fits the facts at hand!

I respond:

I will not now go into the question of the validity of the documentary hypothesis, which in the past has been the subject of many a long shiur here. Suffice to say that I believe that I have demonstrated that acceptance of the hypothesis is neither "epikorsut" [heretical nonsense] nor in any way inconsistent with a conviction that Torah comes from God. The crux of the matter is Torah. Torah, in all its ramifications, does in fact serve as the vehicle through which God is present in our world and in our lives even though we are living in an age which the sages call Hester Panim, an age in which God's existence is not obviously manifested in miraculous ways, an age in which God's governance is executed "behind the scenes", as it were, rather than through biblical miraculous intervention. God is most certainly the arbiter of man's moral choices: the standards are displayed clearly in the Torah and the Mitzvot.

We "need" God as that standard of absolute requirement in human behaviour. (Obviously man "needs" God for other reasons as well, but I am limiting myself here to the sphere of Zackary's critique.) In an age of Hester Panim it may be easier for some people to have a Deistic concept of the Deity rather than the Theistic one that is depicted in the biblical record. Zackary has raised here a very real question for the modern committed Jew, and I shall try to find a framework in which the issue can be addressed at length. Zackary, and very many worthy others, agonize because in our day and age the Deity is, as the prophet says, "a God who hides himself away" [Isaiah 45:15]. The sages have recognized that God's presence in our world is limited to one aspect only:

Rabbi Chiyya bar Ammi says, quoting Ulla: Since the destruction of the Bet Mikdash God is limited in the world to the four cubits of Halakhah alone.

When we study Torah we are trying to comprehend the Divine mind and the Divine will. That is what the festival of Shavu'ot celebrates.

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Regarding six months messengers go: Nisan because of Pesaĥ, Av because of the fast, Ellul because of Rosh ha-Shanah, on Tishri because of the correct fixing of the festivals, Kislev because of Ĥanukah, and Adar because of Purim; and when the Bet Mikdash existed they would go also because of Iyyar, because of the minor Pesaĥ.

Until the beginning of the 4th century CE the Jewish calendar was not the fixed calendar that we now use. Our present calendar was introduced by the President of the Sanhedrin, Hillel in the year 358. (This was not the great Hillel who lived 350 years earlier, the protagonist of Shammai, but another sage of the same name, who presided over the Sanhedrin in Eretz-Israel about sixty years before its eventual demise.) Until the time of this Hillel (let's call him Hillel II for the sake of clarity) the calendar was regulated primarily by the declaration by the Sanhedrin that a new month had begun. This declaration was based on the evidence of eye-witnesses who would come forward to testify that they had seen the new moon. Much later on in our study of this tractate we shall see that astronomic calculations were used by the Sanhedrin to check the veracity and accuracy of the witnesses. Thus, in reality, Hillel II did not introduce the calendar based purely on arithmetic calculations, he merely dispensed with the concomitant visual verification.

The biblical basis for the calendar is to be found in Exodus 12:2, where God instructs Moses and Aaron:

This month shall be for you the beginning of months...

The sages understood the word "Ĥodesh", here translated as 'month', to mean 'moon' (which is indeed its primary meaning, as we have previously noted). They also understood the word 'this' to mean some kind of physical indication. The Halakhic Midrash, Mekhilta, amplifies:

He showed him the new moon and told him, "When the moon renews itself like 'this' declare it be be Rosh Ĥodesh"

i.e. the first day of the new month.

The great commentator Rashi amplifies on this amplification:

Moses could not understand the technical details of the fixing of the Molad so God pointed to the moon in the sky and told him, "When it looks like 'this', declare a new moon".

The Molad is the precise moment when the moon begins a new revolution on the Earth's axis, something it does monthly. Very shortly after this moment the moon may be seen in the night sky as a thin sliver of a crescent of light. The time from one Molad to the next is 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, 3 and one third seconds. (This figure has remained unchanged for much more than 2 millennia; modern astronomers, however, say that the average time between one Molad and the next is just under half a second quicker. It will take many millennia before such a difference will have any practical implications for the Jewish calendar.) Thus, once you know the time of one Molad you can extrapolate forwards and backwards ad infinitum, just adding or subtracting 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, 3 and one third seconds for each month. After one Molad the next new moon should be visible either on the 29th or the 30th subsequent day. It is astronomically impossible that it could be seen on 28th day or earlier or the 31st day or later. Thus each Jewish month must have either 29 or 30 days, never less, never more.

On 30th day since the last lunation began the Sanhedrin would await the witnesses. If they came on that day and their evidence was deemed acceptable the Sanhedrin would declare that day to be the first day of the new month; if no witnesses came forward on that day (or if no proffered evidence was deemed admissible) the following day was declared to be Rosh Ĥodesh regardless, since the outgoing month could not have more than 30 days. (We shall encounter the halakhic mechanics of the giving of evidence and the declaration of Rosh Ĥodesh later in this tractate.)

Once the Sanhedrin had declared which day was Rosh Ĥodesh this information had to be broadcast to the whole of the Jewish people. Originally this was done by the lighting of beacons from one hilltop to the next. (The method and why it fell into disuse are the subject of Chapter 2, mishnayot 2-4.) When the lighting of beacons had to be abandoned the system was replaced by the dispatching of messengers to all parts of Eretz-Israel and the Diaspora. It is this latter method that is the subject of our present mishnah.

Messengers were dispatched by the Sanhedrin on six occasions in the year, and the occasions are detailed by our mishnah. This was necessary for months in which their were festivals to be celebrated, so that the festivals would be celebrated on the days of the month stipulated by the Torah. Messengers were dispatched by the Sanhedrin to announce the day which had been declared Rosh Ĥodesh Nisan because of the incidence of Pesaĥ on the fifteenth of the month. There was no need to dispatch messengers because of the festival of Shavu'ot because that festivals falls exactly fifty days after the second day of Pesaĥ [Leviticus 23:15].

Messengers were dispatched for the month of Ellul so that Rosh ha-Shanah could be celebrated at the correct time. Rosh ha-Shanah is the only festival that falls on the first day of the month (Tishri), therefore even in Eretz-Israel it was doubtful whether the festival should be observed on the what would be 30th day of Ellul (if Ellul had only 29 days) or on what would be 31st day of Ellul (if Ellul had 30 days). It thus became the custom to observe this festival on both possible days even in Eretz-Israel (as discussed by the Tosafot to Rosh ha-Shanah 19b). The permanent calendar that we now use accords Ellul always only 29 days, as noted in the Gemara [Rosh ha-Shanah 19b]:

From the days of Ezra onwards we have never encountered a month of Ellul that has 30 days.

Ezra lived in 5th century BCE. Our mishnah describes the messengers being dispatched also for the month of Tishri "because of the correct fixing of the festivals" since, any error would be passed on to Yom Kippur which falls on 10th of the month and Sukkot on 15th of the month. This would seem to strengthen the view of Tosafot that we quoted above, since if Ellul could have 29 or 30 days this would have repercussions not only for Rosh ha-Shanah but for Yom Kippur and Sukkot as well.

Messengers were dispatched for Rosh Ĥodesh Kislev because Ĥanukah falls on 25th of that month, and for Rosh Ĥodesh Adar because the festival of Purim falls in that month, in most places on 14th.

So far we have enumerated five months: Nisan, Ellul, Tishri, Kislev and Adar. But our mishnah states that "regarding six months messengers go". During the existence of the Bet Mikdash the sixth occasion was for Rosh Ĥodesh Iyyar. Those people who had not been able to observe Pesaĥ at the proper time because of some ritually valid reason were given the opportunity to celebrate the festival one month later on 14th Iyyar. The biblical basis for this is to be found in Numbers 9:10-11 -

Should any person be ritually unclean because of contact with a corpse or on a lengthy journey, they shall celebrate God's Passover in the second month on the fourteenth day of the month after dusk, eating it together with Matzah and Maror.

After the destruction of the Bet Mikdash Pesaĥ Sheni became redundant and nowadays, the only vestige left of it is the fact that on that day we do not recite the passages called Taĥanun in the synagogue. However, after the destruction of the Bet Mikdash messengers were dispatched instead for the Month of Av, because the fast commemorating the destruction is observed on the ninth day of that month.

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Regarding two months they desecrate Shabbat: regarding Nisan and regarding Tishri. For these months the messengers leave for Syria and fix the times of the festivals. When the Bet Mikdash existed they would desecrate [Shabbat] for all of them because of the fixing of the sacrifice.


Our mishnah refers to two distinct periods. Chronologically, the first period is up until the destruction of the Bet Mikdash in the year 70 CE and the second period is from that time until the calendar was fixed in the year 358 CE. The first part of our mishnah relates to the second chronological period.

The moment the witnesses see the new moon they must proceed with all haste to Jerusalem in order to present their testimony before the Sanhedrin. While it is reasonable to suppose that it was Jerusalemites who mostly took the opportunity to fulfill this mitzvah, this was certainly not the intention of the sages. Anybody, anywhere, was expected to proceed to Jerusalem if they could offer valid testimony, and stood a reasonable chance of arriving before it was too late (for a new month would be declared regardless on the 31st day since the last new moon, as we have already indicated).

The transcendent sanctity of Shabbat is made immanent through the agency of actions that are forbidden on this day. (In the past we have dealt with the topic of the sanctity of Shabbat at great length, particularly during our study of the 7th chapter of Tractate Sanhedrin.) One of the actions that are prohibited by Torah law is travelling - even on foot - outside the boundary of the area in which you live. (This boundary is a certain distance - about 1 kilometre - beyond the last dwelling in the village, town, city etc.) The Biblical basis for this law is to be found in the Torah [Exodus 16:29-30]:

See how God has given you the Sabbath, therefore on the sixth day He is giving you two days worth of food. Let each person remain where he is: let no person leave his place on the seventh day. Thus the people observed the Sabbath on the seventh day.

Now, if the witnesses from outside Jerusalem were to observe this law they would not be able to offer their testimony in time. For two months of the year this testimony was essential: the exact and correct time of Rosh Ĥodesh Nisan determined the correct date for Pesaĥ (and, therefore, for Shavu'ot as well). We have already noted on a couple of occasions that Pesaĥ is the only festival which must fall not only on a specific date but also at a specific season of the year. The other month was, of course, Tishri since the correct and exact time of Rosh Ĥodesh Tishri (Rosh ha-Shanah) determines the correct time for Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

The importance of these days is the reason why also for these two months the messengers were dispatched to 'Syria', which stands here for 'the diaspora': the messengers went with all haste to Syria and from there to the rest of Mesopotamia, and probably to the communities in the Aegean as well. Of course, it could well be that the messengers would not arrive in time for the festival, unforeseen circumstances delaying them on the road. That is why the communities of the diaspora began to observe the festivals for two days, one of which had to be the right one.

It would seem that our present mishnah contradicts what was stated in the previous mishnah - that messengers were dispatched for six (or seven) months and not for just two. The Gemara [Rosh ha-Shanah 21b] also notes this seeming contradiction, and propounds a curious solution (which has historical plausibility):

Just for two months? This contradicts "regarding six months the messengers leave". Abbaye says that the mishnah must be understood as follows: for all months the messengers depart [on their errand] the night before, but for Nisan and Tishri they do not depart until they actually hear the President of the Sanhedrin declare the [new] month sanctified.

According to Tosafot, what the great Babylonian Amora, Abbaye, means is that for the other months the messengers would leave as soon as it was clear that the following (30th) day would be declared Rosh Ĥodesh. But for Nisan and Tishri they would not depart until they actually heard the President of the Sanhedrin utter the words "It is sanctified". This was in case, over night, some flaw might be found in the evidence presented and the Sanhedrin decide to wait until the 31st day.

The last part of our mishnah relates to the time when the Bet Mikdash was still standing. During this period the witnesses were permitted to desecrate Shabbat in order to present their testimony on time for every month, since there was a special sacrifice to be offered on Rosh Ĥodesh (Mussaf, the Additional Sacrifice) which could not be offered retroactively.


Concerning the wording of the mishnah that reads when the Bet Mikdash existed they go also because of Iyyar William Friedman writes:

The wording of this mishnah, at least in this translation, seems odd... The "also" would seem to indicate that there were actually seven occasions, but as you note, that makes no sense, because the need to go in Av replaced the need to go in Iyyar. I'm wondering why the wording of the mishnah (which, in general, is terse) creates this linguistic confusion. It would seem more logical if it ended the original list with Av, then said "and when the Bet Mikdash existed they would go instead [of Av] because of Iyyar..."

I respond:

My guess is that this mishnah is a composite one. That is to say that it was originally two separate mishnayot, possibly from two different sages, which at a later stage were conflated into one. We must remember that until the editing of the Mishnah by Rabbi Yehudah the President of the Sanhedrin at the very start of the 3rd century CE all this material was unwritten and conned by rote. Each Bet Midrash had one "memory man" (or more) who would commit to memory large portions of the material. When two mishnayot were conflated into one it would have been too dangerous memorywise to alter the wording, thus creating the possibility of errors creeping in. We have many examples of such "memory men" [Tanna'im] retaining original wording even when it was no longer "neat" to do so.

William Friedman also asks:

Why not Tevet and Tammuz (unless those fasts were established later)?

I respond:

No, these fasts too are biblical (see Zechariah 8:19). However, there were differing views as regards the periods in which they were to be observed. At any rate, being only day-time fasts they were obviously not considered at any time as being as important as Tish'ah b'Av.

Jerry Anker writes:

I am curious about how the system of announcing Rosh Ĥodesh by means of messengers actually worked. How many messengers were there? What were their means of travel? To what destinations, exactly, did they go to carry their message, and how was it spread from those destinations to the population at large? Given what I assume was the rather primitive state of transportation and communication, it is hard for me to imagine that the news of Rosh Ĥodesh could be spread throughout the land in this fashion in any kind of timely manner.

I respond:

The number of messengers must have been equal to the number of destinations. I would assume that they travelled on horseback. We have already related to the question of destinations. Within each area there was a relay system by which the information could be made known to the general populace. You must bear in mind that this was a period where at least one member of each household would have been present in synagogue at least once every day and probably twice or three times, and that in most places there was only one synagogue. We must also bear in mind that in tannaïtic times the Jewish population of Eretz-Israel was by no means widespread, and was concentrated in the Galilee. (After the fall of Jerusalem the Sanhedrin met first in Yavneh, then in Usha, then in Tzippori and then in Tiberias.)

Jim Feldman notes that

in your last commentary, you state that all months have either 29 or 30 days. Then we get: The permanent calendar that we now use accords Ellul always only 29 days, as noted in the Gemara... While I see the practical effectiveness of fixing the length of Ellul, doesn't the arbitrary truncation of a possible 30th day of Ellul imply the possibility that an optically determined Tishrei could then have 31 days?

I respond:

Yes. Nowadays, with the calendar regulated according to fixed rules it can happen quite often that Rosh Ĥodesh is celebrated on a day other than that of the Molad. (This has been the case for the past several months.) This is because the permanent calendar is regulated in such away that certain festivals can never fall on certain days of the week. (The main consideration is that Yom Kippur never fall on a Friday or a Sunday, thus avoiding a "two-day Shabbat".) The general rule is that Nisan has 30 days, Iyyar 29 days and thereafter months of alternately 30 and 29 days. The only exceptions are Marĥeshvan and Kislev, which can sometimes have 29 days each, sometimes 30 days each and sometimes 29 and 30 days. These exceptions are the mechanism whereby the consideration of festivals not falling on certain days is regulated.

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Regardless of whether it was observed clearly or not the Sabbath is desecrated in this regard. Rabbi Yosé says that if it was observed clearly Shabbat should not be desecrated in this regard.

On one occasion more than forty pairs passed through and Rabbi Akiva held them up in Lod. Rabban Gamli'el sent him a message: if you hold the public up you could be creating future confusion.


The Reisha [first clause] of Mishnah 5 states that if observers outside Jerusalem see the New Moon, regardless of whether the sky was clear or not they should desecrate Shabbat if necessary in order to present their testimony before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. The Havva Amina [logical assumption] would be that if there was a cloudless sky and the moon could be clearly seen it would be just as visible to observers in Jerusalem, who would not have to desecrate Shabbat in order to offer testimony and who could do sooner than anyone else, as it would be to observers outside Jerusalem who would have to desecrate Shabbat in order to offer their testimony: the logical conclusion would be that when there is a cloudless sky only Jerusalemites should be permitted to offer testimony on Shabbat. This is flatly contradicted by the Reisha of Mishnah 5. Rabbi Yosé, in the Seifa [last clause] of Mishnah 5, in fact makes this very distinction - and his opinion is rejected and is not Halakhah. Both Rabbi Yosé and Tanna Kamma [the anonymous sage whose view is given in the Reisha] agree that if the sky is not clear and the New Moon might not be clearly visible all over the country that successful observers must desecrate Shabbat in order to present their testimony in Jerusalem.

The great Provençal rabbi of the Middle Ages, Menaĥem Meiri, in his commentary, Bet ha-Beĥirah, suggests that Mishnah 6 should be understood in the context of Shabbat. While it is not necessary to make this assumption in order explain this mishnah it is certainly a logical course to take. Mishnah 6 introduces, incidentally, a further concept: testimony (as we learned in our study of Tractate Sanhedrin) must be offered in pairs; the testimony of a sole observer is not acceptable. (We shall delve further into this matter in the next mishnah.) Mishnah 6 describes how forty pairs of witnesses on one occasion (possibly on Shabbat) arrived at Lod on their way up to Jerusalem. Rabbi Akiva stopped them since there was no practical purpose in all eighty people continuing on to Jerusalem (and thus desecrating Shabbat to no purpose). Rabban Gamli'el was the President of the Sanhedrin during the last decades of the 1st century CE and at the start of the 2nd century CE. He reprimanded Rabbi Akiva: if Rabbi Akiva stops would-be witnesses from continuing on to Jerusalem in the future they may make no effort at all to offer testimony, assuming that there was no point since "many others must already have done so". Halakhah, of course, follows the view of Rabban Gamli'el.


Remy Landau writes:

Would it be possible for you to indicate the references which suggest that the fixed calendar rules were promulgated by Hillel II in the year 358?

I respond:

The matter is not nearly as clear-cut as either I or Remy would like to present it. Of all the plausible dates suggested I opted for 358 CE and for the sake of clarity refrained from a long explanation, since the exact year of the introduction of the permanent calendar not only is not known, but there most probably was not one at all! As I indicated in the Shiur, the sages always used arithmetic calculations to verify the testimony that the witnesses would offer, calculations based on the fixed length of each lunation. In all probability what Hillel actually did was simply to "phase out" the intervention of the Sanhedrin in this matter. As regards the other dates suggested let me quote from the Encyclopedia Judaica:

...The Roman government aspired to limit the privileges of the Nasi [President of the Sanhedrin - SR] and the freedom of action of the Sanhedrin in Tiberias. Because of the serious condition of the communities of Eretz Israel and the deterioration of the Galilean center, Hillel II agreed in principle to limit the authority of the Nasi and his functions in connection with the proclamation of the New Moon, the fixing of the festivals, and the intercalation of the year. He thereupon published Sod ha-Ibbur ("The Secret of Intercalation") and Kevi'uta de-Yarĥa ("The Fixing of the New Month"). According to a tradition mentioned by Hai Ga'on and quoted in the Sefer ha-Ibbur of Abraham bar Ĥiyya CE. Important too is the testimony of Nachmanides in the Sefer ha-Zakkut: "From the time of Hillel... in the year [358 CE] the Sanhedrin in Eretz Israel ceased and it ceased to have experts, and it was he who regulated the order of intercalation, reckoned the years, and fixed the months for generations to come." Some regard the year 344 CE as that in which the new calendar was introduced, and it is possible that it was not immediately publicized to the same degree in all localities. The opinion has been expressed that Hillel II was not the original creator of the fixed calendar but that it was the result of centuries of development which aimed at achieving a perfected system of fixing the calendar.

Incidentally, Ramban [Nachmanides] was wrong about the demise of the Presidency and the Sanhedrin. It was not until the year 415 CE that the Roman/Byzantine government decreed that with the death of the current President the function would cease. This occurred in the year 425 CE.

I wrote: Thus, in reality, Hillel II did not introduce the calendar based purely on arithmetic calculations, he merely dispensed with the concomitant visual verification.

Brandel Falk writes:

My understanding is that it the case that changing to purely arithmetic calculations also eliminated the situation of "we know the new moon's tonight, but nobody will come here to testify because it was cloudy so no one could witness it". Am I mistaken? Also, what would have happened if the above happened 2 or 3 months in a row? The calendar would then be way off.

I respond:

Brandel's assumption is correct. But in any case, in such circumstances the Sanhedrin would declare a new month of the 31st day regardless, because there could be no further postponement, as I have explained. If this were to happen two or three months in a row - most unlikely in Eretz-Israel - at the very most the calendar would be out by two days. This would be corrected by the actual observations made later. Even under the present fixed calendar Rosh Ĥodesh could be as much as two or three days after the actual Molad. The laws governing these eventualities are brought by Rambam [Maimonides] in Chapter 6 of Hilkhot Kiddush ha-Ĥodesh in his magnum opus, Mishneh Torah.

Monica Cellio writes:

In the diaspora we always celebrate an extra day of Yom Tov. Each night we make kiddush and, in the case of Pesaĥ, make at least one bracha for a mitzvah specific to that night (matzah). Celebrating two days of Yom Tov guarantees that one of them will be the correct day - but it also guarantees that one of them will be wrong. Doesn't this mean we're making blessings in vain on one of those days? If so, how do we know that getting Yom Tov right supersedes the prohibition on such blessings?

I respond:

There is no doubt that it the Sanhedrin were to be reinstituted tomorrow (halakhically quite feasible, socially utterly impossible) the need for second day of Yom Tov in the Diaspora would be eliminated, since the President of the Sanhedrin would be able to announce the New Moon all over the Jewish world "brought to you live from Jerusalem". Indeed, in the Conservative Movement there are not a few rabbis who think that the fixed calendar also obviates the need for a second day of Yom Tov. The main reason why the custom persists is because of the instruction of one of the Ge'onim at the start of the Middle Ages to Diaspora communities "not to forsake the custom of your ancestors as handed down to you".

These two days are considered in the Talmud [Betzah 30b] as "one long day [of 48 hours]". This obviates the problem raised by Monica. However, the concern about making a Berakhah le-vatalah [unnecessary Berakhah] did prompt some quaint customs. For example the custom to have some new fruit on the table on the second night of Rosh ha-Shanah to "justify" the Berakhah "Sheheĥeyanu". The Ga'on of Vilna ridiculed this custom as being completely unnecessary for the reason already mentioned.

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If a father and his son witness the new moon they should both go. They may not form a pair, but if one of them is declared invalid the other one could form a pair with someone else. Rabbi Shimon says that a father and his soon, indeed all relatives, are valid pairs for testimony concerning the new moon. Rabbi Yosé says that it once happened that Tuvyah the physician saw the new moon in Jerusalem together with his son and his manumitted servant. The priests accepted him and his son but invalidated his servant; but when they came before the court they accepted him and his servant and invalidated his son.


Two prior explanations are necessary to the understanding of our mishnah. Firstly we should note that for testimony to be valid in a halakhic court of law it must be offered by two people acting in concert. We discussed this at length during our study of Tractate Sanhedrin in connection with testimony in criminal cases, which is the area of jurisprudence that concerns the passage from the Torah [Deuteronomy 19:15-16] from which this requirement is derived:

There shall not be a solitary witness against any person for any crime ... or for any sin that a person might commit. A fact [at law] must be established by two witnesses or by three witnesses.

The original purpose of this law was to make it possible to prove that witnesses were not perjuring themselves. However, this basic requirement of Torah law applies in almost all matters of law that can come before an halakhic court. It should be obvious that only by cross-examining the two members of a pair of witnesses (separately) would it be possible to establish that they both saw the same celestial phenomenon and that what they saw was what was astronomically expected.

The second point that we must understand is that people related to each other may not form a pair of witnesses. We have already discussed this provision of Jewish law when studying Sanhedrin chapter 3, mishnah 4.

Our mishnah consists of two parts, which we may label Reisha and Seifa respectively. The Reisha of our mishnah contains a 'maĥloket' [difference of opinion] between Rabbi Shim'on [ben-Yoĥai] and Tanna Kamma. Both agree that a father and his son (or any two other relatives for that matter) who have witnessed the new moon must proceed together to the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem to offer testimony as to what they have seen. The difference between them is why this is the case. Tanna Kamma takes the practical view that while two relatives may not offer testimony as a pair it may be necessary for one of them to join up with an unrelated witness thus forming a different pair. Let us suppose that one of the pair is declared an invalid witness - he can't answer the questions satisfactorily or he is a gambler (which disqualifies him). The other member of the pair might still be needed in order to complete a different pairing. Rabbi Shim'on ben-Yoĥai is quite simply of the opinion that the law requiring pairs of witnesses is concerned with criminal cases and civil suits, but is not applicable to the sighting of the new moon.

The view of Rabbi Shim'on ben-Yoĥai in this matter is based on his understanding of the verse that is the basis of the fixing of the calendar: Exodus 12:1-2 -

God said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, "This month shall be for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.

God is speaking to Moses and Aaron. Moses and Aaron are siblings. Thus, when God says "for you" God is addressing two brothers and empowering them to declare the new moon. Quod erat demonstrandum. The terrible weakness of this kind of midrashic amplification can immediately be appreciated when we consider what Tanna Kamma does with this same material. After having explained the midrash of Rabbi Shim'on the Gemara [Rosh ha-Shanah 22a] informs us that Tanna Kamma (i.e. the rest of the sages) reasons as follows: God is speaking to Moses and Aaron. Moses and Aaron are the greatest halakhic authorities of their time. Therefore, when God says "for you" God is implying that the fixing of the calendar is to be entrusted only to the highest halakhic authority of the age. Quod erat demonstrandum. This form of reasoning is very problematic. In any case, in this matter halakhah follows Tanna Kamma and not Rabbi Shim'on.

We can now discuss the Seifa of our mishnah. Rabbi Yosé ben Ĥalafta quotes an actual occurrence. A certain distinguished personality (to the best of my knowledge Tuvyah the physician is not mentioned elsewhere in our classical sources) witnessed the new moon together with his son and his manumitted servant. (We discussed the status of the indentured servant at great length at the start of our discussions of Tractate Kiddushin.) The person referred to here was born a non-Jew and had become a slave and was then sold by his non-Jewish master to Doctor Tuvyah. At the end of one year's service with Tuvyah the servant had to decide whether he wanted to be sold to another non-Jew or to remain with Tuvyah. Since Tuvyah was prohibited from possessing a non-Jewish slave for longer than one year, it was explained to the slave that if he chose to stay with Tuvyah he would have to convert to Judaism. The slave obviously preferred this option to the other and became Jewish by rite of circumcision and bathing in a Mikveh. He was now bound to observe all the mitzvot that a Jewish woman was required to observe. At some stage or other Tuvyah granted his servant his freedom and he thus became a Jew required to observe all the mitzvot that a Jewish man was required to observe. (I deliberately use the past tense in order to indicate that this is a historical description and not a evaluation of the status of the Jewish woman in the Halakhic system.)

Tuvyah and his two companions reach the precincts of the Bet Mikdash (which means that this incident occurred before 70 CE) and undergo a preliminary interrogation by the Bet Din of the priests. (Possibly this preliminary interrogation was to reduce the pressure on the Sanhedrin.) The justices in the court of the priests disqualified his manumitted servant. From this we can deduce that it was their opinion that blood relatives could offer testimony as a pair in such a case, but the ex-slave could not. However, when the three of them finally reached the Sanhedrin the judgment was reversed. From this we can deduce that the sages of the Sanhedrin were of the opinion that blood relatives were disqualified from forming a pair, but there was nothing untoward in an ex-slave offering testimony.

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The following are disqualified: those who play games of chance, those who lend on interest, those who let pigeons loose, and those who trade in sabbatical produce and slaves. This is the general rule: any testimony that a woman is not qualified to offer, neither are they.


Since the previous mishnah touched upon the disqualification of relatives to act in concert as witnesses, our present mishnah seeks to complete the picture: who else is disqualified? Our mishnah consists of two parts. The Reisha is identical to the Reisha of a mishnah in Tractate Sanhedrin, Chapter Three, Mishnah Three. The Seifa adds an amplificatory general rule concerning the qualifications of slaves to offer testimony.

The Reisha of our mishnah states that one who engages in four activities in particular is disqualified from offering testimony. The Torah [Exodus 23:1] commands us "not to set your hand with a wicked person to act as a perjured witness". Since the Halakhic system requires two witnesses acting in concert a situation might arise in which one was asked to act as a second witness for a second witness who has no other. The very request makes the principal witness a "wicked person" because he would be prepared to perjure himself by saying that both witnesses were present at the event in question. (If the person thus approached would be prepared to testify as requested he too, of course, would be perjuring himself.)

The Gemara [Sanhedrin 27a] simplifies the Torah command: "Do not let a wicked person be a witness". This certainly widens the field! But how does the system define "a wicked person" in this context? Meiri [Rabbi Menaĥem ben-Shelomo, southern France, 1249-1316 CE], one of the great commentators on the Talmud, in his commentary on Sanhedrin 27a expands the term "wicked" to include: a person who has been convicted of perjuring himself in the past, of theft (in the widest sense of the term - depriving someone of their property illicitly), anyone who transgresses a law whose punishment is flogging, "and obviously sceptics ['Epikoros'], people who betray Jews [to non-Jewish authorities] and schismatics". All the above are disqualified from being a witness. It now becomes apparent that our present mishnah is not defining the only circumstances in which a person is disqualified from acting as a witness, but is singling out three activities that might not be considered disqualifying "sins" at first glance, but which nevertheless do disqualify.

The first activity is "games of chance". Actually, the term used in the Hebrew is more accurately translated "throwing dice", but it is obvious to common sense (as well as to all the commentators!) that throwing dice is just an example, and in modern times would include card-playing, roulette and so forth. A subsequent qualifying statement in the parallel mishnah in Tractate Sanhedrin clarifies that who is being disqualified is someone who earns his living at getting people to play games of chance for real stakes - money. Such a person is not "occupied with the real world" [Sanhedrin 24b]. They may well lie and cheat and use slight of hand in order to deprive people of their hard-earned cash, while they themselves are doing nothing to improve the world around them. They are seen as parasites, living off other people's labours. As such, they are little better than thieves, "depriving someone of their property illicitly".

The second disqualifying "profession" is that of the moneylender who charges interest. The Torah [Leviticus 25:35-37] specifically outlaws this kind of lending:

"Should your brother become impoverished ... you must support him ... You may not take from him interest or profit ... Do not give him your money on interest...

As long as the base of the economy was simple and unsophisticated agriculture such an arrangement was noble and plausible. Neither the produce of the earth nor any money that you may earn from it really belong to you, so it would be immoral of you to make a profit at the expense of your brother's distress. Give him the money and let him return to you the same amount as he took, no more and no less. With increasing urbanization this arrangement was no longer tenable. Borrowing and lending money were no longer activities only associated with impoverishment and economic distress. One could want cash in hand today in order to make a good industrial profit tomorrow. For this kind of transaction the sages created a very necessary loophole: where the loan was being made so that the borrower could make a profit it was only fair that the lender should be permitted to share in that profit. The transaction should be documented in a temporary "partnership" between the borrower and the lender, and then what we now call interest would not be interest at all, but the lender's "investment" in future profits. Such an arrangement is called Heter Iska [permission to do a deal] - and to this day such a document is usually displayed somewhere in most branches of Israel's banks. However, people who take pure and unadulterated interest, in the Biblical sense of the term, are also "parasites, living off other people's labours. As such, they are little better than thieves, depriving someone of their property illicitly."

The third disqualifying activity is connected with pigeons. I have translated the Hebrew of our Mishnah as "those who let pigeons loose". In all probability this is a reference to another incidence of "games of chance": pigeon racing. However, pigeons were an expensive and desirous commodity. They were used, in particular, for long-distance communications. But, of course, they were a messy lot! The sages [Tractate Bava Batra 2:5] legislated on this matter in order to minimize the damage and inconvenience to property, to living-standards and to the environment.

One must keep the ladder at least four cubits distant from the pigeon coop, so that martens cannot [climb up] and jump inside [to kill the pigeons]... The coop must be at least fifty cubits distant from the town. Nor may a person erect a pigeon coop on his own property [in town] unless there are fifty cubits free in all directions...

In mishnaic times the towns and villages were settlements that were usually enclosed by a protecting wall; outside the wall was a free area in which nothing could be built or planted [Tractate Bava Batra, Chapter 2]. The Gemara there [Bava Batra 24b] says that this was for aesthetic reasons, though in all probability there were also security considerations involved. This free area was surrounded by allotments, so that every inhabitant who wanted to could have a plot of land on which to grow produce - vegetable gardens, orchards and vineyards, olive groves, cereal crops and so forth. These plots were a part of the family's freehold inheritance and were passed down from generation to generation. Thus the inhabitants could use the produce that they grew for their own sustenance, for selling at a profit, or both. (Certain kinds of livestock were permitted within the towns and villages and other kinds were not permitted even in the allotments - for ecological and social reasons.) Some people obviously chose to raise pigeons - either for racing or for communications, or both, as we have mentioned. Pigeon fanciers were restricted, as we saw in the mishnah quoted above, in order to minimize the problems that the pigeons could cause to neighbours. The Gemara [Sanhedrin 25a] points out the obvious: it is highly unlikely that our mishnah is referring to people who race pigeons, since this misdemeanour is already covered by "games of chance": people would place bets on which pigeon would arrive at the selected destination first. That is why the Gemara seems to prefer the idea that pigeon fanciers are disqualified from testifying because they train their birds to entice other people's pigeons into their coop. This would be a kind of theft. I say "a kind of theft" since the birds do not actually "belong" to anybody, but are "in the care of" the person in whose coop they are housed. Nevertheless, the sages legislated against such chicanery, and it is certainly theft according to rabbinic law. According to this explanation, pigeon-fanciers, too are playing fast and loose with the possessions of others.

The next category of persons disqualified by our mishnah are "those who trade in sabbatical produce". Our mishnah is here referring to produce grown and or sold during the Sabbatical Year. The last year in every cycle of seven years is a Sabbatical Year. We have dealt with this topic at some depth in our study of the first mishnah of this chapter. Briefly, the Torah legislates for two different aspects of the Sabbatical Year: it is a year in the agricultural cycle in which the land (of Israel) must lie fallow and any produce that grows of its own accord is Hefker [ownerless] so trading in such produce is forbidden [Leviticus 25:1-7]. The Sabbatical Year is also a year in which all monetary debts are automatically canceled [Deuteronomy 15:1-11]. Thus our sources refer to "Shemittat Kesafim [Financial Sabbatical] and Shemittat Mekarke'in [Agricultural Sabbatical]. Our present mishnah is concerned only with the latter. The idea that seems to underlie Shemittat Mekarke'in [Agricultural Sabbatical] is not in order to preserve the fecundity of the ground, as is often claimed (though it undeniably had such an effect). It's purpose seems to have been to inculcate the notion that the land does not "belong" to anybody in particular, regardless of who may be the present freeholder. The land belongs to God, and God requires the agriculturalist to forego all his proprietary privileges over the land he holds once every seven years. He must throw open its enclosures, and stand by and watch while anyone enters the field, orchard, vineyard, vegetable garden - and helps himself to whatever happens to be growing there. Thus, once every seven years all Jews are truly equal from the financial point of view. Since the produce of the sabbatical year is Hefker and belongs to everybody, it follows that no one may gather sabbatical produce in order to resell it at a profit. Anyone who does so is - like the gamesters and the pigeon-fanciers and the moneylenders - making an unearned profit on what does not belong to them.

We now come to the Seifa of our mishnah, which states a "general rule" to the effect that slaves and women have the same status as regards the legitimacy of their testimony. The ultimate explanation for this discrimination and comparison lies in the fact that neither are deemed to be free agents; we shall return to this at the end of our discussion on the Seifa [last clause] in order to expatiate on it. The status of women in halakhah has often been the subject of our discussions here, and what follows is a recapitulation of things we have learned over the years. I make no apology: the topic is far too important to be glossed over (especially when many subscribers do not have access to earlier material).

So, we now consider the absence of women from the list of those eligible to testify. Firstly, we must remind ourselves yet again that there are two kinds of testimony in Halakhic jurisprudence, though both bear the undistinguished terminology of "witness". One kind of testimony is the same as that which we recognize from Western jurisprudence: someone who comes before the court to give corroborative evidence of some kind or another that is pertinent to the case in hand. The other kind of testimony establishes, in fact, that an act has been committed from the legal point of view. For example: the establishing of the fact that Re'uven admitted a debt to Shim'on belongs to the second category, while the colour of the suit he was wearing at the time belongs to the former category. The fact that Re'uven gave Sarah Kiddushin for the purposes of effecting a marriage belongs to the second category, whereas whether Sarah was wearing white at the time belongs to the former. Witnesses in the former category offer circumstantial evidence, while those in the latter category establish the facts of the case. For the purposes of our discussion we are speaking here of witnesses of the second category - those whose evidence establishes the facts of a case: that a murder was committed, that a debt was incurred, that a divorce was effected, and so forth.

Nowhere in the Torah is it explicitly stated that women are not eligible to serve as witnesses to the fact. This is derived from a verse in Parashat Shoftim [Deuteronomy 19:15-17]:

There shall not be a solitary witness against any person for any crime ... or for any sin that a person might commit. A fact [at law] must be established by two witnesses or by three witnesses. When a witness perjures himself, the two men from whom the case derives shall stand before the ... judges that shall be at that time....

My translation tries to present the text as understood by the sages. Anyone reading the Hebrew text with no prior conceptions would naturally assume that "the two men from whom the case derives" are the two litigants. However, for the sages this cannot be the case since, they maintain, the context of the passage is concerned with testimony in general and perjured testimony in particular. They understood "the two men from whom the case derives" to be a reference to the witnesses to the fact (as explained in the previous paragraph), the witnesses without whose testimony there could be no case before the court; so the case really "derives" from them. The Sages now perform a hermeneutical analysis of the text. (This means they derive a statement that for them is implied in the text and make it explicit. Such a derivation can be done according to several methods; the one employed in our case is called Gezerah Shavvah, which might best be translated as "similar terminology". Not any sage was permitted to exercise this particular form of elucidation: each case was deemed to be one handed down orally in a chain that went back to Moses at Sinai. So the sage had to testify that his teacher told him of this Gezerah Shavvah that he had heard in his turn from his teacher - and so forth. In our case: the "similar terminology" is the word "two":

The two men - This implies that they must be males; what about a man with a woman or two women? For when the Torah says "from whom the case derives" it is not that specific, and thus a woman could also be qualified to act as a witness. [No,] the Torah says in verse 15 by two [witnesses] and then in verse 17 it says the two men. Just as the "two" in verse 17 are obviously male ["anashim"] to the exclusion of women, so the "two" of verse 15 must be referring to males only to the exclusion of women. [Sifrei ad loc].

To our way of thinking this kind of logic seems flimsy to say the least. I do not think that we would be far from the truth if we were to suppose that the Gezerah Shavvah comes to justify an already established fact. It was "obvious" to the sages that women could not be expected to testify and expose themselves in so public a place as a court of law: women didn't do that kind of thing and could not be expected to compromise themselves in such a way! This implies that they must be males; what about a man with a woman or two women? For when the Torah says 'from whom the case derives' it is not that specific, and thus a woman could also be qualified to act as a witness!!!!! What we read in matter-of-fact tones was expressed by the sages in expostulatory terms: "it can't be serious" terms.

In his massive halakhic compendium Mishneh Torah, Rambam states quite blankly: "Women are disqualified from testifying by Torah law, since it says "two witnesses" which is grammatically masculine and not feminine" [Hilkhot Edut, 9:2]. A commentator (none other than Yosef Caro, the author of the Shulĥan Arukh) ridicules this line of thinking: it would be very dangerous to assume that every time the Torah uses the grammatical masculine that it intends thereby to exclude women! And he (Caro) falls back on the verse in Psalms [45:14] that has so often be used to create the picture of the retiring matron, remaining demurely within the walls of her husband's home and not daring or wanting to "expose herself in a public place".

All the glory of the princess is within.

But Rambam is on solid ground. Time and again the sages have used this kind of argument to justify the exclusion of women. We first met such a reasoning years ago when we were studying Kiddushin, when the sages pointed out that the Torah refers to "the sons of Aaron and not the daughters of Aaron" - to exclude priestesses. It would not have been an inconceivable stretch of the imagination to understand the term Benei Aharon as "the children of Aaron"; obviously the sages did not want to. We also saw that the sages excluded women from religious education (and many derivatives therefrom) by understanding the phrase "and you shall teach them carefully to your sons [Deuteronomy 11:19] to imply the exclusion of "your daughters". We have seen that women were excluded from the Minyan according to some authorities, because the term Benei Yisra'el must mean "the sons of Israel" and not "the children of Israel". (One wonders what of Judaism would be left to the observant Jewish woman if this kind of hermeneutics is taken to its logical - or illogical - conclusion.)

We have demonstrated that the disqualification of women from serving as witnesses to the fact was derived by the sages from the Torah by the hermeneutic instrument of Gezerah Shavvah [identical terminology], and that it would be plausible to assume that they did so because the accepted conceptualization of the social position of women in their times would not permit them to draw other conclusions: 'this must be the intention of the text', as it were. The use of a Gezerah Shavvah makes the derived ruling have the same Halakhic status as the text of the Torah itself. In theory, the hermeneutic instruments are vehicles for making explicit what is deemed already implicit in the words of the Torah. This makes it very difficult for an Halakhic movement, such as is Conservative Judaism, to effect a change in this situation. One of the most difficult aspects of the attempt to find a solution to the problem is the fact that testimony to the fact is not something that is internal to the Conservative Movement alone, but has tremendous external ramifications. For instance, what validates a Ketubbah [Deed of Matrimony] is not the fact that the husband delivers it to his wife: Halakhically speaking he does not even have to sign it! Nor has it anything to do with the affiliation of the officiating clergy: even a lay person can recite the Marriage Blessings and preside over what the bridge and groom do. The Ketubbah is a document signed by the witnesses testifying to the groom's offering Kiddushin to the bride and her acceptance thereof. It is the testimony of the witnesses, signed by them, that gives the Kiddushin validity. In theory, such a document should be acceptable throughout the Jewish people - provided that the witnesses signing the Ketubbah are qualified to do so in the eyes of those perusing the document. The same applies with even greater stringency to the witnessing of a divorce. Thus we could arrive, in theory, at a situation in which the validity of a marriage or a divorce performed by one arm of the Jewish people would not be acceptable to another arm.

However, the matter does not rest there. Even within our own Movement there is no unanimity on the matter of women's testimony. In fact, it seems to be an issue that splits the Conservative rabbinate right down the middle. When this issue was discussed at the Convention of the Rabbinical Assembly as recently as 1992, the voting was 53 for granting "Gender Equality in Halakhah" while 50 were opposed. [See "Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly, Volume 54, pages 316-317.] These considerations would suggest caution. On the other hand, one cannot maintain caution for ever! Sooner or later a solution will have to be found to this problem, which adumbrates so many other problems that women face in the Halakhic arena. Many suggestions have been made, and most of them show some facet or other of "Takkanah". A Takkanah is a ruling voted upon and accepted as binding by an Halakhically legal body (such as a convention of rabbis or an organized congregation). The ruling stipulates how that body will conduct its affairs in a given aspect of communal life. The problem with using a Takkanah in matters such as we are discussing, is that it applies (in the absence of a Sanhedrin) only to the body adopting the Takkanah and does not answer the problem of universality. Whether men and women sit together in a synagogue is no one's business but that of those sitting there; whether a woman may read from the Torah is no one's business but that of those listening to her reading; whether a woman can be counted as part of a Minyan [quorum] is no one's business but that of those congregating there to worship. Whether or not a woman is married is not her private business, nor is it just the private business of the community in which she lives - unless we agree to divide the Jewish world into discrete camps with no intermarriage between them at all. Furthermore, the Takkanah does not solve the problem of the disqualification of women as witnesses to the fact by Torah law - as seen by half the Conservative rabbinate.

We have been discussing the question of women as witnesses and have seen, so far, why the sages disqualified women from offering testimony as to the fact - in our present case as to the fact that the moon had renewed itself. We have also noted that this disqualification jars with our understanding of the role of women in modern society. I would hesitate greatly before intruding myself into such a problem. But, if everyone were to hesitate in this way the situation would never be brought any nearer to solution. I do not think that my suggestion would satisfy any but by own colleagues - and probably not all of them! But I can put forward a suggestion that might go some way towards alleviating the de-Orayta problem - that the disqualification has the status of Torah law, not rabbinic law. In order to illustrate my suggestion I would like us to recall an incident that we discussed during our study of Tractate Berakhot:

On that day [the day that Rabban Gamli'el was deposed from the presidency of the Sanhedrin] Yehudah, an Ammonite proselyte, presented himself in the Bet Midrash and asked whether he could marry into the Jewish people. "You may," responded Rabbi Yehoshu'a; "You may not," responded Rabban Gamli'el. Rabban Gamli'el objected, "But does it not [expressly] say 'An Ammonite and a Moabite may not marry into Israel' [Deuteronomy 23:4]?" Rabbi Yehoshu'a retorted, "And are the Ammon and Moab [of today] the originals? Sennacherib King of Assyria mixed up all the nations" ... Immediately they permitted him to marry into Israel.

I further added, in commenting of the topic under discussion:

I do not think that it is too far-fetched to claim that just as the sages accepted that the contemporary inhabitants of Ammon and Moab were not the Ammonites and Moabites referred to by the Biblical record, so we might claim that the modern adult woman, not being held to be under the sway of her father or husband, is not "a woman" as understood by the rabbis.

What my suggestion means is that the social status of the modern woman is so changed that we can no longer assume that when the Torah legislates for a women who is secluded in the privacy of her home and would not wish to socialize in mixed society, that it is also legislating for a different kind of woman. We might claim that just as "Sennacherib King of Assyria mixed up all the nations" was sufficient justification for assuming that Ammon and Moab were no longer the Biblical Ammon and Moab, so might we claim that "Napoleon Emperor of the French reversed all the social mores" - or some similar claim. When it is necessary, even the most recalcitrant of orthodox Poskim [decisors] agree that the status of the modern female has changed: that is why they now permit schoolgirls to study the Oral Torah - a notion that was still considered anathema only one hundred years ago! So there is hope yet.

When we studied Tractate Berakhot I gave the following extensive explanation (here drastically edited). It was concerned with the fact that the sages saw women as "excused" certain mitzvot, but it is equally applicable to our present discussion.

Why are the persons mentioned in our mishnah excused? What do the sages see "women, slaves and children" as having in common that they are bracketed together? If the women were not on the list it would be easier for us, today, to intuitively understand the common characteristic. If, for instance, the list were to read "children, soldiers on active service and persons incarcerated in a state penitentiary" [are excused] it would be easier for us to spot the common characteristic (as perceived by the sages). None of these persons are "masters of their own fate". The Talmud [Kiddushin 30b] quotes from the Midrash Halakhah called "Sifra". Let us try and follow the discussion.

The Torah, in Leviticus 19:3, rules: "Let each man respect his mother and father". Despite the fact that the Torah refers to "each man" the sages ruled that "sometimes" women also were obligated by this command. The inclusion of daughters in the command to respect parents is based on the fact that the verb ["respect"] in Hebrew is in the plural. That being the case, the Sifra asks, Why does the verse start with the noun 'man' [ish]? The answer given is now easy for us to understand (even if it is almost impossible to swallow): A man is always a free agent to do his parents' bidding, whereas a woman [i.e. wife] is not such a free agent because someone else has tutelary rights over her. [Ish - sipek be-yado la'asot, ishah eyn sipek be-yadah la'asot mipney she-reshut acherim aleha.] Much ink has been needlessly spilled in trying to "smooth over the rough edges" of this midrash. The most ubiquitous "resolution" of the dilemma is to explain that a married woman is not a free agent because of her duties to her household and her children. This is a red herring. We must face the fact that, for the sages, women - however much they were loved and respected - were not considered part of general society. This was not always the case and is not now the case, but it was the case in Talmudic times. It seems reasonable to assume that the subordinate situation of the woman in rabbinic literature reflects a general social situation. There were obviously shining exceptions, but as a rule women were lacking in education and public social standing. The sociology of the situation is, in my opinion, outside the scope of our study: I only state what seems to be an objective description of an historical situation.

This kind of rationale is transferred by Professor Judith Hauptman to the topic of our present discussion:

Women, although reliable in and of themselves, could not testify in most civil and criminal cases because, when married, they were beholden to their husbands and likely to be influenced by them in how they reported what they saw. That is, a woman could not testify because her subordinate status was likely to compromise her ability to tell the truth. Women as women were reliable. However, when they found themselves under the control of men, as wives necessarily would, they were not free to tell the truth. Another consequence of their subordinate status was that they could not testify in cases concerning men, their superiors, lest they compromise men's dignity. [Judith Hauptman, Rereading the Rabbis, A woman's Voice, 1998, page 197.]


I mentioned that the Conservative rabbinate seemed to be split down the middle as regards the issue of women as witnesses and I referred to the results of a vote taken in one of the sessions of the Rabbinical Assembly in USA. Ron Kaminsky writes:

This seems to me to be an unfair assessment of the situation, since in light of your explanation, given the ramifications with regard to "Klal Yisrael", it seems likely that a large part of the rabbis voting against did so because of the problems which would be generated between the various branches of Judaism and not because they agreed that women are actually disqualified. Or was this vote merely academic with regards to actually allowing women to testify?

I respond:

Not having been present I cannot answer. Ron's point is well taken, but even if he is correct in his assumption it does not change the actual facts: about half the members of the Rabbinical Assembly present and voting were not prepared to sanction women acting as witnesses. Of course, the other half were so prepared.

Still on the same topic. Zackary Berger writes:

You state that a takanah affirming the legitimacy of edot would split the Jewish people into mutually exclusive, non-intermarrying camps. Unfortunately, I do not think this would be the major consequence of such a move - for the simple reason that the Jewish denominations (for that is what they are) very seldom mix.

I interject:

In the State of Israel, certainly, that is not the case; and I suspect that there are many cases of what we might call "intra-marriage" in the Diaspora as well.

Zackary continues:

The real problem is that, at least according to the principle of "catholic Israel," the legitimacy of edot should spring not only from a decision of the CJLS or the RA, but from the observant practices of a Conservative Jewish community. Here one must ask this question: what proportion of our (Conservative) community is careful to perform kiddushin in a legitimate fashion, and to write gittin with kosher witnesss? If a takkanah were to be made, how many observant Conservative Jews could be found (outside of the precincts of JTS or the Masorti institutions in Israel) who would implement it?

I respond:

To the best of my knowledge this statement is completely unfounded, unless Zackary is referring to Conservative Jews who marry or divorce outside the framework of the Conservative Movement. If this is the case then the problem is no different from the problem facing all the other streams in Judaism: Conservative rabbis are required to exercise extreme caution as regards qualifications for marriage and documents of divorce [Gittin] are written only by rabbis specially qualified for this task. (This is also true of the Orthodox; I do not know about the other streams.)

Zackary ends:

I know that the CJLS met to discuss the issue of women as witnesses on June 12th 2000, but I do not know what the outcome was. Would it be proper to discuss it on RMSG?

I respond:

I imagine it would be proper. However, not being resident in the USA and not being a member of CJLS (the Committee for Jewish Law and Standards) I did not even know such a meeting took place, let alone what was discussed in it. I would imagine that when its discussions are made public they could be discussed on RMSG if still relevant.

, , . , . , , , : :

If someone saw the new moon but is unable to go he is conveyed there on a donkey, and even on a stretcher. If [there is fear of] ambush on the way they may carry cudgels. If the journey was a long one they may carry provisions. Shabbat is to be desecrated in order to testify as to the new moon for a journey of [up to] a night and a day, for it says, "These are God's festivals which you shall proclaim at their time".


Our mishnah, the last of Chapter One, returns us to a topic that was begun in Mishnah 4 and got derailed by the discussion on those who are not qualified to testify. We recall that we have noted that so important was it that those who had witnessed the new moon come to testify before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem (and after the destruction of Jerusalem before the Sanhedrin wherever it happened to be - Yavneh, Usha, Tzippori or Tiberias) that they were permitted to make the journey even on Shabbat. (I add here, parenthetically, that, as we shall see quite often, the editing of this tractate does not seem to have been of the best: some mishnayot, such as the present one, which would best fit after mishnah 6, seem to be out of place, while in other cases the chapters seem to have been divided irrationally.)

The new moon is visible a short while after the Molad. The Molad of the month of Tammuz was last Saturday night at shortly after 11 pm Jerusalem time. Let us assume that someone observed that first sliver of light from the crescent of the moon sometime after midnight. (We must also assume that he was not alone, since he would need another witness to pair up with.) Now it may be that our witnesses were out at that time because they were on their way home from an evening out. It may be that the witnesses were a cripple lying on his bed unable to sleep and looking wistfully out of the window. All such witnesses are required to start out for the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem without delay. The cripple would obviously need to be conveyed there. Now let us assume that the Molad was not on Saturday night at 11 pm but on Friday night at the same time. Our mishnah states that any means that are needed to get the witnesses to their rendezvous as quickly as possible are permitted - even though it is Shabbat. Even more interesting is the fact that even people who did not see the new moon but are necessary for the testimony are required to desecrate Shabbat as well. As we shall see at the beginning of the next chapter, sometimes the Sanhedrin would need to verify the bona fides of the witnesses. The Tosafists [Rosh ha-Shanah 22a] explain that witnesses who actually saw the new moon and even the character witnesses if the Court does not recognize the witnesses must desecrate Shabbat.

Our mishnah gives several examples of Melakhot (activities) that are forbidden on Shabbat but permitted to the witnesses of the new moon. First of all, travelling itself is prohibited: even on foot one may not travel more than about 1 kilometre from the edge of the city, town, village, farm where one lives. But the journey to Jerusalem is permitted to the witnesses on Shabbat, as is also the use of an animal for transport. We are forbidden to carry anything in the public sector on Shabbat, but the witnesses are permitted to carry weapons if they sense danger and food for the journey.

Our mishnah raises the question of security: if the witnesses' party fears ambush on the road they may arm themselves on Shabbat. (The Mishnah, Tractate Shabbat, Chapter Six, Mishnah 4, forbids the carrying of arms on Shabbat. One sage there objects to Tanna Kamma and suggests that arms may be borne if they are only for decorative purposes. The sages respond that arms can never be considered decorative: the necessity to bear arms always shames a person.) Obviously one consideration of the travellers would be ambush by highwaymen. We have noted in the past that this was a very real and present danger in mishnaic times:

In earlier times hijacking (or piracy) was a trade engaged in for profit and not for political reasons. Unscrupulous people would abduct innocent people (generally not the rich), sail with a considerable human cargo to some distant port where the unfortunates would be sold as slaves. Such abductees are referred to in our sources as "shevuyim" [prisoners]. Thus the primary meaning of the term is not to indicate persons arrested by the authorities or soldiers taken as POW's (though, of course, the term also includes them). The primary meaning of the term is meant to indicate abductees. Pidyon Shevuyim [ransoming prisoners] is considered one of the most important of social mitzvot. When a pirate ship arrived in a port where there was an organized Jewish community, the leaders of the community would verify whether there were any Jewish abductees on board, and if so, how much it would cost to ransom them (i.e. buy them as slaves). Once the price was ascertained a compulsory tax was levied on all members of the community in order to meet the cost of this mitzvah. A most interesting anecdote in this regard is told in the Talmud [Bava Batra 8a]. In order to fully appreciate the anecdote we must recall that the Jews of Babylon were living under Persian rule and that the First Lady was not the Shah's wife but his mother, wielding considerable power and influence.

Ifra Hurmiz, King Shapur's mother, sent a purse full of dinars to Rav Yosef with the message, 'Do some great mitzvah with this'. Rav Yosef sat there eying the purse and considering what could be 'some great mitzvah'. Abbaye said to him, 'Since Rav Shemuel bar Yehudah has said that general social taxes may not be leveled on orphans even for Pidyon Shevuyim' we may deduce that Pidyon Shevuyim is a great mitzvah'.

And that was what the Queen's gift was used for. The fate of women abductees was worse than that of men, even after they had been ransomed. During the period of their abduction they were almost invariably raped. Upon being ransomed the women who made their way back to the homes and families often found their husbands to be reticent about restoring them because of the rapine. In earlier times a special clause was added to the Ketubbah in which the husband undertook to restore to his wife all her spousal rights and privileges if she were ransomed from slavery or abduction. (So persistent was the problem that it was deemed to be Tenai Bet Din: even if that clause had not been written into the Ketubbah it was deemed to have been accepted by the husband by virtue of his marriage.)

The great commentator Rashi in his commentary on our present mishnah offers another possibility: that "Boethusians and Samaritans might ambush them in order to mislead the sages". The two terms used by Rashi refer to schismatics. The Samaritans claimed to be descendants of the inhabitants of the northern kingdom of Israel that was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BCE. Their request to participate in the rebuilding of the Bet Mikdash in Jerusalem in 538 BCE was rebuffed by the returning Judean exiles. In a huff the Samaritans built their own temple on Mount Gerizim just outside Shechem. There are still a few hundred Samaritans left in the world (in Ĥolon and Nablus) and they consider themselves to be the true Israel and that we are impostors. There was always great animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans, who were considered to be devious and uncouth. In mishnaic times the Samaritans were a numerous and viable sect and the sages were always wary of ways in which they might possibly try to upset the Jewish halakhic applecart. The Boethusians were also schismatics, though they dated from a much later period; perhaps they separated from Judaism around the year 200 BCE. The Samaritans and the Boethusians had the following in common (which explains the sages' wariness of them): they accepted only the written Torah and rejected Torah she-b'al-Peh, the Unwritten Torah - which is the basis of the Mishnah. (The Samaritans also reject the rest of the Bible with the exception of the book of Joshua.)

Our mishnah quotes a verse from the book of Leviticus to justify the desecration of Shabbat: "These are God's festivals which you shall proclaim at their time" [Leviticus 23:4]. Rambam, in his commentary on our present mishnah, explains that wherever the Torah uses a phrase such as "at the right time" it means that this must be done even if it entails a desecration of Shabbat.


We have mentioned "schismatics". Harold Rosenblum writes:

The Meiri explains that wicked persons include schismatics. It appears to me that historically and to the present time most Jews (from the extreme right to the extreme left) can be considered schismatics. If so, who is there left to be a witness?

I respond:

In Judaism everyone who holds a view different from mine is a schismatic. (I hope you realize that that was not meant seriously.) As far as I am aware, modern Judaism only considers the Karaites and the Samaritans to be schismatics. The rest of us are just plain sinners.

Orin S. Rotman writes concerning a different topic:

I relation to your explination of Ch. 4 Mishna 8 re: witnesses, can you explain or amplify a previous explination of the difference between those who are disqualified to give testimony because of their relations or occupations and those who are considered unqualified to make oaths before the court. I am trying to get a better handle on how this section, and the one in Sanhedrin, should be studied and understood with e.g. Bava Metzia 5a-b where, according to Rav Yehuda, shepherds are inherently untrustworthy and should be barred from giving oaths. Since so many of our forefathers are described from time to time as shepherds, how does the role of witness/oath-giver and occupation/trustworthiness interplay?

I respond (very briefly):

When we studied Tractate Kiddushin we learned that certain tradespeople were looked upon as being unreliable. The last mishnah of Tractate Kiddushin contains the following comment: A man should not teach his son to be an ass-driver, a camel-driver, a hairdresser, a sailor, a shepherd or a shopkeeper, for their craft is the craft of robbers. And it is, of course, the robbery that links these poor souls with the other occupations discussed in the mishnah that Orin refers to. Lest anyone should be unduly offended by the above list let me also add that later in that same mishnah [Kiddushin 4:14] we find Rabbi Yehudah [ben-Ilai] opining that "the best among doctors is bound for hell and the most worthy among butchers is a partner of Amalek". Orin, the world changes. Nowadays we do not give blanket approval or blanket disapproval to any group of Jews, but the court itself must judge the trustworthiness of the witnesses and the litigants.

We have now completed our study of the first chapter of this tractate.

Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4

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