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October 13, 2015 | 30th Tishrei 5776

Calling it a day I

Galilee Diary #197
September 5, 2004
Marc Rosenstein

The chatzavim are in full bloom. In Naomi Shemer's song "Rosh HaShanah," she refers to the chatzav flowers coming up in the field "like a memorial candle." Perhaps the most distinctive natural sign in Israel of the coming of Rosh HaShanah is the appearance of the striking stalks of white flowers of the chatzav, the Mediterranean squill – the only wild flower to bloom in this dry, brown season - that seem to spring out of the ground with no warning in mid-Elul, to let us know that the season is changing and the year is turning. Of course, we would know from our calendars that the New Year is coming, but there is something satisfying about the confirmation that our religious, communal determinations are rooted in the soil, in the natural cycles of Eretz Yisrael.

As our certainty of our knowledge of how the world works has increased, we have tended to lose the sense of connection with the cycles of nature upon which our timekeeping is based. We take the calendar for granted and never question it. It wasn't always so; at a number of points in our history (even the modern period) the authority to determine the calendar was a "hot" issue in communal politics.

For example, in the first century C.E., the proclamation of the new month (and the new year) was done only when witnesses were found who could testify to having seen the moon pass through its transition, the actual "birth" of the new moon (which always takes place during daylight hours and is therefore not so easy to see!). According to the Mishnah (Tractate Rosh HaShanah chapter 2), collecting and examining potential witnesses was a major communal event; apparently there were local examining stations, and those whose testimony seemed useful were sent to the office of the president of the Sanhedrin in Yavneh, who performed an official interrogation and, if he accepted the testimony, proclaimed the new month. The Mishnah relates a case in which one of the senior scholars, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, was convinced that Rabban Gamaliel, the president of the Sanhedrin, was grossly mistaken in his acceptance of a particular set of witnesses, and therefore, he differed from Rabban Gamaliel in his determination of the date of Rosh HaShanah by one day. When he complained, Rabban Gamaliel ordered Rabbi Joshua to appear before him on Yom Kippur according to his (i.e., Rabbi Joshua's) calculation, staff and wallet in hand (which is forbidden on Yom Kippur).

Rabbi Joshua went through a period of soul-searching, and consulted with friends, all of whom advised him that to challenge the authority of Rabban Gamaliel would be to undermine the whole system of Jewish law. Rabbi Akiba reminded him of the verse: "These are the set times of the Lord, the sacred occasions, which you shall set [literally "call"] each at its appointed time." (Lev. 23:4): the only sacred days we have are the ones we set; i.e., the truth is communal, not absolute, not astronomical. In the end, Rabbi Joshua obeyed the order, and desecrated "his" Yom Kippur. Rabban Gamaliel kissed him, and said, "Welcome, my master and my student: my master in wisdom, my student in accepting my authority." In other words, "You were right, but it doesn't matter, because I am right by definition." Without authority, there can be no community – we cannot all decide for ourselves when to observe the holidays.

Again, in 921, a calendar dispute arose, between Saadia, the gaon, or chief rabbi of Babylonia, and Ben Meir, a Jerusalem scholar. In this case, Ben Meir claimed authority based purely on his residence in Israel; but Saadia, a powerful, charismatic, polymath, prevailed even though he lived in the Diaspora.

And lest we think such disputes were limited to a more primitive age, let's not forget the matter of the second day of holidays in the Diaspora, observed by Orthodox and Conservative communities but rejected by the Reform movement, resulting, for example, in Reform and Conservative congregations actually celebrating Simchat Torah on different days! The more things change, the more they stay the same...

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