Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Great Rabbinic Cover Up

The regulation of our calendar can be intricate and most people are not very familiar with its ins and outs. What is surprising to see is that there are some respectable sources from the times of the Geonim and Rishonim that indicate that there may have actually been a cover up, or conspiracy, to keep this information from the masses. The necessity of secrecy was integral to the preservation of our precious calendar and as we shall see, it is possible that much information was even kept hidden from many of the most prominent sages of the Mishna.

Rabbeinu Bacheye cites from Rabbeinu Chananel that the highest beis din was charged with determining Rosh Chodesh, the new month. Rabbeinu Chananel states that those who maintain that it was necessary to have witnesses sight the new moon and testify before the court are mistaken. The court would determine the time of the new moon and based on their calculations sancitfy the months. The information contained in Maseches Rosh Hashana about witnesses is only because witnesses were used only for ceremonial purposes because of an event that had occurred at one point in time. However, the biblical commandment to sanctify the months has nothing to do with witnesses. (Rabbeinu Bacheye Shemos 12:2) In addition to not needing witnesses, the beis din is authorized to make Rosh Chodesh on a day other than the date of the new moon if it is necessary. Additionally, if they sanctified a day erroneously the sanctification is still valid. (Rosh Hashana 25a)

The above certainly is how Rabbeinu Bacheye cites Rabbeinu Chananel. It is of note that the Rambam emphatically rejected this opinion and felt that even Rabbeinu Chananel himself was not serious when he suggested it. (See Rambam Peirush Hamishnayos Rosh Hashana 2) Nevertheless, many Rishonim followed in the footsteps of that which Rabbeinu Chananel actually stated and there are indications that this was Rav Saadiah Gaon's opinion, as well. (See Torah Sheleimah Miluim Parshas Bo)

A fascinating point to note is that in Rabbeinu Bacheye's discussion he utilizes this approach to interpret a debate that Rabban Gamliel had with Rebbi Yehoshua. The debate essentially was based on the principle that Rabban Gamliel was sanctifying days upon which Rebbi Yehoshua felt the new moon could not be sighted. The way it is presented it comes out that Rabban Gamliel was of the above opinion and Rebbi Yehoshua rejected it. Thus, Rabban Gamliel would actually have been aware that the moon could not be sighted but felt that his calculations were the primary method of sanctifying the moon and so long as based on his calculations the calendar could operate then he was authorized to sanctify the moon. To support his claim Rabban Gamliel mentioned that this was the tradition in his family. (See Rabbeinu Bacheye's version of the discussion as his text had this aspect clearly stated by Rabban Gamliel. The version found in our text is not as clear.) This same concept can be seen by Rebbi (Rebbi Yehuda Hanasi) when he makes a similar claim about having a familial tradition. (Rosh Hashana 25a) Interestingly, both Rabban Gamliel and Rebbi were from the same family, Rabban Gamliel was Rebbi's grandfather.

In an earlier post I mentioned that it would seem that Rashi was of this opinion and I also believe that it is probable that Tosefos would agree. (See here.) It would seem that the tradition of calendar regulation was passed on through the regal family of Rabban Gamliel. This family was the one that produced the nasi of Klal Yisrael for many generations and they were descendants of David Hamelech. The nasi was the one charged with sanctifying the new moon so it makes sense that the regulatory laws would be passed as tradition in this family. (See Rashi Rosh Hashana 31b) The Aruch mentions that the reason why the laws of calendar regulation are called Sod, meaning secrets, (see Rosh Hashana 20b) is because it was only disseminated to those that needed to know. The Maor Hakatan maintains that it was kept secret as not to allow the nations that persecute us to somehow find out about it and interfere with it. (See Hamaor Hakatan Rosh Hashana 20b, although I concede that he personally is of the Rambam's opinion.)

Interestingly, we find that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai once had a dilemma when witnesses arrived late in the day on Rosh Hashana and the song for the korbon was either omitted or said in error. (Rosh Hashana 30b) One may ask, "If the nasi was charged with regulating the calendar and witnesses are irrelevant, then how could the nasi, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai have erred?" The answer is obvious. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was only a temp. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel the Elder had been murdered in a vicious fashion by the Romans. His son Rabban Gamliel, mentioned above, was taken into hiding. The Jews had Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai fill in until the position would be able to be returned to Rabban Gamliel. Not being from the family, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai may have been unaware of the tradition. Even more interesting is that one of his primary students was none other than Rebbi Yehoshua, the one who later argued this point with Rabban Gamliel.

I know this post is a bit long, but I would like to end off with something that makes the above seem even more fascinating. Rav is quoted as stating that from the times of Ezra Elul never had 30 days. (Rosh Hashana 19b) Although many have theorized why this could be true, there is no scientific reason why the lunation cycles should have caused this to be true. Shortly after Rav's time we find that both Levi and Ulah discuss Elul in their time sometimes having 30 days. (Rosh Hashana 21a and 20a) If the reason that Elul was consistently 29 days because of calendrical manipulation then one does not need a scientific explanation. The reason why this might be the case is that it was necessary to have Elul consistently either 29 or 30 days. That way, those in the Diaspora would know when to observe Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. For whatever reason they picked 29 and as such the Babylonians could assume that Rosh Hashana was always on the 30th day from Rosh Chodesh Elul. (See Rosh Hashana 31a) Although it is possible Rav stated, "Since the times of Ezra," because there was no record of times prior to Ezra, if the above is true there is a reason why this aspect of the calendar would have only been instated during Ezra's time. Prior to Ezra's ascent to Eretz Yisrael the masses of Jews lived together, first in Eretz Yisrael and then in Bavel. When Ezra ascended the beis din charged with setting the calendar was in Eretz Yisrael, but the masses lived in Bavel, thus it was necessary for the signifcant community in Bavel to know when Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur were.

Why then during Levi and Ulah's time did things cease to operate in this fashion? Perhaps, for the same reason that the song of the korbon was errant in the days of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. During Levi and Ulah's time the nasi was Rabban Gamliel IV. During his tenure the Romans abolished the Sanhedrin and it is probable that his office did not operate properly.

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