Jews Who Leave, and the Way Back

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Calendar, Eyewitnesses or Fixed

The first mitzvah given the Jewish people comes in 12;1, Gd tells Moshe this month shall be the first month of the year. Rambam thought the obligation included fixing the calendar according to eyewitness testimony. If no one saw the new moon on the night of the thirtieth (or those who did, did not come to court to testify), the new month will start on the thirty-first, regardless of astronomical reality.

Meshech Hochmah assumes (without evidence I know) an halachah le-Moshe mi-Sinai the Sanhedrin must set up the calendar this way. After the Sanhedrin stopped functioning, there were still courts of semuchin, of rabbis with the original ordination, who had the power to set the calendar. Such courts may use eyewitness testimony but are not required to (they may equally opt to use the fixed calendar), he says.

His first contribution, the idea there are times Jews must rely on eyewitness testimony (when we have a Sanhedrin), times when we must use a fixed calendar (no rabbis with the original semichah), and times when it is the choice of the rabbinic leadership (no Sanhedrin, rabbis with original semichah).

The Fixed Calendar Is Really Determined by the Jews of Israel

Meshech Hochmah now says something I remember hearing mori ve-rabi R. Michael Rosensweig discuss over thirty years ago (I do not recall if he cited the idea from Meshech Hochmah; as I’m writing this, I think he might have, and then differed with it in a point we will see in the next paragraphs). Although R. Meir Simhah does not quote the salient passages in Rambam, he says Rambam holds even today, when we have a fixed calendar, what’s really happening is that Jews of Israel are setting the calendar, just not through any testimony.

Rambam seems to hold the calendar must always be actively declared by someone; in the absence of a court qualified to do it, the Jews of Israel as a national entity do it. [He doesn’t explain further, but I think he means to connect it to Rambam’s idea that the Jews of the Land of Israel can confer semichah on someone, and that will restart the original semichah. While Rambam speaks of the Torah scholars of the Land of Israel, Meshech Hochmah seems to assume he meant the community of Israel, those scholars representing the community.

R. Rosensweig said it slightly differently, suggested Rambam thought the Jews of Israel implicitly confersemichahon three Torah scholars each month, who implicitly declared the New Moon. I remember it well because we had also learned Rambam’s view that a Torah scholar must know all of Torah to be eligible for such semichah, and I found the assumption there were always such scholars in the Land of Israel, throughout history, surprising. I asked whether Rambam really believed that, and R. Rosensweig said, sure, why not? Because knowing all of Torah was a less unreachable goal for him than it is for me.]

Sticking With Two Days

The Gemara recognizes a fixed calendar could have meant Jews outside Israel no longer needed to observe two days of holidays. Instead, it says we must continue to observe the customs of our forefathers, which seems odd if the reason for the original custom is outdated. The Vilna Gaon had said we should not mistake the reason the Gemara gives for a practice for the only reason, it was the reason Hazal were willing to share with the masses. There could easily be other still pertinent reasons we do not know.

Meshech Hochmah thinks he has discovered another reason for this custom. Since Rambam thinks semichah can be restored before Mashiah, there could come a point where an Israeli beit din, with rabbis bearing that original semichah, chooses to seek eyewitness testimony to decide when the next month starts.

The fixed calendar might say it should be a twenty-nine day month, but the moon did not appear, so the court waited. Outside of Israel, they would be messed up. To avoid that, the rabbis left the two-day system in place, similar to (his comparison) R. Yohanan b. Zakkai saying not to eat new grain the entire sixteenth of Nisan. In both cases, Hazal were worried about a particular version of the restoration of Zion, made a rule to avoid any negative outcomes.

[Notice his view—I think it is the implication of the Gemara as well, I just find it thought-provoking—Hazal would make rules that applied for thousands of years to avoid a negative event in the one year of the rebuilding of the Mikdash (for the new grains case), or the years between the restoration of the Sanhedrin and advent of Mashiah.

I repeatedly wonder whether it was the actual worry about that event, or a way to nudge Jews to keep the rebuilding in mind. Was R. Yohanan b. Zakkai so worried about one instance of Jews eating new grain to make it worth prohibiting it for the afternoon of the sixteenth of Nisan throughout the exile? Was the possibility the Sanhedrin would be restored first really a reason to make Jews keep a second day of each holiday for all those years?

Perhaps; but perhaps it was about creating an environment in which Jews say, over and over again, the Mikdash or Sanhedrin might come back at any moment, and I have to include that in my calculations.]

He closes by saying his idea should shut the mouths of those who are breaching the boundaries of halachah (meaning, those who were no longer observing the second day of the holidays, Reform Jews). Telling us this was an issue of tension in his time, his commentary here was about what the verse said, about the halachic issue, and also about defending tradition against those disagreeing with it.

Narrowed Options for Finding Our Way to Gd

In 12;27, Moshe completes telling the Jews about the observance of the Pesah sacrifice, including how to answer when their children ask why they were performing this service. (Our haggadot treat the question as coming from an evil son, a fact I think is in Meshech Hochmah’s mind, although he does not say it). The people bow in gratitude.

Rashi says it was the news of their children, a comment I used to think meant they were happy to hear they would have children, would have a posterity continuing into the future. Meshech Hochmah thinks it is news about those children.

To understand the news, we have to start with a distinction he draws between kinds of rebels against Gd. Those who rebel from a position of wealth can be brought back to Gd, he says, by sending rough times. Hopefully, they will see the downturn in fortunes as Gd calling for change, and will do so. Those who rebel while poor are in a much harder position, because they are so impervious to Gd’s messages, having not taken their poverty as a sign to pick up their game. They will tend to look elsewhere for help, and credit any upturn to wherever they turned for comfort.

Here, the verse says Gd will bring the Jews to the promised land, meaning it will be flowing in milk and honey, so when they challenge the service, it is from a position of comfort, with room for Gd’s discipline to bring them back into accepting Gd. For that, they were grateful.

[I think he means because when a child strays, the parent most fervently wants there to be a way for him/her to come back.]

Moshe’s Children

He pursues the idea in another comment, 12;43, the only time in the Torah where Gd speaks to to Moshe ve-Aharon, Moshe and Aharon, rather than el Moshe ve-el Aharon, to Moshe and to Aharon. The usual distance disappeared here, he says, because the topic was the impermissibility of a ben nechar eating the Pesah sacrifice.

Onkelos already told us a ben nechar is a Jew who has left the religion [an idea that bears remembering: the Torah says a Jew who has left observance cannot offer the Pesah sacrifice; chew on how that would work as you think about how close or far we are from a rebuilt Mikdash], and Moshe had descendants who would do so (tradition says Shofetim 18;30 put a nun in Moshe’s name to save him the embarrassment of it being known his descendant was a priest for an idol). That knowledge impacted his level of prophecy such that for these verses, he was at the same level as Aharon.

[I don’t think he can mean that literally, because in the introduction to Shemot he thought Moshe had to be at a level of having completely lost his freewill in order to be the prophet who shared the Torah, to guarantee he would not mishandle the task. Unless we think Aharon reached that level, it’s hard to say Moshe regressed to Aharon’s level. I think he just wants to make the point that this was a painful topic for Moshe, because of the future of his family. Or, perhaps, when Gd originally told it to Moshe and Aharon, they were at the same level of prophecy, when Gd told Moshe to write the Torah, he was at the higher level.]

Three Meshech Hochmahs on issues where Jews might leave religion—the attack on second days of holidays (and other rabbinic rules), how Jews can or cannot be enticed back to religion, and how Moshe suffered knowing about descendants who would lose their fidelity to monotheism.

May we all be spared or find reprieve from such challenges, and find our way quickly to a future where all our children are fully involved in Gd’s service in all the best ways.

About Gidon Rothstein

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