Setting the Calendar

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Vayakhel/Pekudei 5783: Also Parshat Ha-Chodesh!

In my parsha series, I can’t dodge the parsha, and when it’s a double, I have to do both. Here, the calendar offers me another mitzvah to discuss, because this week is also Parshat HaChodesh, the fourth of the special readings around Purim and Nissan. In the reading for HaChodesh, we have the verse Rashi called the first mitzvah given the Jewish people, hachodesh hazeh lakhem, Shemot 12;2. For Rambam, it commanded one mitzvah, with two aspects.

The Sanhedrin Sets the Calendar

His Obligation 153 says we are supposed to sanctify/declare the advent of months and calculate months and years, the two together composing the mitzvah of kiddush hachodeshRosh HaShanah 22a tells us the lakhem, to you, of the verse was directed to Moshe and Aharon, to make clear they were the ones who could take testimony and certify the arrival of a month, not regular Jews.

In contrast to Shabbat, for Rambam’s example, which comes every seven days regardless, no leadership needed. For the calendar, seeing the moon is not enough, it takes testimony in front of the Sanhedrin—or at least a court of three musmakhim, three bearers of the original ordination, in an unbroken chain back to Moshe. While it generally must happen in Israel, the Gemara has stories of the greatest rabbi of a generation setting the calendar outside Israel, a subset of our discussion I leave for now.

The Jewish people lost that semikha chain during the time of the Talmud (when the community in Israel weakened in its Torah knowledge, and no new students received the semikha), depriving us of a calendar established by witnesses.

The Karaites Still Eyewitness the Calendar

Rambam then says the Karaites err in thinking they can still set the calendar in the original way, as do some rabbis of his time “who walk with them in a deep darkness.” A quick check online suggests the Karaites indeed still fix their calendar by eyewitness testimony, and also decide whether to add a second Adar based on specific conditions of that year.

We do not accept the idea because, as Rambam said, it requires a certification we do not have. Just as the sacrifices were lost with the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, the eyewitness/intercalation (adding an Adar to make sure Pesach happens in spring) was lost with the cessation of the semikha.

With the significant difference of the indispensability of the calendar. The loss of the Beit HaMikdash and sacrifice leaves us bereft in many ways, but we can commemorate, somewhat substitute for sacrifice with our prayers. We must have a calendar.

Rambam: The Calculated Calendar Is Not the Real Calendar

Rambam introduces his idea of how our calendar works today with the idea that it is a shoresh gadol me’od mi-shorshei ha-emunah, a very great principle of the principles of faith, known only to those of deep da’at, knowledge or insight.

[I do not remember seeing it noticed, perhaps because scholars think it banal, but Rambam has more than one place where he speaks of shorashim, roots or principles of faith he did not include in the famous Thirteen Principles. It’s not our topic here, but it matters me to say it: Rambam did not think a Jew who believed his Thirteen Principles had all the faith ideas s/he needed, only the very basic ones that allowed him/her to count as being within the fold of the Jewish people. To ponder.]

Now for the calendar itself, which to all appearances is set by a series of calculations (we can look up the calendar for upcoming years and decades, an impossibility in the time of the Sanhedrin, since they decided the New Moon month to month, and could throw in a second Adar any time up until the first of Nisan). Rambam considers it a misimpression, says the calendar is (now, it sounds like) set by the Beit Din HaGadol, the Great Court in Israel, and when we calculate the calendar, we are figuring out what they decided.

[I recognize we do not have such a court today; we’ll get there.]

That court has the right to set the calendar even by calculation, because Sifrei reads a verse in Emor, these are the mo’adim of Hashem that you shall declare, to empower the Court to declare holidays even erroneously or under coercion. While the Beit Din HaGadol ideally does it with witnesses, it also works fi they do it by calculation.

It’s Happening Today

Some of his language could mislead us into thinking he means the Court decided this in the past (Ramban’s view, as we will see), except he gives an extended example showing otherwise. He says were it to happen that there would be no Jews in Israel, God forbid–

(Pardon the digression. He writes, in loose translation, “and impossibly, because God has promised He would not wipe out the signs of the nation from the Land.” I linger over the comment because this is one of those passages where Rambam assumes a direct divine involvement in the world more philosophical/rationalistic readers of his tell us he did not believe, yet it’s in a place where he had no reason to write it unless he believed it.)

Back to his hypothetical. Were there no Jews in Israel, no court outside Israel consisting of rabbis who had been ordained in Israel, we would have no way to set the calendar, our calculations would be futile, because Torah must come out of Zion and Jerusalem (the well-known verse from Yeshayahu 2;3, ki mi-Tziyon tetzei Torah).

He seems to be insisting there is currently a declaration of the calendar happening, although it relies on calculation rather than eyewitnesses. Many years ago, mori ve-rabi R. Michael Rosensweig read Rambam to mean that every month the Jewish people in Israel implicitly ordain three rabbis with the authentic semikha (another idea of Rambam’s, that this would be a way to recreate the semikha), who then implicitly declare the New Moon. Others have slightly different versions of the same idea, but overall Rambam thinks there is an halakha le-Moshe mi-Sinai creating a mechanism by which the calendar is always actively being set, sometimes by courts based on eyewitness testimony, sometimes based on a system of calculation, with the mechanism for the declaration of the New Moon not quite clear.

One Mitzvah or Two, and It’s Not Only the Highest Court

Behag separates this mitzvah into two, the one for the new months based on eyewitness testimony, another to add a month when needed. Ramban thinks this is more correct, as he said earlier in his comments on Rambam’s principles for how to decide what counts as a mitzvah.

He gives the bulk of his attention to Rambam’s idea about what happens nowadays, when there is no court or ordained Torah scholars. He first points out the courts stopped functioning long before we lost the chain of ordination, since Avoda Zara 8b tells us the Sanhedrin exiled itself from its spot adjacent to the Temple forty years before the destruction, an exile that sapped it of its power to administer capital punishment, which Ramban thinks lost them all powers specific to the Beit Din Ha-Gadol, the highest court.

In his view, sanctifying the New Moon based on eyewitness testimony must have stopped then, except Talmudic sources clearly discuss accepting the testimony until almost the end of the time of the Gemara.

Any Three Ordained

It’s Rambam’s first error, Ramban asserts, that the calendar needed the High Court. In his vew, any three mumchin, scholars with that original semikha, could do it, as we see in stories in both the Bavli and YerushalmiWhen there was a Sanhedrin, he concedes, the Sanhedrin would do it, with the involvement and consent of the nasi, the head of the Sanhedrin, considered necessary.

Where he’s not around, Rosh HaShana 31b tells us it can be done without him, and Ramban is sure the same applies to the Sanhedrin as a whole. He also thinks the Torah’s mitzvah requires the second Adar be added while in Yehuda, Judea, although that, too, can be foregone if necessary, such as where the greatest Torah scholar of the time is found somewhere else.

Setting Up a Calendar for the Future

Rather than Rambam’s halakha le-Moshe mi-Sinai about the calendar—one not mentioned in the Gemara– Ramban thinks R. Hillel HaNasi, the son of R. Yehuda HaNasi set up the calendar for the future (I think historians claim the R. Hillel the Gemara credits with the calendar was a later one).  He established the calculations by which we determine the calendar today and, with his court, anticipatorily sanctified all the months and extra Adars for the entire future until we return to eyewitness calendar determinations. Where Rambam held the sanctification happens each month, in some way, Ramban is saying it happened long ago, and will last as needed until we get the ideal system back.

[Ramban reminds us we hope to return to the much less exact eyewitness system. There could be months when witnesses do not come, for example, and the month is extended for no good reason. Or when the rabbis add an Adar and the weather immediately clears up, meaning Pesach could have been earlier.

Why would God prefer that kind of calendar? I’m pretty sure it has to do with the active involvement of people in God’s world and service, but that’s not our topic here.]

Linking the Lunar to the Solar

Arukh HaShulchan He-Atid, Laws of Sanctifying the Months, 88;1, points out we set our months by the moon, but want our years to fit the solar years, for example by having Pesach in the spring, a solar year concept. In paragraph two, he relates this to the creation story, where the Torah says the sun and the moon would be lights in the sky, for signs and for holidays, days, and years, which he takes to mean both bodies are supposed to figure in our calendar.

It’s true of days, when a full day is a night—moon time—and the following day, sun time. Six of those lead to Shabbat, with no need for a court to sanctify, because it is embedded in nature, a sign between God and the Jewish people. We count months purely by the moon, he says in paragraph four, because there is a physical correlation (the moon looks like it grows and shrinks, defining a month in a natural way), where the year has a solar component, since the Torah tells us to make sure Nisan is in the spring, a solar idea.

Days for Months, Months for Years

Rambam added one more point that led Arukh HaShulchan to another fascinating comment. The Torah refers to the months of the year, leading Megillah 5a to understand we set up years by number of months, twelve or thirteen, not the number of days (a Jewish year can be as few as 353 days, I think, and as much as 385). Months, on the other hand, are made up of days, not hours or minutes, because Bamidbar 11;20 speaks of hodesh yamim, a month of days.

[I already find it a remarkable idea, because it means that if two people are both thirty years old, let’s say, they may have lived different amounts of time, an idea that is significantly less true on the solar calendar. For the solar year, the only real change is whether there is a February 29th, where in the Jewish calendar, two samples of thirty years can vary by months. It is a particularly Jewish view of time, worth considering.]

Arukh HaShulchan HeAtid 88;7 wondered why we do all this calendrical calculating, why not just have every month be 29 ½ days (plus a bit), and every year be twelve months plus eleven days? [I think the French Revolution broached such an idea, when they wanted all the measures to be in tens.] His answer is this Rambam, months must be made up of whole days, years of whole months.

Leaving us with our calendar, mixing the lunar and solar, an obligation of beit din to figure out (said the Arukh HaShulchan), and occasionally adjust with an extra month of Adar. Either actively now, for Rambam, or done ahead of time and waiting for a return to when we do it actively, for Ramban.

About Gidon Rothstein

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