If the seventh day arrives and there is nobody there to observe it, is it holy? – Rosh Hashanah 5780

What is today’s date?

{The second of Tishrei.}

What happened on this day that we are commemorating?

{The world was created.}

It is actually a bit more nuanced than this.  For creation was not a one day event.  It took seven: six days for God to bring into existence everything that is, and a seventh day for God to cease working and rest.

As the chronology goes, this week-long creation began on the 25th day of Elul—last month.  This means that the first day of Rosh Hashanah, which we observed yesterday, corresponded to the 6th day, the day on which God created humanity. Today, then, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, is the seventh and final day of Creation, when God rested.

But is this true?

Let me get something out of the way.  The world is not 5,780 years old.  Do not look to the Torah for either a scientific or historical account of how the universe came into being.  That is not the Torah’s purpose.  Classic commentators tell us: The Torah is written in language that human beings can comprehend.  Do not think that we can understand anything about how God created the world.

In our Mahzor, we declare Hayom harat olam.  “Today the world is conceived.”  But, nowhere in the Bible is there a direct indication that today is the birthday of the world.

As late as the Talmud (BT Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a), rabbis were arguing about when the world was created.  Go figure.  Rabbi Eliezer says it was in Tishrei.  But Rabbi Yehoshua says that it was in Nisan, in the Spring.  Each of them bring biblical verses to try to prove their points, and the Talmud raises objections to both. Our observance today clearly follows the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer.  

But how can either of them know when the world was created, or when the new year should begin?  For that matter, why does the week have seven days?  Is there something inherently special about the number 7?

The ancient Romans had an 8 day week.  The Aztecs and Mayans used a 13 day week.  During the French Revolution, there was an attempt to change over to a ten day week, which was seen as more modern and scientific.  It failed after nine and a half years.

Is there something inherently special about Tishrei vs. Nisan, or about a week that lasts 7 days, as opposed to 8, 10, or 13? Are these numbers independently meaningful, or are they significant because we decided to make them so?  If the seventh day arrives and there is nobody there to observe it, is it holy?

This is the theological equivalent of asking, “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around, does it make a sound?”

Our sages have answers to these questions.  They draw a distinction between the counting of the days of the week and the determination of when the months and the years are supposed to begin. The responsibility and authority for setting the calendar is granted to human beings.  In ancient times, the Sanhedrin accepted testimony from witnesses who had claimed to see the new moon.

When the Sanhedrin was satisfied, they would declare: M’kudash M’kudash.  Sanctified!  Sanctified  That day was declared to be Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month.  The correct observance of holidays depended on the decision that the Sanhedrin made. They knew exactly when the moon was supposed to appear.  They understood the astronomy quite well, probably better than most of us in the room.

But, if it happened to be a cloudy night, or if the there was a problem with the witnesses, too bad.  The declaration would have to be put off until the next day.  This meant that the month sometimes began on the “wrong day.”  

When the Sanhedrin stopped meeting, the rabbis implemented the fixed calendar which we still use today.  They decided that Rosh Hashanah should never occur on a Sunday, Wednesday, or Friday.  Why?  To prevent Yom Kippur from falling on a Friday or a Sunday,  or Hoshanah Rabah falling on Shabbat, which would be really inconvenient.

Whenever the new moon appears on one of those days, Rosh Hashanah has to be delayed.  On particular occasions, it has to be pushed off by up to two days.

This goes against what the Torah says very plainly in today’s maftir:  “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion.” (Numbers 29:1)  According to the Torah, our holiday should begin when the moon first appears.  Period.

This year, the new moon made its first appearance Sunday morning, at 5:50 am.  But, we cannot observe Rosh Hashanah on a Sunday, so we artificially pushed it off until the following day.

Does it seem strange that human beings would manipulate the calendar so brazenly?  What gave our ancestors the right, and why do we keep listening to them?

According to ancient teachings, in fact, permission and responsibility to set the calendar is granted to people. That is why, when we recite the kiddush for Rosh Hashanah, we say m’kadesh yisrael v’yom hazikaron.  Praised are You God, who sanctifies the people Israel and the Day of Remembrance.

Israel is mentioned first.  Why?  Because we are the ones who determine the day on which the holiday is going to be observed.  Don’t worry, everyone.  It’s all kosher.  We’ve got permission.

When it comes to Shabbat, however, there is absolutely no astronomical significance to a seven day week.  The blessing for kiddush is simply m’kadesh haShabbat.  Praise are you God, who sanctifies the Shabbat.  Human beings have no say in the matter.

How do we know that the day we think is Shabbat actually is Shabbat?  How confident are we that human beings have been counting to 7 consistently for the past 5,780 years? Is there anything special about the seventh day, or is it completely arbitrary?

An ancient midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 11:5; Pesikta Rabbati 23) poses that exact question in a conversation between Rabbi Akiva and the Roman Governor of Judea, Quintus Tineius Rufus.  The midrash names him Turnusrufus HaRasha.  Tyranus Rufus the Wicked.  He governed Judah during the 120’s and early 130’s, CE, during the beginning of the Bar Kochba revolt.

A number of legends describe the confrontations between these two figures.  Usually, Akiva comes out on top after the Roman tries to lay a rhetorical trap for him. It was Tineius Rufus who ordered the execution of Rabbi Akiva, when he refused to obey the decree banning the teaching of Torah.  But in a reversal from one particularly dramatic tale, (BT Avodah Zarah 20a) Rufus’ wife divorces him, converts to Judaism, and then marries Akiva.

In this story (Genesis Rabbah 11:5), the wicked Turnus Rufus asks Rabbi Akiva: “Why does this day differ from all other days?”  [Sound familiar?]

Akiva has a quick comeback, “Why does this man differ from all other men?”

Tinneus Rufus is already confused.  “What did I ask you and what did you answer me?’  He does not understand his own question, much less Akiva’s response.

So Akiva breaks it down for him.  “You asked me, ‘why is the Sabbath different from all other days?’ and I answered you, ‘Why is Rufus different from all other men?'”

“That’s easy,” laughs the Roman proudly.  “The emperor wanted to honor him.”

Akiva responds.  “It’s the same with Shabbat.  The Holy One wished to honor it.”

Rufus is not going to be swayed so easily.  “Prove it!” he tells Akiva.  In other words, he is asking if there is anything at all that is different about the seventh day; in the physical or even in the metaphysical world.  It’s a good question.  The rabbis often put good questions which might border on being heretical in the mouths of Romans.

“Let the River Sambatyon prove it!” Akiva declares.  The Sambatyon is a mythical river, the location of which is unknown.  He continues, “The Sambatyon flows along, carrying stones in its current for the whole week, but on the Sabbath, it stops flowing, allowing the stones to rest.”  

Rufus will have none of that.  “You are avoiding the question.”

“Fine,” Akiva says.  “Then let this necromancer prove it.  For every day, he summons the dead to rise up from Gehenna, but not on the Sabbath.  Go check it out with your father.”

So Rufus goes to test Akiva’s theory.  He has his own father summoned from the grave.  Every single day, his father comes up, but when the Sabbath arrives, he is a no-show.  Just to be sure, Rufus summons his father again on the following day, Sunday.  His father’s spirit is there, right on time.

So Rufus asks him, “Father!  Are you suddenly shomer shabbos?! Did you become Jewish after you died?  Did you convert?  Why did you come every day of the week but not on the Sabbath?” 

The father explains.  “Those who do not rest on the sabbath of their own free will while they are alive are forced to observe it here, against their will.”

“But what work is there from which you need to rest?” his son asks.

“Every day we are subjected to judgment and punishment,” Rufus’ father responds.  “But on Shabbat we get a break.”

So Rufus returns to Akiva.  “If it is as you say, that the Holy One observes the Sabbath, then then let Him not cause the winds to blow on that day, or cause the rains to fall, or make the plants grow?” 

This, of course, is the real question.  The earth keeps spinning, the plants keep growing, paying no heed to the Sabbath.  If everything happens according to God’s will, why is there no evidence of the sabbath whatsoever in the natural world?  We are asked to rest on the seventh day, just as God rested on the seventh day.  So how come nature doesn’t get a break?

Here, Akiva gets frustrated, “Let this man’s breath depart from him,” he mutters.  Then he answers with a particularly legalistic explanation.

First, let me explain.  On the Sabbath, there is a prohibition against carrying things outside of one’s private domain.  You may have heard of an eruv.  It is a technical way of combining lots of individual private domains into one giant, shared private space.  This enables observant Jews to carry things outside of their homes on the sabbath.  

So Akiva says to Rufus, “The entire world is God’s private domain, therefore it is permissible for God to cause all of these things to continue on the sabbath.”

And that is the end of the midrash.

With no disrespect to Rabbi Akiva, this is not a particularly convincing answer.  Certainly not one that Rufus would accept, or even understand.  God moving the winds and making the rain fall is the equivalent of a person carrying an object around the yard?!  Come on.  To come up with this answer, Akiva has to utilize a loophole developed by the rabbis, a legal invention that is nowhere in the Torah.

What matters to Tineius Rufus?  The power that he wields over Akiva and other men.  The honor given to him by the King.  He is a nihilist.  There is nothing more than the power and honor that a person can grab in their lifetime.

Akiva struggles to explain that there is something deeper, something that can only be appreciated by acknowledging the power of something that cannot be seen.

If the seventh day arrives and there is nobody there to observe it, is it holy?

We ask the same question about all sorts of things, not just Shabbat.  Is there any inherent meaning to the particular rituals and practices of Judaism?

All of this is really about the sacredness of time.  I would argue that there is, in fact, no inherent holiness from one moment to the next.  It takes people to make time sacred.

This requires from us a leap of faith.  To treat time as sacred is to stand in awe of Creation; to be aware simultaneously of how small and insignificant we are are and of how special and blessed we are.

We embrace a day as holy, knowing full well that the selection of this particular day is arbitrary, that the concept of holiness itself has no physical reality whatsoever.  By embracing the holiness of the day anyways, we relinquish the power to make time sacred to something greater than us.

This is the paradox inherent in ritual.  Ritual is just a series of symbolic actions.  But those rituals have the capacity to free us and make our lives infinitely meaningful.  But only if we take a leap.

What are the rituals of Rosh Hashanah?  What are the stories that we tell about this day that express its holiness and give it meaning?

Hayom.  On this day, we celebrate God’s creation of the world.  Earth is one year older.  It is a party.  A time for joy.

On this day, we sound the shofar.  It rings like a trumpet, announcing the King’s enthronement.  The blast recalls God’s mercy in accepting a ram for sacrifice instead of Isaac.  It wakens us to teshuvah.  The cry of the shofar evokes our own cries as we realize our mistakes.

On this day, God, the King, stands in Judgment.  Our deeds from the past year are weighed, and our destiny for the year ahead is determined.  But we have within us the ability to avert the severity of the decree through our actions: repentance, prayer, and tzedakah.

From this day until Yom Kippur, we can appeal the verdict.  We hope to push God up from the seat of judgment to the seat of mercy.  We know that we are imperfect, but we try our best, and we believe that we can be better, that personal transformation can and does happen.

So to all of us, on this second day of Rosh Hashanah, the day on which God rested after six days of work, the 5,780th birthday of the world, may this year be filled with blessings.  May our lives be enriched by the love of our family, friends, and community.  May this be a year of personal growth as we engage in learning and in working on our midot, our characters.  May God grant us peace: here at home, in Israel, and around the world.  May we and our loved ones be blessed with health, and with strength to face the challenges that will inevitably come.  

L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’Techatemu.  May we all be written and sealed for a good year.

The Origin of the Hebrew Calendar – Bo 5775

Parashat Bo continues the story of Moses and Aaron confronting Pharaoh, demanding that the King of Egypt allow the Israelites to go out into the wilderness to worship God.  As he refuses, they announce each calamity that God is about to bring upon the Egyptians.  The devastation wrought by the plagues on Egypt worsens, and Pharaoh’s stubbornness begins to show cracks.  He offers to let just the men go, but then he changes his mind.  Then he agrees that the children and the elderly can go as well, but he backtracks once again.  Finally, Moses announces that the entire nation is simply going to leave with all of their belongings.  Furthermore, Pharaoh himself will supply the cattle that will be used as offerings to God.

Moses declares the upcoming tenth plague, the death of all first born humans and animals in the land of Egypt, and then the Torah takes a break.

God speaks to Moses and Aaron, saying the following:

Hachodesh hazeh lakhem rosh chodashim, rishon hu lakhem l’chodshei hashanah

This chodesh shall be for you the head of the chodashim, it shall be first for you of the chodashim of the year.  (Exodus 12:2)

Our tradition understands this to be the first of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot.  Because of its position as number one, and because it interrupts this dramatic story, we can assume that it is telling us something highly significant.

Indeed, this verse is the origin of the Hebrew calendar.  The Rabbis do some very close reading to explain how the Hebrew calendar, which came into existence long before they came along, is rooted in the Torah.

Moses and Aaron are told that this chodesh will serve as the first chodesh of the year.  But what is a chodesh?

Chodesh is from the same root as chadash, meaning new.  The chodesh is something that is mitchadesh, that experiences renewal.

The appearance of the moon changes from one day to the next, such that it renews itself once per month.  The sun, on the other hand, appears the same each day.  Thus, the Rabbis of the Talmud (BT Megillah 5a) explain that we count the year by months, rather than by days.  The term chodshei hashanah, the months of the year, illustrate this requirement.  This is why our calendar is a lunar calendar, rather than a solar calendar.

But this leads to several problems.

A lunar month is 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, and 2.976 seconds, approximately.  Twelve months is 354 days and a fraction.  This would make a lunar year about 11 days shorter than a solar year.  If we were to follow just a lunar system, the months, and the Jewish holidays, would float across the seasons, taking about 33 years to return full-circle to the season in which they started.  That is, in fact, how the Muslim calendar works.

Deuteronomy states shamor et chodesh ha-Aviv v’asita Pesach.  “Observe the month of Aviv and offer a passover sacrifice to the Lord your God, for it was in the month of Aviv, at night, that the Lord your God freed you from Egypt.”  (Deuteronomy 16:1).  Aviv is the only named month in the Torah.  It literally means “new ears of grain” because it is the month in which the ears of grain first appear.  If the calendar were to float over the course of the seasons, then we would not be observing Passover during Aviv.

Furthermore, with regard to Succot, the Torah says b’asaf’cha et ma’asecha min hasadeh – “when you bring in your produce from the field.”  This means that Succot must always take place at the time of the fall harvest.  Therefore, the Rabbis of the Talmud explain, we have to occasionally make an adjustment by adding a thirteenth month.  (BT Rosh Hashanah 7a)  In this way, we will be able to celebrate Passover and Succot in the appropriate seasons.

In ancient times, the adjustments would be made based on the observance of spring-like changes.  If the trees had not yet begun to blossom or barley had not yet started ripening, then the Sanhedrin, the ancient Jewish court that met in the Temple, would delay the beginning of the year by adding a thirteenth month.  The additional month, following Adar, we now refer to as Adar Bet.

Now that we have a fixed calendar, the addition of the extra month happens on a predetermined schedule, seven times out of every nineteen years.

But there is another problem.  When is the Jewish new year?

In the Mishnah, we read that there are actually four, or maybe even five new years, each marking something different.  Nisan is the New Year for counting holidays and for kings.  Tishrei is the new year for counting years, sabbatical and jubilee years, and for several other agricultural purposes. (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1)

The Talmud records an argument between two rabbis about when the creation of the world occurred.  One Rabbi says that it happened in Nisan.  The other says it happened in Tishrei.  So we seem to have some ambiguity.

In the Torah, the new year occurs on the first day of the month we know as Nisan.  This is the same month as the month of Aviv I just mentioned.  The Torah, indeed most of the Bible, does not have names for any of the months.  Instead, it references the month number, always referring back to the month in which the Israelites went out of Egypt.

For example, what we refer to as Rosh Hashanah, occurring on the first of Tishrei, is instead name Yom Teruah, a Day of Blasting, and takes place on the first day of the seventh month.  When the Israelites get to Mount Sinai and camp out around the base, preparing to receive the Ten Commandments, the Torah states:

On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai.  (Exodus 19:1)

The Book of Numbers begins as follows:

On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai…  (Number 1:1)

Centuries later, the Bible continues to look back to this moment.

In the four hundred and eightieth year after the Israelites left the land of Egypt, in the month of Ziv―that is, the second month―in the fourth year of his reign over Israel, Solomon began to build the House of the Lord.  (I Kings 6:1)

Throughout the Bible, whenever dates are referenced, it is by a number counting back to the first of Nisan in the year in which the Israelites left Egypt.

What we know as the Hebrew months (Tishrei, Cheshvan, Kislev, Tevet…) do not appear until later books of the Bible, such as Esther.  In fact, the “Hebrew months” are in fact Persian names which were assimilated into the Jewish calendar at some point late in the Biblical era.

Why is all of this important?  Couldn’t the Israelites haves simply taken the Egyptian calendar with them, or adopted the Canaanite calendar?  Why did our ancient ancestors need to have a different calendar?  Why is it important for us to continue to keep a different calendar?

How we measure time is extremely important.  Having a Jewish calendar, and marking our years according to it, distinguishes us, especially when we are living in a society that counts time differently.

The twelfth century Torah commentator Rashbam explains that the calendar is oriented in this way so that we always have the Exodus from Egypt in our consciousness.  The Exodus is the formative moment of the Jewish people.  Its memory is supposed to have a profound effect on our lives, both individually and collectively.

As we read in the Haggadah for Passover, we are instructed to recall the Exodus all the days of our lives, and even the nights.  We mention it in our daily prayers.  We connect it to Shabbat by calling it zekher liztziat mitzrayim, a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt, when we recite Kiddush.  And, our calendar itself also reminds us of that formative event.

Nachmanides points out that when the Torah states “this month shall be for you…” it puts things into a relative context that is particular to the Jewish people.  While Tishrei might be the universal month of creation, and the month from which we count the earth itself, we are also to think of time in its relationship to our particular story.  Our story began when our ancestors first became free.

Being conscious of Jewish time offers great meaning for our lives.  We count our week from Yom Rishon, the first day, up to Yom Shishi, the sixth day, keeping ourselves oriented towards the day of rest throughout the week.  We mark our months by the waxing and waning of the moon, and experience renewal every 29 or 30 days.  We remember our exodus from Egypt, and express our gratitude for freedom by caring for those who are suffering.  And we mark the yearly birthday of the world, marveling at the miracle of Creation and committing ourselves to do better and be more.

That is what it means to live in Jewish time.