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Rabbi Bar Hayim Comes Out Of The Halachic Closet

September 2, 2013

Which is not so bad. He already gained some fame with his not-so-surprising kitniyoth hetter, but that was small stuff compared to this. Why? Most congregational Rabbis who rule on cases involving actual biblical prohibitions,  like Sabbath, Kashruth, and Nidda laws, take grave halachic responsibility, as those prohibitions can be punished with death, lashes, or excision, whereas telling people that once-upon-a-time local and likely mistaken customs no longer need be observed does not tread such halachic ground. After all, everyone agrees that rice and beans are kosher for Passover.

Now he is insinuating (here and here) that the Israeli community should revert to the ancient practice of observing one day of Rosh Hashana, instead of two days as practiced throughout the world today. This shows some bravery on his part, and I admire him for having the courage to follow his convictions.

I believe that there are some talmudic proofs to this position.

Maimonides’s (Sanctification of the New Moon 5:7-8) and the Rif’s position takes into account that it would happen that even in city of the Sanhedrin, whether Jerusalem or Yavneh or Sepphoris or wherever, the locals would keep the day after the 29th of Elul, the day that could just be the 30th of Elul if no witnesses showed up to testify that they saw the new moon, or end up being the 1st of Tishrei if there were witnesses, as Rosh Hashana in any event, and if it so happened that witnesses did show up, the next day would already be the 2nd of Tishrei, and if witnesses did not show up, then they would observe another day of Rosh Hashana, and that other day would be considered the first of Tishrei.

Thus, although the day after the 29th of Elul was always observed as a holiday, sometimes it was the 30th day of Elul and followed immediately by another holiday, 1 Tishrei, and sometimes it was actually the 1st of Tisrei, and the day after was not a holiday.

The problem is that the Gemara testifies in four places  (Beitza 6a and 22b, and Rosh Hashana 19b and 32a) that “since the days of Ezra, Elul always had only 29 days.” Explanation:  The Sanhedrin, since early Second Temple Times, conspired to ensure that Elul would always have 29 days so that by merely knowing when  Elul started, Jews throughout the world could be fairly certain as to when Rosh Hashana would be, although the official announcement of the first day of Tishrei was to be done after Elul ended, and although the Gemara’s statement seems exaggerated, as in fact it would be impossible for Elul to always be 29 days long. (If one to were to take this statement literally and argue that indeed Elul was never 30 days long, my challenge to Maimonides’s position would be even stronger.) There were years now and then when, despite the Sanhedrin’s tactics of intimidating witnesses and adjusting the preceding months, Elul did have 30 days.

(In the words of professor Irv Bromberg, “A non-traditional theory, suggesting that there was a gradual evolution to today’s fixed arithmetic Hebrew calendar, based primarily on alternative interpretations of Talmud sources, was published by J. Jean Adler under the title “Rav Safra and the Second Festival Day: Lessons About the Evolution of the Jewish Calendar”, in Tradition 2004 Winter; 38(4): 3-28, and is available to subscribers from the journal’s web site at <>.”)

I argue that even if it turned out that sometimes the city of the Sanhedrin observed two days of Rosh Hashana, it was the exceptional year, not the rule! Thus, the Israeli practice before the establishment of the fixed calendar was (either always or) mostly to observe Rosh Hashana as one day.

(It also seems from a few sources, like Rashi’s comments to the first page of Massecheth Megilla, that the Sanhedrin used similar mechanisms to make sure that an ordinary Adar or Adar II would always be 29 days long so that the Jews throughout the world know the proper day of Passover well in advance and without having to wait for the announcement of the start of Nisan.)

I also would like to posit that the proof to the Baal Hama’or’s report that the Jewish community kept one day of Rosh Hashana as part of the last Sanhedrin’s enactment is the way the months of our fixed calendar alternate between 29 days and 30 days. Our calendar, following what seems to have been standard practice even before the set calendar was promulgated, features 29-day months of Elul and Adar (or Adar II). Now, Rosh Hashana is the Rosh Hodesh of Tishrei. Normally, when the outgoing month is 30 days, its last day, as a day that could have been declared Rosh Hodesh, is observed as though it is also Rosh Hodesh, even though the next day, the first of the incoming month, should be the true and only Rosh Hodesh, the day that is used as a reference point for all the dates of the month. Yet, both days are treated equally as Rosh Hodesh with regards to ritual practice. (See Maimonides, ibid., 8:1-3) If it is true that we keep two days of Rosh Hashana just like they did in the olden days, why do we not do it like they used to do then and like we still do now when any Rosh Hodesh is two days: the first day thereof is the 30th day of the outgoing month, and the second day thereof is the first of the incoming month? Should  not Rosh Hashana be Elul 30 and 1 Tishrei instead of 1 and 2 Tishrei? The fact that Rosh Hashana is observed on 1 Tishrei on the morrow of 29 Elul shows that the calendar was expressly made to be with a short Elul and a one day Rosh Hashana!

The reason for the diaspora observing two days of Rosh Hashana is the usual one for every day of Yom Tov Sheini.

Update: I do not advocate keeping just the first day of Rosh Hashana, and I myself will even be reading the Torah in my local synagogue the second day. Further, I believe that it is strictly forbidden for an individual or individuals to treat the second day of Rosh Hashana as a weekday within a community or city where the day is observed. As for one who finds himself completely isolated from civilization on any biblical holiday, for example one lost at sea or in a dessert, or in a place that has no contact with any Jews (if there is even such a place today,) there is a much more complex halachic question in play. See this article for all the relevant opinions analyzed in a historical context.


From → halacha, original

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