Diaspora Doubts – Pesach 5775

Diaspora Doubts

In the times of the Temple, the Sanhedrin (Supreme Court)  would decide when to sanctify a new month primarily on the basis of eyewitness reports.  Two people would come to the court and testify that they had seen the new moon.  If the court accepted the testimony (based on specific criteria), Rosh Chodesh would be immediately declared, making the previous month days long.   The Sanhedrin could delay the declaration of the new month until the next day for economic or social considerations, or if they rejected the testimony because it was ambiguous or incorrect.  The previous month would then be 30 days long, since a lunar month must be either 29 or 30 days.  The declaration of Rosh Chodesh would determine when the festivals would begin, “moving” them either ahead or back by a day.

It was therefore necessary for the Sanhedrin to inform the dispersed Jewish communities of the declaration of the new month as soon as possible, so that Jews in far-flung areas could observe the festivals at the correct times.  The court would send messengers out to inform as many people as possible of the new month before the onset of the next festival.  The communities outside of Israel, however, were often too far away for the messengers to reach in time, and would remain in doubt about the day on which the festival would begin.  These communities, known as the Diaspora, therefore observed the “holy days” of each festival for two days instead of one to account for the two possible days on which Rosh Chodesh may have occurred.   The only exception to this is Rosh Hashanah, which is the only festival that begins on the first of the month.  Therefore, it was (and is) always observed for two days even in Israel since the messengers were clearly unable to tell people in time when Rosh Chodesh had been declared.  Diaspora communities observe the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, for only one day, since it is a twenty-five hour fast, and there is a health risk involved in fasting for two whole days.

Diaspora Doubles –Two-day Festivals

Once Hillel II established the set calendar, there was no longer any doubt about the day on which any given festival was to be celebrated.  Nevertheless, the Sages decreed that the Diaspora custom of keeping two-day festivals should remain in force, and they required the Jews of the Diaspora to “keep the custom of their fathers.”  The Talmud explains that this was done in order to guard against the possibility that the calendar system might collapse in a time of persecution.  Should this occur, we would once again be in doubt about when to observe the festivals.Some commentaries explain that because of the intensity of the spirituality in the Land of Israel, one day is sufficient to absorb the lessons of the festivals, while outside of Israel two are required to achieve the same spiritual fulfillment.  Others suggest that we retain this custom as a way of experiencing the idea expressed in the verse in Isaiah,  “For from Zion shall come forth the law and the word of God from Jerusalem.”   Even though we have a fixed calendar today, we remember and hope for a return to the time when we looked to the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem to hear “the word of God.”

moon-phases-symbolismJews are from the Moon, Egyptians are from the Sun

The first commandment that God gave to the Jewish people in Egypt before the Exodus was to establish the calendar.   In order to understand the importance attached to this commandment, we must understand the type of society that the Jews lived in during their exile in Egypt.  The Egyptians, along with the rest of the world at that time, worshipped many different gods, each believed to have its own sphere of influence.  The only god whom all the Egyptians revered was Ra, the sun god, chief of cosmic deities, from whom early Egyptian kings claimed descent.

The sun does not exhibit any obvious cycles; it remains a constant presence in the sky, year in, year out.  In contrast, the moon waxes and wanes, appearing, disappearing and appearing again, cycling between “non-existence” and “existence” every month.  Jewish philosophers have explained that the pagan focus on the sun was based on the belief that life too is constant and unchanging – there is no free will, and no possibility of change.  The sun symbolizes an unchanging, permanent reality, which for the pagan was a reflection of the deterministic world without moral freedom; life, like the sun, was predetermined and set.

Judaism, however, is predicated on the belief that human beings are morally free and have the ability to choose between good and evil.  Life is not predetermined and we are not controlled by our past.  The Jewish calendar is therefore focused on the moon, so that the renewal of the moon will act as a reminder of individual renewal through free will.  Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains the insights that the we are supposed to draw from the Jewish calendar:

The truth which the calendar teaches forms the foundation stone of our Jewishness, and it is this which differentiates it most sharply from all paganism.  The pagan knows no newness, not in the world, not in humanity, not in his gods, nor in the powers he places above men and the world.  To him, everything is bound by cast-iron necessity.  To him, all todays are evolved from yesterdays, and every tomorrow must with absolute certainty follow from today.  Just as he denies creatio ex nihilo,49 the free creation by the free will of a Creator, so for him there is also no ex nihilo [creativity] in the moral nature of Man,50 no ex nihilo in the fate of Man.51 Guilt and evil must forever bring about only guilt and evil.  For him, nothing of the godlike freedom dwells in the heart of man, for him no free God reigns in and over the world, everything swims down the stream of blind unalterable necessity, all freedom is but an illusion, everything new is only that which existed in the old!

These ideas are implicit in the Hebrew expressions used for the lunar month and for the solar year.  The Hebrew word for month is chodesh, which is related to the word chadash, new. The Hebrew word for year, on the other hand, shanah, is related to the words shinun, repetition, and sheni, second (in other words, not first, not new).

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