“Which You Proclaim”
Regular readers will recall that the procedure for determining the beginning of a month in the Hebrew calendar was somewhat involved (at least until the calendar was standardized, as it is today). Two reliable witnesses had to have spotted the new moon and testified to that effect before the rabbinic court. They were questioned separately to make sure that their testimony was correct, and the questioning could be difficult:
Rabban Gamliel used to keep diagrams depicting the [possible] shapes of the new moon on a writing-tablet and on the wall of his upper story. He would show them to non-experts [who came to testify] and ask: “Did it look like this, or like that?” Once it happened that two people came [to testify] and both said: “At daybreak we saw it in the east and in the evening in the west.” Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Nuri said: “They’re false witnesses!” But when they came to Yavneh, Rabban Gamliel accepted their testimony.
How could he? Their account of things was, on the face of it, an impossibility. But perhaps what they had seen at daybreak was merely a moon-shaped cloud, illuminated by the sun’s rays, whereas what they saw in the evening was indeed the new moon (where it should be). In any event, Rabban Gamliel accepted their testimony.
Another time, two witnesses came and said: “We saw it at the right time [that is, the evening of the 30th], but the next night [when it certainly should have been visible], it was not there,” yet Rabban Gamliel accepted their testimony. Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas said, “They’re false witnesses. How can you testify about a woman that she has given birth, but then the next day, her belly is as swollen as ever?” Rabbi Joshua said: “I agree with you.”
Rabbi Joshua was certainly a great scholar, but Rabban Gamliel ruled the witnesses’ testimony valid. (The precise wording, and hence the order of these events, is disputed, but this need not detain us here.) Now, the month in question was Tishrei, the month in which Yom Kippur occurs, so a lot depended on who was right.
Rabban Gamliel sent word to Rabbi Joshua: “I hereby decree that you come to visit me carrying your walking-stick and money on the day on which Yom Kippur would have fallen according to your ruling.” Of course, carrying a walking stick or money on that most sacred day of the year was strictly forbidden. So Rabban Gamliel was saying, in effect, “Accept my ruling and demonstrate your acceptance by carrying these items on the day that would have been Yom Kippur if your ruling had been right.”
What should Rabbi Joshua do? Bow to Rabban Gamliel’s authority and accept his ruling, despite the logic of his own position? Or stick to his guns and say: “The truth is the truth, and I’m not changing my opinion for anyone, even you!” At this point, the Mishnah relates that Rabbi Akiva advised Rabbi Joshua to accept Rabban Gamliel’s ruling, since what he did was altogether proper. As proof, he cited a verse from this week’s Torah reading: “These are the [established] times of God, sacred convocations, which you shall announce” —since, Rabbi Akiva explained, “whether at the right time or not, these are the only festivals I have.”
This story is much discussed, since it involves important issues: rabbinic jurisprudence, the history of Judaism at a crucial moment in its development, subsequent relations between the various figures cited, and more. But I’ve always been curious about Rabbi Akiva’s answer. He cites that verse from this week’s reading, but stops short of its last word, bemo‘adam “in their time.” Doesn’t the complete verse actually support the opposite argument, that the new moon—and any holy days that occur within it, such as Yom Kippur in Tishrei—must be marked bemo‘adam “in their proper time”? In fact, this same verse (in its complete form) had been cited a little bit earlier in the Mishnah (Rosh ha-Shanah 1:9) in precisely this sense.
It seems so unlike Rabbi Akiva to have left out the last word without explanation. But perhaps the Mishnah’s account omits what may have seemed obvious at the time, that Rabbi Akiva was actually proposing an alternate reading of this verse. Quite literally, the verse reads: “These are the [established] times of God, sacred convocations, which you shall announce them in their proper time”: Translators rightfully omit the “them” in this sentence—you don’t need it in English—but it’s right there in Hebrew, otam. But you could read these same three Hebrew letter, aleph, tav, and mem, not as otam, but attem, “you.” In that case, Rabbi Akiva’s reading would be: “‘These are the [established] times of God, sacred convocations, which you shall announce’—whether you announce them at the proper time or not, I have no other [established] times but these.”
If so, here would be another instance—a rather forceful one—of what the rabbis had said elsewhere, namely, that the declaration of Deut 30:12 to the effect that the Torah is not in heaven—lo bashamayim hi—should really be understood as “the Torah is no longer in heaven.” It certainly started out there, but it was subsequently brought down to earth in the interpretations and elaborations of Israel’s sages.