Introduction to Masechet Rosh Hashanah & 2a-b

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30 Nov 2006

The Coming Week’s Daf Yomi by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim (original ideas) of Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud.

This month’s Steinsaltz Daf Yomi is sponsored by Dr. and Mrs. Alan Harris, the Lewy Family Foundation, and Marilyn and Edward Kaplan

Introduction to Masechet Rosh HaShanah

The concept of Rosh Hashanah – celebration of the New Year – is not mentioned anywhere in the Torah. Nevertheless, the idea of a year as a significant period of time is certainly present in the Torah both as a concept in-and-of-itself, as well as a point of time upon which important dates and holidays can be established.

A careful reading of the text of the Torah reveals that there are at least two frameworks for counting these time periods. On the one hand, the Torah clearly indicates to us that the counting of the year begins with the month of Nissan (see Shemot 12:2). This system, which is based on the national-historical events of the Jewish People’s redemption from Egypt, acts as the basis for establishing various events, and is the system used for counting months in most of the books of Tanakh. On the other hand, we certainly find passages in the Torah that refer to another system, which is tied to the agricultural cycle and begins in the autumn (see, for example, Devarim 11:12, Shemot 23:16).

The tension created by this dual system of tracking time was dealt with by the Sages by establishing a concept of subjectivity when approaching the idea of a “year.” They accepted as a given the fact that there would be multiple systems – in essence, fiscal years – which would each reflect the logic of the particular topic or area that it addressed. Multiple systems make particular sense when dealing with the Jewish calendar, which, itself, is built on more than one structure. While the commonly used calendar – the Gregorian calendar – is a solar calendar that reflects the relationship between the earth and the sun (a single revolution of the earth around the sun – just over 365 days – is considered a year), and the Muslim calendar reflects the relationship between the earth and the moon (a single revolution of the moon around the earth – about 29 days – is considered a month), our calendar combines the two by establishing lunar months that must coincide with the solar year.

Even so, the Sages recognized that there were other natural cycles that called for beginning the year on other dates. Climactic issues, issues of sprouting and growth, established their own cycles that did not coincide with a natural year that begins in the Spring or in the Autumn. In fact, some natural cycles cannot be established by objective criteria, but are dependant on subjective issues involving people or other living creatures. In response to this, the Sages established other dates for the new year that reflect the unique needs and circumstances of these situations.

In truth, establishing yearly cycles is only a secondary problem. A more basic concern is how to choose the methodology that should be used in confirming the dates on a regular basis. Specifically, when dealing with the lunar cycle, is it appropriate to rely on the natural cycle and to establish the new moon based on a mathematical formula that predicts its expected appearance, or is it necessary to insist on actual testimony from witnesses who have seen the event? The general approach of the Sages was that establishing the calendar was not merely a cosmic event that affects us here on Earth, rather it is a process with which we are intrinsically connected. Thus, there was always a clear preference for human testimony that would allow the Sanhedrin – the great assembly in Jerusalem – to establish that the new month had begun, an announcement that would affect the holidays and ceremonies for the upcoming month.

While there were certainly technical difficulties involved with insisting on the need for witnesses, this arrangement created a system of checks and balances, where the theoretical calculations of astronomers were examined by means of empirical evidence – the testimony of witnesses. Moreover, the recognition of the Sages that time is a relative thing, brought them to a realization that only human beings who are sensitive to issues of subjectivity can make a reliable decision in these matters.

One of the subjective issues is the relationship between time and space. From the point of view of the Sages, the geographic center of the world from a perspective of halakha is Jerusalem, specifically the seat of the Sanhedrin, and it was there that these decisions were made. By establishing the great assembly of the Sanhedrin as the final arbiter in issues regarding time and the establishment of the Jewish calendar, we see the threefold connection between God, his People and the Land of Israel. When the representatives of the Jewish People, sitting in His chosen Land look to the heavens and establish the calendar based on His halakhah, we find every aspect of daily life infused with holiness – our link with Him.

It should be noted that in our present situation, with neither an operating Sanhedrin nor the ability of a single group of Sages to represent the Jewish People, we rely on a set calendar established by Hillel the Second, which is based on astronomical calculations. Much has been written about the establishment of this calendar, how it operates from a philosophic and halakhic perspective.

In a world where travel and communication were difficult, relying on witnesses to establish the months and effectively broadcasting that information were difficult tasks. Arrangements were made to ensure that the system work as well as possible; even so a second day was established in the Diaspora for the holidays in order to protect against errors that arose from problems in communication with the Sanhedrin in Israel. This, too, emphasized the centrality of the Land of Israel in halakhah.

One final note in preparation for Masechet Rosh HaShanah: Although there are several dates on the calendar that are considered the beginning of the year, there is one that is simply referred to as Rosh Hashanah, since it is the beginning of the new year regarding most issues of halakha – the first day of Tishrei. This day is not referred to as Rosh HaShanah in the Torah, rather as Yom teru’ah (Bamidbar 29:1), or Yom zikhron teru’ah (Vayikra 23:24), and includes the mitzvah of shofar. Blowing the shofar is not meant to be a musical performance – for that was the job of the levi’im who had appropriate instruments for the task – but as a ceremonial trumpet blast and warning. How exactly the shofar is to be blown, as well as establishing what should be considered a shofar, is much discussed. This mitzvah is incumbent upon every Jew, and is not a mitzvah specific for the Temple – where the shofar was ordinarily blown in conjunction with the sacrifices – which leads to a need to establish the relationship between this personal obligation in comparison to that of the Temple ceremonies.

Rosh Hashanah 2

The opening Mishnah in Masechet Rosh HaShanah teaches that the halakha recognizes four separate dates as being new years, with each one defining the beginning of a new cycle for that particular idea or event. The four new years are:

The Gemara will go on to explain each of these items individually. On our daf, the focus is on the first day of Nissan, which is the new year for kings. Given the fact that monarchs usually had lifetime positions, why was there a need to establish a particular calendar day that was the beginning of his reign? Theoretically, a king’s reign should begin whenever he took office. Rav Hisda explains that “for kings” means for dating contracts. It was common practice under a given monarchy that the year that would appear in a contract was not the number of years since creation or from an arbitrary point in history, but how many years into the current king’s reign. Rashi explains that this was done for reasons of shalom malkhut – to stay on good terms with the king by honoring him in every matter. Tosafot point out that since the Mishnah refers only to Jewish kings (some say that the Mishnah’s use of the plural “kings” is to indicate that both kings of Judea and kings of the northern kingdom of Israel were included), shalom malkhut should not apply. They argue that this was simply the common method of dating contracts at that time.

The Mordechai and the Geonim point out that these days become minor holidays, given their description by the Mishnah as Rosh HaShanah. Therefore a day like the 15th of Shevat becomes a day of celebration to the extent that neither fasting nor eulogies are permitted.

In addition to his monumental translation and commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Steinsaltz has authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles on a variety of topics, both Jewish and secular. For more information about Rabbi Steinsaltz’s groundbreaking work in Jewish education, visit or contact the Aleph Society at 212-840-1166.


The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.