Masechet Rosh Hashanah 17a-23b

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21 Dec 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

Rosh HaShanah 17a-b

Most of today’s daf deals with issues of teshuva (repentance) and kappara (forgiveness). We find Rabbi Yochanan introducing the 13 attributes of mercy presented by God to Moshe on Mount Sinai following the sin of the Golden Calf (see Shemot 34:6) as a formula taught by God that guarantees forgiveness. According to Rabbi Yochanan, God played the role of the chazzan – the prayer leader – covering Himself with a tallit and reciting the verse acknowledging God’s mercy and compassion.

The Ritva accepts a simple understanding of this incident, explaining that God “role-played” so that Moshe would understand what needed to be done. Rabbenu Hananel suggests that there was an angel who played this role for Moshe. Rav Hai Ga’on goes so far as to say that the recitation of the 13 middot (attributes) creates a protecting angel, which is what Moshe saw. The Maharsha moves in a different direction, suggesting that being covered in a tallit hints to the power of God’s creative force, and that the act of forgiving sins stems from a return to the pristine state of existence prior to creation.

The Gemara explains the first (or, perhaps, the first two) attributes, beginning with the double expression of God’s manifestation – Hashem, Hashem. The statement of God’s name twice is understood to refer to the eternalness of God, who exists both before the sin and after the sinner repents. The Rosh raises an obvious question – what need is there for an attribute of mercy before the act of sin? He answers that this is a reference to a thought of sinning. Even before a sinful act takes place, there is already forgiveness in place for the contemplation of that act. An alternative approach is to recognize that God does not judge a person based on his or her future misdeeds, but rather on one’s present situation in life. The Maharsha, again, suggests that “before the sin” does not refer to the act of any individual, but rather to God’s role in creating the world with His attribute of mercy. Just as God acted out of mercy in creating the world, so He acts even after sin is introduced to the world.

(For more on teshuva and the sinner’s relationship with God, see Chapter 8 – “Repentance” – in the new edition of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s classic work of Kabbalah, The Thirteen Petalled Rose.)

Rosh HaShanah 18a-b

There are four traditional fasts that appear on the Jewish calendar to commemorate events connected with the destruction of the Temple. These are based on the passage in Zechariah (8:19), where the prophet speaks in the name of God, promising that the fast days of –

will, in the future, become day of celebration and happiness.

In answer to the question posed by the Gemara as to how the same day can be both a day of fasting and a day of joy, Rav Papa explains that there are three possible scenarios that exist, which depend on the situation of the Jewish people in the world.

Defining the terms shalom and shemad (or gezerat malkhut) is not an easy task. According to the Rambam, even if the Beit HaMikdash is standing, the Jewish people may still find themselves oppressed by other nations and without full independence in their land. In such a case, they will have to fast. Many other rishonim define shalom based on whether the Temple is standing, although some refer to a situation of rov yisra’el yoshvim al admatam – if the majority of the Jewish people is living in the Land of Israel.

With regard to the ruling that people could choose whether or not to fast when the situation was neither shalom nor shemad, the Ritva explains that while the Temple stood, no one fasted. After the destruction of the Temple, if there was no shemad taking place, individuals chose whether or not they wanted to fast. At a later date these days became accepted by the community as fast days, and we no longer have freedom as individuals to choose whether or not to fast.

Rosh HaShanah 19a-b

Megilat Ta’anit is a little known collection of statements about minor holidays and fasts that commemorate events which took place during the Second Temple period. On the minor holidays, fasting and eulogies were forbidden. Most of the events that are commemorated are from the period of the Hasmonean monarchy – a prime example being the story of Hanukkah – although there are also events from earlier and later periods included, as well.

This work is set up chronologically, and it includes the date and a brief account of the incident written in Aramaic, followed by a fuller description of the event in Hebrew.

It appears that this work is the oldest example of the Oral Torah being committed to writing; the Sages of the Mishnah do not only discuss the rulings that appear in it, but also the language that was used. (Although it is not part of the standard texts of Talmud, the Steinsaltz Talmud includes it as an addendum to the volume that contains Masechet Ta’anit).

The discussion in our Gemara (which begins on page 18b and continues onto our daf, or page) revolves around the question of whether the commemorative days that appear in Megillat Ta’anit are still significant, or whether batlah Megilat Ta’anit – it has become null and void. The Gemara concludes that this is a dispute between tanna’im. Rabbi Meir believes that Megilat Ta’anit should still be kept and Rabbi Yossi rules that it is no longer binding, since without the Temple, the days that commemorated events of the Temple are no longer applicable. In closing, the Gemara states that both positions are accepted. Megilat Ta’anit no longer applies, except for the holidays of Hanukkah and Purim.

Rav Yosef explains the uniqueness of Chanukah as stemming from the publicity attached to the miracle, which, as Rashi clarifies, means that the mitzvot attached to the holiday had been widely accepted as obligations and they could not be done away with. The Ran points out that Purim has an even stronger basis, since the celebratory aspects of the holiday are clearly delineated in Megilat Esther, part of the written Torah.

Rosh HaShanah 20a-b

The Jewish calendar today is set based on calculations made by Hillel II in the time of the Gemara. Each month has either 29 or 30 days, so that over time, the months will stay in sync with the moon. As we have learned, during Talmudic times, the new month was based on testimony received from witnesses who saw the new moon, although the Sages who declared the new month had a fair amount of latitude to choose to postpone the announcement if they felt it necessary for one reason or another.

Rabbeinu Chananel and the Geonim point out that a decision on establishing the new month was dependent on a number of issues, some of which were well known, but others were known only to a small group of Sages who participated in sod ha-ibur – the closed assembly that actually made the final decision on this matter.

Our Gemara tells of Ulla, who traveled from Israel to the Jewish community in Bavel and informed them that Elul had been declared a thirty-day month, commenting that this was a great favor to the Babylonian Jewish community, because it kept Yom Kippur from falling out adjacent to Shabbat. By keeping apart two holy days on which a great many creative activities are forbidden, we avoid such problems as how to deal with a dead body that cannot be buried for two days (as explained by Rabbi Aha bar Hanina) or the problem of how to ensure that there are fresh vegetables available to eat on Shabbat if it immediately follows Yom Kippur (Ulla’s explanation).

While these explanations seem very logical, the Gemara asks why Ulla considered this to be a boon for the Babylonian Jewish community more than for the Jewish community residing in Israel. The Gemara responds with a simple explanation – the temperatures are higher in Bavel than in Israel, so the concerns of spoilage over two days are much greater there.

The weather in Bavel (today’s Iraq) at the end of the summer – particularly between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which is where the Jewish community lived – is 3-5 degrees centigrade (5-10 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than in Israel at that time of year. Moreover, there is little rainfall, and the distance from the ocean is so great that there are no sea breezes there. Thus, the weather in Bavel was considered to be much hotter than in Israel.

Rosh HaShanah 21a-b

When the Temple stood, it was essential for the kohanim in the Mikdash to know whether the new month began on the 30th day or the 31st day after the previous Rosh Chodesh, so that they would know when they had to bring the special Mussaf sacrifice for Rosh Chodesh. This was so important that the Sages taught that it would be permissible for witnesses who saw the new moon to travel to the Temple to testify even if it was Shabbat and their travel would involve chillul Shabbat (transgressing the Sabbath).  After the destruction of the Temple, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai ruled that this chillul Shabbat should only be limited to situations when it served an essential purpose. Without the Temple sacrifices, it was deemed essential only for the months of Nissan and Tishrei, when it was necessary to establish the date of the holidays of Pesach, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

The Gemara learns the rule permitting chillul Shabbat from the passage in Vayikra 23:4, which emphasizes the need for the holidays to be established in their proper time. The Ritva understands this to mean that really every Rosh Chodesh deserves to be established on time – irrespective of the need to bring the appropriate sacrifice – even if Shabbat must be transgressed in order to assure that. Nevertheless, the Sages limited that Biblical leniency to just two months of the year.

What the Mishnah specifically teaches is that for the purpose of establishing the two months of Nissan and Tishrei at the appropriate time, messengers are sent to Suria. The Suria mentioned in the Mishnah is the Biblical area to the north of Israel, known as Aram Damesek and Aram Tzovah. We find that Suria has a unique status in halakha with regard to many halakhot, not only because of its proximity to the Land of Israel, but because it was part of the northern Kingdom of Israel under several kings during the period of the first Temple. Furthermore, some opinions suggest that the northern border of Israel extends well to the north of the Jewish settlement in Israel during the second Temple period. There was also a large Jewish population center there, and some of the political leaders there were descendants of Jews (like the grandchildren of King Agrippas) or were closely allied with them.

Rosh HaShanah 22a-b

Unlike modern courtrooms, where witnesses are asked to swear prior to their testimony in order to ensure that they will tell the truth, a Jewish courtroom believes that every witness who is called to testify will tell the truth. Nevertheless, there are several types of people, enumerated in the Mishnayot of Masechet Sanhedrin, who cannot testify. Close relatives, for example, cannot testify, no matter how upstanding and honest we know them to be. There are also people whose behavior does not allow the court to accept them. Among them are people who have committed sins that put them in the Biblical category of a rasha – an evil person – who cannot be trusted. While the people discussed in this Mishnah have not done anything that the Torah forbids, nevertheless, their participation in activities that show them to be susceptible to the influence of monetary gain makes us fear that they could be bribed or similarly influenced to change their testimony.

The Mishnah on our daf teaches that a father and son who witness the new moon should both come to court, for even though they cannot testify together, if one of them is disqualified from testifying, the other one will be able to join with someone else who saw the moon and be accepted with him as witnesses.

Our daf also quotes in full a Mishnah that appears in Masechet Sanhedrin (24b) that lists people who will not be accepted as witnesses in a Jewish court, because they are involved in monetary shenanigans that are forbidden by the Sages. These people include dice players, money lenders who take interest, people who gamble on pigeon races, and those who market produce from the Sabbatical year. Nevertheless, Rabbi Yehudah teaches: ba-meh devarim amurim – “under what circumstances is this rule taught” – when this is their livelihood. If a person has another occupation and participates in these activities only occasionally, then he can still be trusted as a witness in court.

(For further information on dice games during the period of the Talmud, see

Rosh HaShanah 23a-b

As we have learned, on Shabbat and Yom Tov a person is limited in the distance that he can travel outside the boundaries of his city. Under ordinary circumstances, a person cannot venture more than 2000 amot (cubits) out of the city (called techum Shabbat), and with the establishment of an eruv techumin he can travel an extra 2000 amot in a specific direction. In the event that a person leaves the area around his city, halakha requires him to remain where he finds himself; he cannot move beyond his immediate surroundings until Shabbat or Yom Tov is over.

What if someone is forced to leave his permitted area in order to fulfill a mitzvah – what is his status? Does he need to be “frozen in place,” or does he have freedom of movement on account of the mitzvah?

The Mishnah on our daf discusses this situation in the case of witnesses who came to Jerusalem to testify about having seen the new moon. According to the Mishnah, the witnesses were gathered into a large courtyard called beit ya’azek, where they were interviewed by the court and served sumptuous meals, since the court wanted to encourage them to come in the future, as well. If the witnesses arrived on Shabbat, the Mishnah records that originally they were not permitted to leave, but Rabban Gamliel ha-Zaken established a rule permitting them free access to the entire city of Jerusalem, as well as travel within the 2000 perimeter around the city. Furthermore, this ruling was applied to others who travel outside of their tehum Shabbat for a mitzvah, including a midwife who comes to deliver a baby, or someone who comes to save others from a fire, avalanche, flood, etc.

Rashi explains that originally the witnesses were required to remain in the Temple courtyard, and Rabban Gamliel’s takana allowed them to travel within the city and its techum. The Talmud Yerushalmi teaches that there were four stages to this rule:

An interesting point is raised regarding the meals that were offered to the witnesses, since halakha does not permit witnesses to be paid for their testimony. The general consensus is that while actual payment is forbidden, meals such as these would not constitute forbidden compensation.

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.