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Class Notes - Class #3

In mitzvah #4, we are starting to get more content and more complexity. Here, the author inserts quite a bit of material in the introductory section, before he gets to the root/reason section. He begins to include excerpts from the midrash halachah to explain some of the dinim he refers to.  The essay is not as tightly organized as it might be. Let’s make sure we can summarize the four sections of this mitzvah.  Then we will come back and note other interesting aspects of the essay.


1.      Scope of the mitzvah:  This is a commandment on the ordained rabbis to follow appropriate court procedure in order to establish the beginning of each month, and to adjust the calendar to add a month when necessary to keep each of the holidays in its appropriate season.  The source verse for this mitzvah is Exodus 12:2, “this month shall be for you the beginning of months.”


2.    MiShorshei hamitzvah:  Certain holidays need to come out at the appropriate moment in the agricultural cycle.  Passover must be in the aviv, when the grain is just ripe.  Succot must take place at harvest time.  Someone has to make sure that the calendar keeps this all lined up.


3.     MiDinei hamitzvah:  The details, for further study, involve the precise court procedure followed to determine that the new moon was visible and the new month had begun.  Also, how, when and why to add an extra month, as well as how the new month was publicized.  More details can be found in Talmud Rosh haShanah, Sanhedrin, and Brachot. 


4.    The mitzvah applies at every place and time that we have ordained rabbis under appropriate conditions.  Therefore, only an ordained rabbi can violate this mitzvah.  Since it is a positive mitzvah, there is no human punishment for breaking this mitzvah, but the violating rabbi would be distorting the dates of the holidays for the entire community.






          Let’s look at this essay, to try to make sure everyone understands everything the author says.  We will need to jump around a bit in our discussion of the essay, so we can get the concepts straight.


          This mitzvah has two aspects.  First, the mitzvah is to establish the new month.  Second, the mitzvah is to add an extra month to the calendar periodically so that the holidays come out in the right season.

          The problem that makes this so complex is that we need to keep track of both a lunar and a solar calendar, and they do not match each other.  The source verse for this mitzvah is focused on keeping track of months, so it makes sense that there is a mitzvah to determine the beginning of each month.  This is also important because the Torah gives the dates of holidays in terms of the date and month.  On the other hand, verses associate certain holidays with seasons and the agricultural cycle, so it’s important that the right month comes out in the right season, and that depends on the solar cycle.

          A little later in the essay, the author explains why keeping these two agendas going at the same time is difficult.  The lunar year is 354 days, 8 hours, and 876 halakim.  (A helek is 3.5 seconds long, a time period determined by the astronomy necessary to calculate all this.)  The solar year is 10 days, 21 hours and 201 halakim longer.  They don’t match. If we were to base the calendar entirely on the lunar cycle, and keep each month accurate, we would pretty soon have the holidays in the wrong seasons.  (The Moslem calendar, for example, is entirely a lunar calendar.  The Moslem holidays drift from season to season.)  But the source verse of this mitzvah requires us to recognize each month.  The solution is to add an extra month to the year every so often, to keep the two cycles coordinated with each other.  Figuring out how to do that, says our author, is really difficult, and should be left to great, pious scholars.

          In practice, we do this by adding an extra month of Adar periodically.  Adar is the month chosen because it is close to Passover. Our author explains that the rabbis can only add a whole month; they cannot add a different period of days or hours.

          To explain these rules, the author quotes the midrash halachah.  The author also cites the midrash halachah in explaining why only ordained rabbis can set the calendar and declare new months. This is a genre to tana’itic literature that attributes various rules to Biblical verses even if the rules are not obvious from the plain meaning of the verse.  (If you are not yet familiar with midrash halachah or tana’itic literature, we will put them in some context when we discuss the history of halachic literature, which we will do shortly.  We will see lots more examples of midrash halachah all through our text.)  In trying to understand the midrash halachah, it is important to read the source verse that the author cites very carefully.  Usually, there is something awkward or extra in the language of the verse that the rabbis interpret as conveying details of the rules for a particular mitzvah. 


          The method for declaring the new months is another major theme of this essay.  Declaring the new moon must be done during the day, not at night.  Since the court knew when the new moon was expected to within a day or two, the judges were in court, ready and waiting. Two male Jewish witnesses came to the court, declaring that they had seen the new moon, and gave formal testimony to that effect before the judges. If the judges are satisfied with the testimony, they declare the new month, saying, “Today is holy.” The judges examine the witnesses very carefully, as it was considered a great honor to be one of the witnesses to the new moon and so the rabbis were concerned that witnesses who had not actually seen the new moon would come and try to testify so as to be the honored witness.

          Although getting the testimony of the new moon was important, it did not normally override Shabbat.  However, during two months of the year, witnesses who saw the new moon could violate Shabbat to go to court so the court could declare the new moon as soon as possible.  Those months were Tishrei and Nissan, two months which had holidays come out in mid-month.  (Tishrei has succot, Nissan has Passover.)  The news of the new month had to get out to the Jewish communities farthest away from Jerusalem, and, if the news was to get there in time for the Jews living there to celebrate those holidays at the right time, there was no time to waste at the beginning of the process.

Once the new month has been declared, the court had to publicize the event so that people would know what date they were up to.  Note that, under this system, most people did not know it was rosh hodesh, the new moon, until the day was over or nearly over.


At the end of the first paragraph of this essay, the author points out that even when the court was still in the business of declaring the new month, they would sometimes declare the new month even though there were no witnesses.  For example, the weather might have blocked the view of the new moon, or the new moon appeared but no qualified witnesses came to testify to its appearance.  The rabbinical court knew when the new moon should appear, and the calendar had to be kept straight even if no witnesses appeared, so the court would sometimes declare the new moon even without witnesses.


          The job of officially declaring the new moon in given to ordained rabbis, smuchim. No one else could do it. Smichah is rabbinic ordination passed on as part of a direct line from teacher to student all the way back to Mosheh.  It could be bestowed only in Israel, although the recipient did not have to be in Israel.  It involved a beit din of three, including at least one member who had smichah.  Having smichah qualified the new rabbi to decide questions of halachah in front of his teachers.  Smichah was an absolute requirement for membership in the Sanhedrin, although not everyone with smichah was qualified to serve on the Sanhedrin.  The administration of smichah died out, probably late in the Roman period. (The Encyclopedia Judaica article extends the end date several centuries later.) Nowadays, although we call rabbinic ordination by the same term, it is not really the same institution.  (Current ordination conveys much more limited powers.  The recipient is qualified by his teacher to decide questions of Jewish law, but usually only as to narrow and specified topics, often described by designating the topic by their pages in the Shulchan Aruch.)  The mitzvah we are looking at obligates only those with direct original smichah.

          Semichah could only be conferred in Israel.  Our author says that a rabbi who had semichah could declare the new month outside of Israel, but only if no greater authority was available in Israel.


          With the demise of smichah, a different system was needed, and our author deals with that topic.  He explains that Hillel haNasi, son of R. Yehudah haNasi, instituted a calendar calculation that could be used in perpetuity. Hillel haNasi had the authentic semichah. This is the calendar we are still using.


          In this mitzvah/essay, we have the first mention by our author about a dispute about the count of the mitzvot.  That gives us an opportunity to discuss the notion that there are precisely 613 identifiable mitzvot in the Torah.  Let’s get some background about that concept, and then come back to this particular case. (My discussion is based mostly on Charles Chavel’s introduction to his translation of Maimonides Sefer haMitzvot.)

          The Gemara in Makkot 23b quotes a statement: “Rabbi Simlai explained:  There are 613 mitzvot that were told to Mosheh, 365 negative commandments to correspond with the days of the solar year, and 248 positive commandments to correspond to the organs of the human body.”  Rabbi Simlai lived in the second half of the third century, in Israel.  Bits and pieces of these concepts appear earlier in rabbinic literature, but this is the first source that pulls them together.

          As a drash, this statement is fairly easy to understand.  There is a prohibition for every day of the year.  There is a positive mitzvah for each part of a person’s body.  Every day, with each every part of your body, there are mitzvot to be done.

          The question is whether to go beyond the homiletical point.  Is R. Simlai really saying that it is possible to read the Torah and count exactly 613 mitzvot, no more and no less?  Or is that notion only symbolic.

          Avraham ibn Ezra thought that sometimes a homiletic is just a homiletic. He claims there is no exact count of the mitzvot of the Torah because there are so many different ways of counting, and that if one established principles of counting the mitzvot that apply for an extended period of time and reflect principles rather than details, one would not end up with 613.  For example, (my example, not his) consider the prohibition of melachah, work, on Shabbat.  The mishnah says there are 39 categories of melachah.  Several of those categories have distinct subcategories, and all of those categories and subcategories are considered prohibited from the Torah.  So how would you count the number of prohibitions?  Is it one?  39?  39 plus all the sub-categories?  With that many options, it is a little silly to try to get your count to coincide with R. Simlai’s assertion.  There is just too much wiggle room.

          During the early Middle Ages, though, there began to be lists of mitzvot that added up to the exact numbers R. Simlai mentioned.  Mostly those lists appeared in the poetic literature, rather than as serious, systematic halachic argument.

          Maimonides saw those poems and objected.  Many of the lists were clearly in error.  For example, some included mitzvot that clearly originated later than the Biblical period, like mitzvot related to the holidays of Hanukkah and Purim. As he was finishing his Mishnah Torah, he decided to list the mitzvot and give a very brief explanation of each one.  This appeared as an introduction to Mishnah Torah, called Sefer haMitzvot.  But it was much more methodologically careful than the earlier counts. 

          Once a serious scholar took on this challenge, other followed.  In particular, Ramban wrote a systematic critique of the Rambam’s list, and disagreed in many places.  These disagreements were systematic, each scholar having a set of principles for what counted as a mitzvah and what did not.

          Our author follows the Rambam’s count of the mitzvot as it appears in the Sefer haMitzvot, and he relies heavily on the content of that work as a basis for his own work. But he frequently cites the Ramban’s disagreeing opinion.  Passages like the one we find in this mitzvah come up over and over in this work.

          Here, Ramban counts two separate mitzvot rather than one:  1. To declare the new moon,  2. To add a leap-month to the calendar to keep the months lined up with the seasons.  From what our author says, this seems to be based on the fact that these two jobs are mentioned in two different verses.  There may be more to it than that.  We will see more of these disagreements as to what counts as a mitzvah as we go along, and will see some of the principles on which Ramban and Rambam disagree.