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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Blowing in the wind and on shabbat (Rosh Hashanah 29b)

There is a common misconception that the Chinese character for “Crisis” is composed of two characters connoting “Danger” and “Opportunity.” Although this is a myth, it’s a wonderful notion because every crisis presents an opportunity for change.

The crisis in the minds of the Talmud is, of course, the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. It looms like a huge, dark cloud hanging over virtually every conversation, though it is not usually mentioned explicitly, as if it were too big and too awful to articulate. It is of interest, therefore, that in the mishnah at the beginning of chapter 4 of masechet Rosh Hashanah (29b), the destruction is mentioned explicitly. Mishnah, in general, does far more than capture and preserve late Second Temple traditions and procedures: it begins the process of reformulating Judaism to survive the destruction and flourish in a world sans Temple, and that is certainly the case with this particular mishnah:
When Rosh Hashanah coincides with shabbat, they blow [the shofar] in the Temple, but not in the provinces. After the Temple was destroyed, Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai instituted that they would blow the shofar wherever there was a bet din [rabbinic court]. R. Elazar said: Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai instituted [this practice] only in Yavneh. They said to him: Both in Yavneh and anywhere there is a bet din. And in this additional [respect] Jerusalem was superior to Yavneh: any town that could see and hear and was near enough to come [to Jerusalem] would blow [the shofar on shabbat]; but in Yavneh they would blow [the shofar] only in the bet din itself.
The question is whether and where shofar may be blown on Rosh Hashanah when the holy day falls on shabbat. The gemara will discuss whether blowing shofar is considered m’lachah (work) or not and conclude that while it is not m’lachah, carrying a shofar more than four cubits in the public domain (a risk of permitting it to be blown on shabbat) is a violation of shabbat. The Mishnah, however, is focused on where shofar may be blown on shabbat following the destruction of the Temple.

In the transition from a world centered on the Temple, to a world without a Temple, one opinion holds that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai designated on his own authority that the existence of a duly constituted rabbinic court renders a place acceptable for blowing shofar on shabbat – it has the status, to some degree, of the Temple. R. Elazar offers an alternative memory of Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai’s view: only Yavneh was given this status. (Yavneh, located outside Jerusalem in central Israel, was the city to which Yochanan b. Zakkai moved the Sanhedrin following the destruction and accordingly from where rabbinic Judaism emerged.) Finally, the anonymous narrator of the mishnah tells us that both Yavneh and any location with a sitting bet din were eligible.

Is Yavneh a sacred precinct in some regard? Does the convergence of scholars engaged in study and transmission of Oral Torah lend a place a measure of the sanctity of the Temple? Is it to function as a “new” or “temporary” Jerusalem in the aftermath of the destruction?

Alternatively: Does a sitting bet din lend a town a status like the Temple? Is the role of the bet din – in line with the new formulation of Judaism based on emerging Oral Torah – the sign of holiness?

Is it place that makes something holy, or the people who inhabit the place, or the activities that transpire there? These are the three categories under discussion.

Mishnah then adds a most interesting comment:
And in this additional [respect] Jerusalem was superior to Yavneh: any town that could see and hear and was near enough to come [to Jerusalem] would blow [the shofar on shabbat]; but in Yavneh they would blow [the shofar] only in the bet din itself.
Jerusalem, the eternal central holy location, although in ruins, retained its full sanctity and drawing power: if you were near enough to experience Jerusalem by sight or sound, where you stood – although outside Jerusalem – took on a measure of Jerusalem’s sanctity, enough to permit the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah when it fell on shabbat. In contrast, although the Sanhedrin was moved to Yavneh, and Rabbanan Yochanan b. Zakkai taught his circle of disciples there, shofar was blown only in the bet din itself.

With the perspective of more than 20 centuries since the destruction of the Temple, it is easy to see how these questions of time, space, function, and activity have been resolved. The Temple Mount is eternally sacred. Cemeteries are sacred space because of those buried there. Synagogues have a sacred quality because they contain arks with Torah scrolls. But synagogues are not eternally sacred: it is not uncommon for a congregation to move and sell its building. Rather, Judaism has invested with greatest sanctity moments in time.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously wrote in The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man:
Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. Unlike the space-minded man to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogeneous, to whom all hours are alike, quality-less, empty shells, the Bible senses the diversified character of time. There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.

Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate: the Day of Atonement. According to the ancient rabbis, it is not the observance of the Day of Atonement, but the Day itself, the "essence of the Day," which, with man's repentance, atones for the sins of man.

Jewish ritual may be characterized as the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time. Most of its observances--the Sabbath, the New Moon, the festivals, the Sabbatical and the Jubilee year--depend on a certain hour of the day or season of the year. It is, for example, the evening, morning, or afternoon that brings with it the call to prayer. The main themes of faith lie in the realm of time. We remember the day of the exodus from Egypt, the day when Israel stood at Sinai; and our Messianic hope is the expectation of a day, of the end of days.
The sages of the mishnah are in the process of working this out. They are juggling possibilities and considering what will create community and meaning, and preserve and extend the tradition of Torah in a world without its functioning geographic center, the Temple in Jerusalem. They must find a new center on which to balance the needs of the Jewish people, a center that is not a fixed location. That new center is time and for that reason, in most of the Jewish world when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat, as it will this year, shofar will not be blown because the sanctity of shabbat supersedes that of Rosh Hashanah. For Jews, sacred moment have more power than sacred places.

© Rabbi Amy R. Scheinerman 2009

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