|May 6, 2011 / 3 Iyar, 5771
Rabbi David Greenspoon
Introduction To Mishnah Ta'anit
The tractate of Fast-days, or Ta'anit offers the contemporary reader an avenue into the spiritual lives of our ancestors. We, like they, struggle with balancing good and evil in the public and private arena. Our ancestors in Israel where dependent on rainfall during a clearly proscribed rainy season. They believed that a cause and effect relationship existed between man and God. God gives explicit warning in Deuteronomy 11- later brought into the liturgy as the second passage of the Shema - that rainfall signifies Divine response to human behavior.
The absence of rain was not simply a natural calamity. It was a national wake-up call that God was displeased. The response to this spiritual crisis is recorded in the Mishnah and is likely one of the oldest formal collections of popular liturgy generated by the people outside of the Temple precincts and beyond control of the Temple priesthood.
Chapter 1, Mishnah 3
Mishnah 3 reveals a debate between the rabbis and Rabban Gamliel. This was no simple disagreement between two rabbis. The entire rabbinic community was united against Rabban Gamliel and Gamliel was not an insignificant figure. The title Rabban was reserved for the leading authority in the rabbinic community. He was the “chief rabbi”. Later on the title came to referred to as Nasi, or Prince. Gamliel was appointed by the Roman governor in Damascus, and went on missions to Rome. He was a noted figure in interfaith matters, mostly disputations, but mingled quite freely with the pagans and Christians. This debate pits the entire rabbinic community against their most senior authority the lone voice of dissent, the leading sage of the age! It is almost anticlimactic to consider the actual point of disagreement; but here it is.
On what date do we change the 9th daily Amidah blessing to reflect our request for rain? The Mishnah claims it should be the 3rd of Heshvan while Rabban Gamliel claims it should the 7th, or 15 days following Sukkot. Gamliel was calendar expert (a highly specialized skill in the ancient world). His speciality included the knowledge when to add of the extra month of Adar, Adar II. (This is called intercalation and keeps the lunar and solar years in close alignment over a 19 year period.)
Rabban Gamliel would know which date the rainy cycle commenced. In the Tosefta ( a series of rabbinic statements not included in the Mishnah) a similar conversation focuses on the solar seasonal cycle, while Rabban Shimon son of Gamliel discusses intercalation. He suggests a rationale for the Mishnah overuling his father “to give the last Jewish Pilgrimage traveler returning home from Israel time to reach the Euphrates River”. The Gemara's discussion on this mishnah which was written many years later began with an affirmation by Rabbi Eleazar that the halachah (law) follows Rabban Gamliel. This is a rare instance where the rule of law did not follow the majority opinion.
The existence of differing calendars in the Jewish community in Mishnaic times was considered a serious threat to Jewish unity. Is a unified calendar as important to the Jewish people today?
Rabban Gamliel fought the majority and won. Does it suggest the importance for standing up for one's convictions? But what should he have done if he had lost? How should he have behaved? How should we behave?
This week's Mishnah lesson was written by
Rabbi David Greenspoon
Rabbi Greenspoon serves Baltimore's Beth El Congregation as the new Assistant Rabbi, Director of Congregational Programming. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. A passionate educator across the spectrum of learners, he is a veteran Florence Melton Adult Mini-School faculty member, has served as Rabbi-in-Residence for Camp Ramah (Canada) and as an adjunct rabbinic instructor at St. Joseph's High School in Tarentum, PA as part of the American Jewish Committee's Catholic-Jewish Educational Enrichment Program. He is a U.S. Navy veteran with both enlisted and officer service. Rabbi Greenspoon and his wife Anne live with their two children in Owings Mills, MD.
The opinions expressed in this Unraveller are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the FJMC.
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