January 2, 2022

Rosh Hashanah 21

The Mishna (Rosh Hashanah 1:6) found in today’s daf (Rosh Hashanah 21b) describes a fascinating situation concerning the halacha which allows witnesses who are en route to testify about a new moon to transgress the Shabbat laws in order to reach Jerusalem as soon as possible.
In the case described in our Mishna we are told that, on one occasion, more than forty pairs of witnesses passed through Lod on Shabbat – each of which was en route to Jerusalem to testify. However, since only one set of witnesses is necessary for this purpose, Rabbi Akiva – who was in Lod at the time – considered it improper for the remaining witnesses to transgress the Shabbat laws and, as such, he told them to remain in Lod for the rest of Shabbat.
Somehow, Rabban Gamliel got word of this decision, and in response he sent Rabbi Akiva the following message: אם מעכב את הרבים – “if you detain the public [from travelling in order to testify]” נמצאת מכשילן לעתיד לבא – “you will have thereby caused them to stumble in the future [because they will refrain from travelling to testify]”.
These words and this principle established by Rabban Gamliel – which permits what appears to be unnecessary Shabbat transgression to ensure that Shabbat is transgressed when the need arises – is cited throughout halacha and is the basis for permitting numerous activities performed on Shabbat by those involved in lifesaving (eg. doctors, nurses, paramedics, soldiers etc.).
However, while the halacha follows Rabban Gamliel, there are still numerous contemporary debates about how far this concept is stretched, and this reminds me of an observation made by Amir Mashiach in his article, which I read a few weeks ago, titled ‘The Individual vs. Society in Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach’s Halakhic Rulings’ (see https://bit.ly/2ZHlKcV) where he explains that, according to Rabbi Auerbach, ‘an individual Jew should concede his own personal Sabbath, which is binding and obligatory for him, to serve the general national interest [because] Rabbi Auerbach sees the national interest as the supreme and ultimate value.’
Though some may think that such a statement is obvious, what is made clear by in that article, and what should be clear from our Mishna, is that different poskim have different hierarchies and perspectives which are reflected in their rulings. Of course, the challenge is that few poskim of the past or present clearly delineate those hierarchies and perspectives. Still, a careful study of their rulings helps us understand what they see as being a priority in their pesakim, and what – ultimately – they view as having ‘supreme and ultimate value’.
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