January 2, 2022

Rosh Hashanah 24

Today’s daf (Rosh Hashanah 24a-b) explores what witnesses must see in order for their testimony about the new moon be acceptable to the Sanhedrin. The problem, however, is that even when the witnesses did come to the Sanhedrin, the spoken questions which were asked of them as detailed in the Mishna (Rosh Hashanah 2:6, 23b) – such as ‘was it before the sun or after the sun?’, ‘was it to the sun’s north or south?’, ‘how wide was the moon?’ – may have been easy for some to understand and respond to, but especially for those with less technical knowledge, and specifically for those who were more visual learners, this manner of questioning meant that at least some witnesses who did see the new moon could not provide the kinds of answers expected from this manner of questioning.
Given this, the Mishna (Rosh Hashanah 2:8, 24a) informs us that Rabban Gamliel had images of different shapes of the moon in his chamber which he would show those unable to respond to the above-mentioned type of questioning while asking them, ‘did you see the moon like this? – pointing to one image, ‘or like that?’ – then pointing to a different image.
Significantly, the Gemara’s first reaction to this Mishna is not ‘Wow! That’s amazing! What a creative way to help those who were unable to respond to the spoken questions of the Sanhedrin still be able to give effective testimony!’. Instead, it is – ‘How could this be permitted! Surely there is a prohibition of making an image of heavenly forms!’ which then prompts a lengthy discussion about the prohibition of depicting the sun and the moon and other related issues.
However, while a variety of answers are provided by the Gemara to explain why these images used by Rabban Gamliel were halachically permitted, the final answer given by the Gemara is that images made להבין ולהורות – ‘to understand and to teach’ are permitted (nb. this too is the halacha as codified in the Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 141:4). True, the halachic issue raised by the Gemara about making an image of heavenly forms is serious, but the Gemara’s subsequent conclusion comes to teach us that the social need ‘to understand and to teach’ is equally serious.
Today, we have a significantly better understanding of the different ways that people best understand and learn ideas. Yet notwithstanding this, we rely far too much – especially in the Orthodox world – on a very narrow range of communication and teaching methods, and when other methods are suggested, we continue to hear firm responses of ‘how could this be permitted’, and far fewer replies that ‘to understand and to teach’ requires us to think of outside-of-the-box solutions.
And this is why our daf is important – because it serves to remind us that if we want people to engage in a process, we must provide a broad range of means for them to do so.
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