January 2, 2022

Rosh Hashanah 25

Rabban Gamliel was a remarkable Torah scholar and religious leader. He was a direct descendent of Hillel, and he was the Nasi of the Sanhedrin for thirty years in the period immediately after the destruction of the Second Beit HaMikdash. As such, he led the community during one of the most turbulent periods of Jewish history as they adapted and responded to the challenging decrees issued by the Romans.
Significantly, among the core priorities during Rabban Gamliel’s leadership was to put an end to the divisions that had arisen between different religious leaders, which he felt were a grave threat to the overall unity and cohesion of the community. Consequently, he used the power and authority of his office to silence his detractors who he believed were a threat to the unity of the Jewish people.
However, not every leader and scholar who held a different view to Rabban Gamliel did so in order to bring division and fractures within the Jewish people. Instead, at least some of them simply – and sincerely – believed that their understanding of Jewish law was the correct one.
The Mishna (Rosh Hashanah 2:8-9) in today’s daf (Rosh Hashanah 25a) records one such incident where Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua disagree about the day on which Yom Kippur fell due to their different approaches to calculating the calendar. What this meant was that the day that Rabban Gamliel thought was Yom Kippur was – according to Rabbi Yehoshua – a weekday, while the day that Rabbi Yehoshua thought was Yom Kippur was – according to Rabban Gamliel – a weekday.
Considering this to be a threat to the authority of the Sanhedrin, and in order to show that everyone must follow its rules, Rabban Gamliel ordered that Rabbi Yehoshua appear to him on the day that Rabbi Yehoshua believed to be Yom Kippur with his walking stick and his money, and by doing so, this would be a powerful demonstration of how even those like Rabbi Yehoshua – who, it should be noted, took a different position to Rabban Gamliel on more than just this issue – must adhere to the rules and decisions of the Sanhedrin.
It should be noted that Rabbi Yehoshua was unlike Rabban Gamliel. He was sensitive rather than bold, and unlike Rabban Gamliel he was very poor. Therefore, even though he believed that he was halachically correct, he was the weaker party in his disputes with Rabban Gamliel. Still, being ordered to publicly appear with a stick and with money on the day that he believed to be Yom Kippur was beyond comprehension.
Having heard of what took place, Rabbi Akiva – a student of Rabbi Yehoshua – went to find his teacher who he found feeling distraught. In that moment there was little to say in terms of his teachers’ disagreement with Rabban Gamliel. True, his teacher was wise and thoughtful. But Rabban Gamliel wielded power and authority and was unprepared to let Rabbi Yehoshua publicly adopt a stance that differed with him and his office. So what did Rabbi Akiva say to his teacher?
From a simple reading of the Mishna and its parallel Beraita (as cited in the Gemara), Rabbi Akiva told his teacher that when a Sanhedrin reaches a decision about the Jewish calendar, even if we think it erroneous, it is the law. Therefore, while we think that we have a better understanding of the will of God, and notwithstanding the fact that we feel conflicted, the halachic system grants permission to central authorities to reach decisions that we may not agree with but may still have to follow.
However, a deeper reading of these texts draws God to the centre of the picture, whereby Rabbi Akiva told his teacher that when a Sanhedrin reaches a decision about the Jewish calendar, God also acquiesces to their decision and as such, heeding their decision is itself part of serving God. This approach, though not entirely avoiding a sense of inner conflict, significantly reduced such a feeling because it allowed Rabbi Yehoshua to feel that by adopting practices that we individually don’t agree with is also – at least in some instances – part of the divine will.
To this, Rabbi Yehoshua responds to Rabbi Akiva with the repeated words נחמתני – the same words said by Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah & Rabbi Yehoshua (see Makkot 24a) when, having seen a fox walking around the ruins of the Beit HaMikdash which brought them to tears, Rabbi Akiva reframed what they had seen and thereby showed them that this was a realisation of the words of the prophets – and that just as this prophecy was fulfilled, so too will the prophecies about our return to Zion.
For some, this story involving Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva is primarily about the Jewish calendar. For others, it is about political and religious authority. And for others, it is about the divine support given to majority rule. But for me, it is a story which serves to remind us of a simple yet profound concept – that when people feel upset and aggrieved, and we are able to help reframe their situation while also reminding them that even if they feel disconnected from God that God is with them, our words can bring them hope, comfort and – ultimately – inner peace.
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