INSIGHT
5774 - #17

Bo

THE SANHEDRINíS ROLE

             When we consider the movement of time, we think of our watches or the calendar on the wall. Shemot 12:1 directs us to the movement of the moon. As Rashi specifically points out in the verse, it is the sight of the beginning of a new lunar cycle that is to mark the first day of a Jewish month. With this Torah command, it is clear that we are being directed to mark time through being attentive to the astronomical movements that surround us.1 We are to mark our months, and thus the Jewish holidays with their calendar dates, through seeing the moon.

            Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Kiddush HaChodesh 1:5, however, places a caveat upon this.; Tthe establishment of the Shabbat is personal;. aAn individual, even solitarily, can count the days of the week and experience the sunset of the sixth day leading into the seventh that transforms this seventh day into Shabbat. Personal viewing of the new moon, though, does not have the same status. It is only when the court declares it to be a new month that this change in time is established. As Rambam points out, the sighting of the new moon is only given to the court. It is a communal undertaking, not a personal one. We are to see the moon, and respond, as a collective.

            Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Kiddush HaChodesh 5:1,2, even expands upon this idea further. This right to declare a new month based upon the seeing of the new moon is actually only a matter which could be done by the Sanhedrin. This is still the optimum method of Kiddush hachodesh [sanctifying the new moon]. When there is a Sanhedrin, it is only proper for a new month to be declared in this manner. Absent the Sanhedrin, a properly constituted court can establish the new month but only through astronomical calculations.2 The establishment of a new month in direct response to seeing the new moon is only  aonly a matter for the highest court in the land. And so, although we are, indeed, optimally to mark our months through a collective response to seeing the new moon, this can only be done under the direction of the Sanhedrin. How are we, though, to understand this connection?

            If there is value in sanctifying the new moon through actually seeing it, why should this only occur if the Sanhedrin is existent?3 Truthfully, this rule that only a Sanhedrin can sanctify a new month in this manner is not universally accepted. Ramban, Commentary to Rambamís Sefer HaMitzvot, Aseh 153 disagrees with Rambam on this very point. He contends that we find many references to such sanctifications occurring even after there was no longer an official Sanhedrin.4 To Ramban, the value of sanctifying upon sight of the moon still had value, even absent a Sanhedrin. Nevertheless, Rambam did not see it this way. The further question, however, is: how does Rambam respond to the challenge of Ramban that we find many cases of the sanctifying of a new month through sighting even after the date of the official end of the Sanhedrin? The fact is that Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Kiddush HaChodesh 5:3 refers, himself, to these cases. To Rambam, though, they were cases of sanctification by the Sanhedrin because he disagreed with Ramban on the date of the official end of the Sanhedrin.. Ramban based his understanding on a gemara that, as the Megillat Esther explains, Rambam understood much more narrowly. According to Rambam, the gemara was simply referring to the cessation of the Sanhedrinís power to try capital cases, as a result of thise change in venue. The Sanhedrin itself, though, was still an official Sanhedrin. Which returns us to the original question of why, at least according to Rambam, and despite the great value ascribed to sanctifying the new month through seeing the moon, that method can only be implemented with the involvement of the Sanhedrin?

            Rabbi Moshe Hochman, Morasha, Parshat Bo, Kiddush HaChodesh brings down variant viewpoints that effectively expand upon the distinction in the Sanhedrin that Megillat Esther noted. Why would it be that a change in venue would affect certain powers of the Sanhedrin and not others? These commentaries explain that there are two aspects to the Sanhedrin. One is, indeed, that it is the highest court in the land and, as such, functions as the judicial head of the society, a role that was lessened when the Sanhedrin changed its venue. Yet, the Sanhedrin also functions within a second framework: as the singular representative of communal Israel in totum.5 It is within this latter framework, a role that could not be diminished by a change in location, that the Sanhedrin is to sanctify a new month. As such, the Sanhedrin did continue to exist, and to sanctify the new month through seeing the new moon, for many years even after the destruction of the Temple.

            This may also provide an approach to our question. In a certain way, the sanctification of the new moon connects the nation of Israel to the cosmos. We, as a collective nation, are to see this astronomical movement in the universe and apply it to set our calendar. This connection, though, can only be undertaken by a Sanhedrin. We still need a calendar and so there is another method by which we still can set our communal calendar. But the majesty that ensues from this connection of Israel to the cosmos can only flow from the Sanhedrin as the representative of the nation.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

Footnotes

1 If we consider how we mark time in our modern world, it is often very linear. We move from one point to the next with our notations for dates and time simply marking these points. If one considers how humanity originally marked time, though, it was generally based on the cycles of change that were found in the environment. The day emerged from the daily movement of light and darkness; the year emerged from the annual changes in the seasons. Time was marked by the changes in the environment. Yet both of these phenomena are actually the result of astronomical movement, albeit that this was not what was perceived. In the case of the month, though, it was the astronomy (albeit perhaps misunderstood) which was the focus. In regard to the month, we do not find the same types of changes that so affect us. It was solely the actual movement of the moon, as it was perceived, which marked this element in time. This halacha thus highlights this connection of time to astronomy. 

2 It still must be done by a properly constituted court for this is still to be a national, communal response as we wish only one set of dates within the nation. See, further, Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, Aseh 153 and Mishneh Torah Hilchot Kiddush HaChodesh 1:8, 5:13.

3 This is a type of question that could be asked in regard to any matter of Halacha that is dependent upon the existence of a certain institution. For example, why should the laws of Shmittah [the seventh year] only be applicable if most of the nation is on the land Ė if they have value, they should be applicable at all times? See, further, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 84. The fact is that these laws are applicable Rabbinically but not Biblically but this actually only strengthens the question. If these laws are applicable Rabbinically, it indicates that the Rabbis saw value in them even without the necessary Biblical conditions. So what is the reason for these Biblical conditions?

4 T.B. Avoda Zara 8b states that 40 years prior to the destruction of the Temple, the Sanhedrin no longer sat in the Templeís Chamber of Hewn Stone and, in doing so, no longer had the authority to judge capital cases. Ramban understands this to mean that, with this move in venue, they no longer had an official status as the Sanhedrin.

5 While I have no basis for the following  idea, it would seem to me that this connects further with the Sanhedrinís legislative function. It is clear that a Sanhedrin is more than a Supreme Court as presently understood.

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