On too many Rosh Hashanah visits to the synagogue of my choice I had chafed at having to go through it on two days as though the first was a dress rehearsal. Who besides God needs so much adulation? I finally figured out that the reason for the annual encore is to goad worshippers to consider what and why they are doing something twice. To paraphrase Socrates: the unexamined ceremony is not worth celebrating. And this in turn has led me to ask myself: how many New Year celebrations do a people need? You would think that one would be enough and that two are a bit of a muchness. Still, inured to deprivation and want, Jews tend to take a spare – just in case. So we have two Rosh Hashanah celebrations dividing the year evenly. The second one is called Pesach and I claim that if anything it is the real one, because it is redolent of history and geography, both; our beginnings as an individuated people and the growing season in Israel.
Furthermore Pesach is much better scripted, you don’t pay for a ticket and you don’t have to keep quiet. By comparison, the new year celebration that takes place in the fall is an academy award to God for having performed so well in the year just past and an anxious inducement to do just a bit better in the coming one.
Each of the new years occurs at an equinox – spring or fall, when days and nights are of equal length. This seemingly trivial fact is quite pregnant in meaning. The Hassidim have a messianic song called Karev Yom which promises that a time is nigh in which there will be neither night nor day.
The story of our origins as a people appears in Deuteronomy 26:4-9 and is recited annually in the Pesach Haggadah davka where the short version of the big story describes the ceremony of bringing an offering of agricultural produce to the Temple in Jerusalem:
When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar, you shall declare before the LORD your God: “A wandering Aramean [from Mesopotamia] was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.
When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. We note that both Egypt and Mesopotamia are listed in this CV and move on.
The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And we will come back to that exaggerated claim.
Every morning as I get up, turn on the radio and put up water for coffee I hear Moshe Hovav’s voice although he died in the mid seventies. The impact of his legendary bass voice grows ever more pervasive as he recites the Shemah from Deuteronomy 6: 5 -9 in the impeccable Hebrew assonance he learned in a Yemenite Heder. You think you hear God speaking.
Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. And these words which I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be for a reminder between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.
The contractual covenant with God obliges the Israelites to put on teffilin and affix a mezuzah. In turn God promises ample seasonal rain. If however they do not obey the instructions in the phylacteries then all sorts of natural and unnatural misfortunes will rain down on their heads.
As any good lawyer drawing up a contractual obligation knows, it has to be ringed about with reservations. The codicil about the weather, milk, honey and other good things comes in Deut. 11: 9 – 14:
That you may prolong your days in the land, which the LORD swore unto your fathers to give unto them and to their seed, a land that flows with milk and honey. For the land, you go to possess, is not as the land of Egypt, which you left where you sowed your seed, and watered it with the heel of your foot, as a garden of herbs: But the land, which you go to possess, is a land of hills and valleys, and it drinks the water of the rain of heaven. I will give you the rain of your land in its due season, the first rain and the latter rain, that you may gather in your corn, and your wine, and your oil.
There is no mention made in God’s addenda of prevailing three year drought cycles neither here nor in the Egyptian seven year cycle – Joseph’s famous fat cow and skinny cow prophecy.
It is just such cycles that enabled despotic regimes to rise at either end of the Fertile Crescent. Ironically the milk-and honey- promised-land is situated right in the dry middle curve between two storied breadbaskets of the ancient world: Mesopotamia and the Nile Delta. And even in those river rich lands, making it available required immense skill and organization.
In 1957 Karl Wittfogel published a seminal work: Oriental Despotism: A comparative Study of Total Power. The book examines the origins of complex societies and states. Historical in nature, the book identified the management of water as a method used by Chinese emperors to gain power over their people. The emperors developed “hydraulic societies” which were dependent on complex irrigation systems. Wittfogel felt that the cost of hydraulic construction and its subsequent maintenance required a political and social structure capable of forceful extraction of labor. This led to despotism. “Those who control the (hydraulic) network are uniquely prepared to wield supreme power.”
Wittfogel began to acquire a following among a new group of scholars, the cultural ecologists in anthropology. By 1966 the book was a text at Oranim, the kibbutz teachers’ seminary, where it was pressed into service in studies of Middle Eastern history. I remember doing a paper on ancient Babylonia and Egypt as hydraulic despotisms. Some of what I learned had little to do with harnessing river systems and much more to throw sidelights on cultural anthropology.
There is suggestive evidence that some of the cultural sources of Rosh Hashanah were located in Babylonia. For instance, the Malchuyot portion so central to the Rosh Hashanah service as well as to the prayers on the 10 days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are reminiscent of the annual re-coronation by acclamation of Babylonian kings. Also, the biblical creation story in which God slays Rahav queen of the deeps parallels the Babylonian myth of Tiamat who was so prolific that she threatened to overpopulate the world. The Babylonian version shows a poetic which is to say less bloody minded approach. The gods sent Marduk an aspiring minor god to deal with Tiamat. He attempted persuasion but when she was unimpressed he cut her in half. That was the beginning of a division between dry land and the sea. Such legends as the story of Noah and the Flood, the Tower of Babel and God’s command to Abraham “get thee out of your country homeland and father’s house to a land that I will show” you all have a clear Mesopotamian provenance.
In Egypt a short interval of monotheism occurred under the reign of Akhenaton, focused on the Egyptian sun deity. The religious change survived only until the death of Akhenaton, and the old religion was quickly restored during the reign of Tutankhamen. In its story of Slavery and oppression, too, Egypt had such a pregnant yet negative impact on our psyche that expressions such as “do not oppress the stranger in your midst because you were slaves in Egypt” appear almost 200 times in the Tanach. So while our origins are clearly neither wholly Babylonian nor Egyptian there were definite cultural crosspollinations with our two largest neighbors, despotic though they may have been. Our sojourn in each of the neighboring river civilizations was a terminus ad quem as well as a springboard for Israelite innovation.
What shall we do on Rosh Hashanah (both of them) with this awareness of the neighborhood in which we now live? I believe that first off we have to change the Aleinu service which calls for giving thanks that we differ qualitatively from others and from their cultural assumptions. Secondly we should closely examine the empowering elements in our own tradition even to the extent of using the surprising tradition of change inherent in it.
Who hasn’t smiled to hear that Rosh Hashanah is late (or early) this year? Solar years are eleven days longer than lunar years that have only 354 days. To accommodate that, ancient Israelite agricultural society conveniently slips in an extra month every three years. In our case it is an additional month of Adar. Adar is of course a month and a half before Passover which is always at the full moon of the month of Nissan. Its ancient name was the month of Abib (or aviv.) Abib is the biblical name for barley which was in the basket the Israelites who told the priest at the Temple: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor;” as they handed him their offering. Then the 49 day countdown of the Omer to Shavuot begins. It was a countrywide logistic operation to bring all those basket toting Israelites to Jerusalem on time. But what if the grain was late to ripen? The solution of choice was to intercalate by adding another Adar. Initially this wasn’t done automatically; rather there were two methods of how to make the call. The Sanhedrin heard witnesses who scanned the night sky to spot the new moon. A less romantic procedure was described by Rambam: Reports came in regarding the condition of the roads; were they passable after late rains? Were bridges washed away? Did the baked mud bricks for the ovens to roast barley and other foods Jerusalem weather the winter? Did Jews who lived abroad (yes there were “no shows” that early on) make it in large enough numbers? Maimonides claimed that for all these reasons, and more. The calendar could and should have been adjusted.
In Tractate Brakhot 27a the Mishnah relates the following: A dispute arose between Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua over the criteria for accepting witnesses testifying about having seen the new moon. The head of the Sanhedrin at that time was Rabban Gamliel. He was of the house of David and a learned and respected scholar. He was also highly authoritarian. The disagreement had very serious practical implications, as it affected the dates accepted by each of the sages regarding the holidays of that particular year. Rabbi Yehoshua was a great scholar and very popular with his fellow sages. In order to prevent national discord, Rabban Gamliel compelled Rabbi Yehoshua to publicly accept his ruling, telling him: “Come to me with your staff and your money on the day that Yom Kippur falls according to your calculations.” Carrying a staff and money were clearly violations of Yom Kippur. Therefore, by carrying out Rabban Gamliel’s decree, Rabbi Yehoshua would be publicly displaying his submission to the ruling by Rabban Gamliel concerning the fitness of the new moon witnesses and the authority of the Sanhedrin. But he swallowed his pride and presented himself as ordered.
Considering this a red letter day, so to speak, the Mishnah labels this incident Bo Bayom (On that very day) a revolt broke out in the Sanhedrin and many unpopular decisions pushed through by Rabban Gamliel were revoked. The coup de grâce was that the head of the Sanhedrin himself was deposed.
All these illustrative instances indicate that even long ago, located between two highly structured river despotisms, Israelite civilization found ways to bend orthodoxies. We find that given certain conditions, process and the voice of quasi parliamentary life could affect the quality of Jewish life. Can we do less? So is Rosh Hashanah early this year?