Rosh Hashanah 10

A different Hanukkah story.

With all the speculation about dates we’ve seen so far in this tractate, it may not be surprising to learn that the rabbis wondered when (in the year) creation happened. Nor should it be much of a surprise that they disagree, as we learn on today’s page:

Rabbi Eliezer says: In Tishrei the world was created.

Rabbi Yehoshua says: In Nisan the world was created.

According to Rabbi Eliezer, the six days of creation fell out in the fall, in Tishrei. According to Rabbi Yehoshua, it was the spring month of Nisan. 

Now, if you’re like me, you might be thinking: Does it make a difference one way or the other? Well, for a rabbinic folktale found on Avodah Zarah 8a, it might. There, the Talmud tells the following story:

When Adam saw that the daytime was progressively diminishing, he said, “Woe is me; perhaps because I sinned the world is becoming dark around me and will ultimately return to the primordial state of chaos and disorder. And this is the death that was sentenced upon me from Heaven.” He arose and spent eight days in fasting and in prayer.

Once he saw that the season of Tevet (the winter solstice) had arrived and that the daytime was progressively lengthening, he said, “Clearly, the days become shorter and then longer, and this is the order of the world.” He went and observed a festival for eight days. 

This is one in a series of stories in which the rabbis imagine the early experiences of the first human in the world. This one, which doubles as a Hanukkah origin story, imagines that the newly-minted human, Adam, would have been terrified to watch the days grow shorter in the autumn (perhaps fearfully extrapolating that the daylight would cease altogether).

In the conversation that follows, the Gemara notes that the story fits well with Rabbi Eliezer’s view that the world was created in Tishrei, which occurs in the fall. But how can Rabbi Yehoshua, who placed creation in Nisan (spring), explain this story? After all, the rabbis surmise, if the world was created in the spring Adam would experience the lengthening of days until the summer solstice and then the shortening of date in the fall — enough experience to be aware of “the order of the world” by the time the days get really short in the early winter.

No, the Gemara answers, it’s possible that even if Adam began life in Nisan, he might still have panicked as winter approached because:

Although Adam had experienced short days, he had not seen days that were this short, as in the days before the winter solstice.

So while the narrative in Avodah Zarah fits better with Rabbi Eliezer’s view, the Gemara has found a way for it to make sense for Rabbi Yehosuha as well.

We’ve seen many examples of talmudic discussions that demonstrate the plausibility of opposing legal opinions. In this instance, we see the same thinking applied to folklore. In this case, the rabbis don’t seem terribly invested in deciding whether the world was created in Tishrei or Nisan. Rather, they simply want to show how the opinions of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua can both be read in ways that align with the rest of rabbinic tradition.

Read all of Rosh Hashanah 10 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on October 19th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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