Rosh Hashanah 11

Dating historic events.

Today we continue a teaching that started on the bottom of yesterday’s daf which lays out a dispute between Rabbis Eliezer and Yehoshua about when key moments in Jewish history happened. Specifically: when the world was created, when the Patriarchs were born and died, and when the Jewish people will be redeemed in the future. Rabbi Eliezer thinks that all of these events occurred with the new year in Tishrei, whereas Rabbi Yehoshua insists that they all occurred with the new year in Nisan. So do we mark these moments in the fall or the spring? It depends on which rabbi we follow. 

The daf continues by offering evidence for how each of these rabbis reads the Bible to support their position. For example:

Rabbi Eliezer says: From where is it derived that the world was created in the month of Tishrei? As it is stated: And God said: Let the earth bring forth grass, herb yielding seed, and fruit tree yielding fruit after its kind (Genesis 1:11). Which is the month in which the earth brings forth grass and the trees are full of ripe fruit? You must say that this is Tishrei.

On the fourth day of Creation, says Rabbi Eliezer, God brought forth fully mature grass and fruit trees, looking just as they do at the end of summer — therefore Creation happened in Tishrei.

No no, says Rabbi Yehoshua, look at the very next verse:

And the earth brought forth grass, herb yielding seed after its kind, and tree yielding fruit (Genesis 1:12). Which is the month in which the earth is full of grass and the trees begin to bring forth fruit? You must say that this is Nisan.

It is Nisan, says Rabbi Yehoshua, when the earth becomes green again that grass begins to poke up and trees first begin to bring forth fruit — that is the moment being described in the story of Creation. Therefore, the world was created in Nisan.

And so forth. So which one is right? Well (spoiler alert) we get some version of an answer on tomorrow’s daf:

The Jewish sages count from the flood in accordance with Rabbi Eliezer, the cycles (of the sun and the moon) in accordance with Rabbi Yehoshua. The sages of the nations of the world count both the years from Creation and the flood in accordance with Rabbi Yehoshua.

This teaching splits the difference, saying that Jews follow both Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua, but pointing out that the rest of the world tends to start the new year in the early spring. 

So then we’ve got a dispute, a discussion of each side’s reasoning, and a resolution. It’s actually a really neat little passage. 

But I left out part of the original teaching that I find revealing. Although Rabbis Eliezer and Yehoshua disagree on several dates, they actually agree on a whole bunch of things. Each thinks that Isaac was born on Passover; that SarahRachel and Hannah were remembered by God and conceived much longed for children on Rosh Hashanah, that Joseph escaped prison also on Rosh Hashanah, and that (perhaps obviously) the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt in Nisan, on Passover. In fact, they agree about more than they disagree on! 

Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua are not quoted discussing the textual bases for the areas where they agree. But that doesn’t stop the Gemara from doing exactly that. Just as Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Eliezer do for their points of disagreement, the anonymous voice of the Gemara goes through each of these points of agreement and explains how they are derived from a close reading of the biblical text. 

In a world where these teachings were memorized and orally recited, and where even a professional memorizer’s memory was not unlimited, it is striking that the Gemara insists on the importance of understanding the biblical supports for areas of agreement. It reminds us that even when everybody “knows” something, it is worth the time and energy to understand how we know what we know. 

Read all of Rosh Hashanah 11 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on October 20th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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Summary of Tractate Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah deals not just with the Jewish New Year, but also with questions of how the Jewish calendar is decided.