Rosh Hashanah 31

Here comes the judge.

The last few pages of Tractate Rosh Hashanah have recorded various enactments of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai. A mishnah on today’s page shares the final of these proclamations. 

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korha said: And this, too, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai instituted, that even if the head of the court of seventy-one is in any other place, not where the Great Sanhedrin is in session, the witnesses should nevertheless go only to the place where the Great Sanhedrin gathers to deliver testimony to determine the start of the month. Although the date of the month is dependent on the head of the Great Sanhedrin, as it is he who declares that the month is sanctified (see 24a), nevertheless, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai instituted that the members of the Great Sanhedrin may sanctify the month in the absence of the head of the court.

In other words, if the head of the rabbinic court is somewhere other than the site of the court itself, the messengers who come to testify that they have seen the new moon report to the court, not to the chief judge. This ruling makes perfect sense. We’ve seen already that delaying this testimony can have significant consequences for when holidays are observed, so it seems only prudent that witnesses report to the court rather than try to figure out where the head of the court might be at any given moment. 

The Gemara then brings a fascinating story that illustrates why this ruling is important even in matters other than the certification of the new moon. 

There was a certain woman who was called to judgment before Ameimar in Nehardea. Ameimar temporarily went to Mehoza, and she did not follow him to be judged there. He wrote a document of excommunication concerning her, for disobeying the court. Rav Ashi said to Ameimar: Didn’t we learn in the mishnah: Even if the head of the court of seventy-one is in any other place, the witnesses should go only to the place where the Great Sanhedrin gathers? This shows that one must appear in the court itself, rather than follow the head of the court. 

Ameimar was the head of the court as well as the leader of the rabbinical academy in Nehardea. As chief judge, he held this woman in contempt of court because she did not go to see him personally, but instead went to the location of the court. Rav Ashi, Ameimar’s contemporary, finds fault with this reaction, quoting the mishnah we just read saying that the authority of the court is where the court is — not where the chief judge is. 

The Gemara then records Ameimar’s reply: 

Ameimar said to him: This applies only to testimony to determine the start of the month, for which it is necessary to have a fixed place. The reason is that if so, if the witnesses come to court when the head of the court is absent and they will have to go to another place, consequently you will be obstructing them for future occasions, as they will consider it too much trouble and perhaps, they will not come the next time. Therefore, the sages said that these witnesses should go to the regular place where the Great Sanehdrin meets. However, here, with regard to monetary claims, the verse states: “The borrower is servant to the lender” (Proverbs 22:7), i.e., the defendant must act as is convenient to the claimant and the court.

Ameimar says that the ruling of the mishnah only applies to testimony about the sighting of the new moon, explaining that if moon witnesses have to run around looking for the head of the court in order to fulfill their task, they might become irritated and abdicate responsibility for doing so. This is a different case, Ameimar says. 

Ameimar then brings a verse from Proverbs that seems to prove the opposite. The verse seems to indicate that the borrower (in this case the Nehardean woman) is subject to the lender and therefore we make it as easy as possible for them to come to court so as to maximize the likelihood that the lender can recoup their money. This explanation seems to side not with Ameimar, who says litigants must come to the judge, but with Rav Ashi, who says they just come to the court. 

So what’s the final ruling for this poor woman in Nehardea? The Gemara doesn’t tell us. But the passage does seem to indicate that consideration for witnesses and litigants trumps the convenience (and authority) of any one judge. 

Read all of Rosh Hashanah 31 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 9th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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