Rosh Hashanah – Kiddush of Another Kind
The first Mitzvah commanded to the people of Israel as a nation was the Mitzvah of consecrating the new moon and establishing the new month thereby. While yet in Egypt this was transmitted to the nation, as the tracking of time is what enables the observance of all date-related events. No festival could be properly celebrated without having a calendar to determine the day of its observance, and no calendar could function without an established system for defining the month.
At first the determination of the new month was established by the high court on the basis of the testimony of those who had sighted the new moon. The judges of the court, expert in the astronomical orbit of the moon, would interrogate the witnesses to ensure what they had sighted was indeed the early crescent of the new moon, based on its position in the sky and the direction of the crescent. This system served the nation well from the Exodus through the most of the second commonwealth. Consecration of the month in this fashion is called kiddush al pi re’iyah, sanctification by means of observation.
With the end of the second commonwealth there was a weakening of the court’s authority and it was no longer possible to continue this method of consecrating the new month through witnesses. The calendar, however, could not be abandoned. The sages devised an alternative method of consecrating the month on the basis of astronomical calculations. Using their expertise of the moon’s pattern of orbit, its waxing and waning, these scholars developed a precise calendar projecting when each new month would occur far into the future. This method effectively replaced the former system of witnesses which, while being the Torah’s ideal manner of consecrating the month, was no longer viable. The calendar now was set in place by fixed calculations. The new month was now consecrated by means of calculation, kiddush al pi cheshbon.
Rabbi Norman Lamm portrays these two types of consecration, kiddush on the basis of sight and kiddush on the basis of calculation, as symbolic of the experience of Jewish life. At first, a full Jewish life could be experienced by immersion in society, whose values and rhythm reflected Torah lifestyle. Religious culture pulsated through the arteries of that society, enabling any Jew to live a full Jewish life even without attaining scholarship of the Torah’s texts and lore. A Jew’s life was consecrated, in other words, by means of observation, sight and experience. His life was consecrated through kiddush al pi re’iyah, just as the new moon was originally consecrated.
With the passage of time, however, Jewish life eroded and its values were supplanted by those of larger cultures invading the space and mind frames of Jewish civilization. It was insufficient to rely on absorption of religious values and truths from the surrounding atmosphere. The Jews were dispersed, the Temple, which had functioned as the center of spiritual life, was destroyed. Jews were now immersed in cultures vastly different to that which the Torah espoused. How were Jews to remain consecrated? How could they replace the former means of transmission of values and lifestyle?
An alternative means was utilized, a kiddush al pi cheshbon, a consecration on the basis of calculation. No longer could a Jew ignorant of Torah and its accompanying literature survive as a fully participating member of religious society. One had to be consecrated through the intellectual calculations found in the texts of the Talmud. The pursuit of study was the answer devised to provide attachment to the roots of Judaism formerly accessed merely by sight and observation. Parallel to the alternative means of consecrating the new moon, this consecration requires more personal investment. Remaining attached to the root of Judaism can no longer be taken for granted and is lost through laxity and ignorance of what the faith means.
Rabbi Lamm cites a Hassidic interpretation of a Mishnah in Pirkei Avot. Three things must be remembered in order that one be safe from sin. “Know what is above you, there is a seeing eye, a listening ear, and all of your deeds are written in a book.” The simple meaning of the Mishnah is that God is Omniscient and nothing escapes His attention. A Hassidic interpretation, however, takes away an entirely different message. Know what is above you – know what came before you. A seeing eye – a time when one had only to see and observe in order to absorb the values and and mores of a Torah mandated lifestyle. Even when that era passed it was still possible to gain from the listening ear – one could learn of the pervasive Jewish culture from those who had experienced it. Listening to the experiences of those who had been there is next best to seeing it oneself. But this era passed as well. In our time all our deeds are written in a book – the only way to preserve our character as Jews is to maintain close familiarity with the great literature written in the many volumes of Talmud and Jewish lore.