Tractate Rosh Hashana – Problems and Solutions

  • Rav Yehuda Shaviv
In memory of Batya Furst z"l
Niftera 28 Elul 5765.
Dedicated by her family.
I. Tractate Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) or Tractate Rosh Hashana (New Year)
A Talmudic tractate dedicated to a particular holiday should by rights deal with the special laws governing that occasion. Indeed, this is what we find in most of the tractates devoted to particular holidays: Tractate Sukka deals exclusively with matters relating to Sukkot; Tractate Yoma deals exclusively with matters relating to Yom Kippur; and so too many other tractates. It is therefore surprising that this is not the case regarding tractate Rosh Hashana. The mitzva that is unique to Rosh Hashana is the mitzva of shofar-blowing, Rosh Hashana being "the day of the shofar blast," but only a small part of tractate Rosh Hashana is devoted to this topic, and that part is not even at the beginning of the tractate.
The tractate is comprised of four chapters. The discussion of matters relating to the shofar begins only in the second mishna of the third chapter – in other words, in the second half of the tractate. Even in this latter part of the tractate, not all of the mishnayot are dedicated to matters pertaining to Rosh Hashana, but rather move by way of association to other matters, as is common in the Mishna. Thus, mishna 4 and most of mishna 8 in the third chapter and mishna 2 in the fourth chapter do not deal at all with the shofar of Rosh Hashana.
Although the first two mishnayot in the tractate do speak about Rosh Hashana, from there on the first and second chapters deal with the laws governing the sanctification of the month, and an additional mishna dealing with the sanctification of the month is found later in the tractate (4:4).
It turns out that half of Tractate Rosh Hashana deals with an entirely different matter. We can almost say that what we have here are two tractates, Tractate Rosh Hashana and tractate Rosh Chodesh, which were combined into one tractate.
Perhaps we can understand this phenomenon as a reflection of the tendency to gather small units into one larger unit; if we were to keep them separate, we would have two tractates of only two chapters each, and because of their small size, they would be liable to be lost.[1] The question still remains, however, as to why the matters of Rosh Hashana were pushed off to the second half of the tractate, while the first half of the tractate is dedicated to the sanctification of the month.
Why does "Tractate Rosh Chodesh" come before "Tractate Rosh Hashana"?
II. Testimony Regarding the New Moon and the Sanctification of the Month
It stands to reason that it is impossible to talk about matters pertaining to Rosh Hashana without relating to the sanctification of the month. While all of the other festivals depend on the establishment of the months, this is all the more so true of Rosh Hashana. Regarding the other festivals, it is possible to know when they will fall out several days in advance; this is not the case when it comes to Rosh Hashana, whose date is entirely dependent on witnesses who see the new moon and on the court’s sanctification of the month. Even at the beginning of the day, it is not at all clear whether or not the day will be declared as Rosh Hashana.
Furthermore, what did Jews do on the day of Rosh Hashana? It is clear to us that they occupied themselves with the mitzvot of the day – the shofar blasts and the special blessings added to the Shemoneh Esrei. But what did they do on the night of Rosh Hashana? It may be surmised that they went out to see the new moon, in order to know whether or not it was in fact the night of Rosh Hashana.[2]
It turns out, then, that even the testimony regarding the sighting of the new moon and the sanctification of the month by the court are part of the special mitzvot of the day of Rosh Hashana. Moreover, the testimony regarding the sighting of the new moon, which in practice could only be given during the day, begins already the night before. At night, the eyes of prospective witnesses search the sky for the new moon, and these witnesses presumably set out already at night toward the High Court in Jerusalem, so as not to miss out on the opportunity to offer their testimony.
It is proper to set down the mitzvot that apply already at night before the mitzva that can be fulfilled only during the day. Accordingly, the Mishna is ordered chronologically, as we find in many other tractates (e.g., Shevi'it, Pesachim, Yoma and others). 
The first two mishnayot in the tractate constitute a general introduction to the very concept of a "new year" and to the other aspect of Rosh Hashana as a day of judgment, and it is possible that each mishna introduces a different part of the tractate. The first mishna mentions four days of Rosh Chodesh (Nisan, Elul, Tishrei, and Shevat) that are also days of Rosh Hashana. This mishna serves as an introduction to the part of the tractate that deals with the determination of Rosh Chodesh. The second mishna deals with different days of judgment over the course of the year, serving as an introduction to the laws of shofar, for the shofar blasts come, among other reasons, to arouse a person to repent in anticipation of judgment.[3]
III. “Which You Shall Proclaim”
The discussion regarding the determination of the months seems to include a special message for the day of Rosh Hashana as well. 
The very fact that Rosh Chodesh is determined by a human court and that the dates of all the festivals depend on that determination is indicative of man's power to fashion and determine reality. But in the case of Rosh Hashana, which is a major day in the relationship between the Creator and His creations, it is truly remarkable. Everything is ready for the coronation of the King of the universe[4] and for His judgment of all of mankind – but everything is put on hold as we wait for the arrival of two members of Israel who will testify that they saw the new moon, testimony on the basis of which the court will sanctify the month and confirm that heavenly assembly of kingship and judgment!
This idea is well illustrated in the Yerushalmi:
What nation is like this nation? Ordinarily, the government proclaims: Today there will be judgment, and the lawless say: Let the judgment be tomorrow. To whom do we listen? Is it not to the government?! But the Holy One, blessed be He, is not like that: The court proclaims: Today is Rosh Hashana. The Holy One, blessed be He, then says to the ministering angels: Set up a platform on which will stand the defenders and the prosecutors, for My sons have said: Today is Rosh Hashana! If the court decides to declare the month as full and move Rosh Chodesh to the next day, the Holy One, blessed be He, says to the ministering angels: Remove the platform, remove the defenders, and remove the prosecutors, for My sons have decided to move Rosh Chodesh to tomorrow! What is the reason? "For it is a statute for Israel, an ordinance of the God of Yaakov" (Tehilim 81:5). If it is not a statute of Israel, it is not, as it were, an ordinance of the God of Yaakov. (Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashana 57b)
If earthly mortals are so powerful that they can determine the date of God's judgment and coronation, then it should certainly be within their ability to impact upon their own souls. This is the key to repentance: the faith in man's ability to change, to shape, and to determine. It is with this message that we enter the new year and the day of Rosh Hashana, the first day of the Ten Days of Repentance.
Furthermore, the new moon signifies the possibility of renewal and change in creation, this too being the foundation upon which the edifice of repentance is built – the inner faith and certainty in the possibility of change. Just as the moon constantly moves and constantly changes, so too man's life moves on a track of constant change, and it is within his power to direct this change to positive channels.
IV. The First Mishna in Chapter 3
The commentators on the Mishna raise a question regarding the placement of the first mishna in chapter 3, which deals with matters pertaining to the sanctification of the month. Thus, in content, it is a continuation of chapter 2. Had the compilers of the Mishna placed this mishna in chapter 2, we would have a clear and distinct division: chapters 1:3-end of chapter 2 – matters pertaining to Rosh Chodesh; chapters 3-4 – matters pertaining to Rosh Hashana. But 3:1 upsets this orderly arrangement.
The author of the Tiferet Yisrael writes (in his comments to the beginning of chapter 3):
I toiled to understand why a sharp knife cut off this mishna from the two previous chapters, which deal entirely with the sanctification of the month, as does this mishna, and why this mishna was joined to the next two chapters, which speak entirely about the laws of shofar.[5]
            R. Chanoch Albeck, in his introduction to the chapter, notes a similar phenomenon in several other tractates, but this does not explain the phenomenon.[6]
Two approaches may be suggested in order to resolve this difficulty: that of purpose and that of constraint. By purpose I mean that the mishnayot were arranged in this matter for some positive purpose, whereas by constraint I mean that something forced the compiler of the Mishna to put this mishna in a place where by right it does not belong.[7]
V. The Connection between the Two Parts of the Tractate
In the writings of R. David Cohen, known as the Rav HaNazir, we find two ideas that reflect the approach of purpose. We will cite his words in their concise formulation:
"If the court and all of Israel saw it" – This mishna belongs to the previous chapter, as this tractate is divided into two. The first two chapters deal with the laws governing the sanctification of the months, and the last two chapters deal with the laws of shofar… It may be suggested [to resolve the difficulty of why this mishna appears in chapter 3] that this comes to teach the connection between shofar and the sanctification of the month. As we find at the beginning of chapter 4: "If the festival of Rosh Hashana fell out on Shabbat,"[8] and according to the Rambam (Hilkhot Shofar 2:9), the shofar was blown on Shabbat only in the court where the month was sanctified, and in the Pesikta (Pesikta Rabbati, tik'u, 41): "Therefore if Rosh Hashana falls out on Shabbat, the shofar is not blown in all places, but only in Eintav, in the place where the court convened and the years and months were intercalated.”
Similarly, we find in Midrash Tehillim (on Tehillim 81): "'Blow a shofar on the New Moon.' This is what the verse means: 'Fortunate are the people who know the shofar blast' – this refers to the Elders, who intercalated the year and determined the months," which implies that the shofar was blown when the month was sanctified and when the year was intercalated.[9]
According to this, the aim of the mishna is to join together the two shofar blasts – that which accompanied the sanctification of the month and that of Rosh Hashana.
However, for this purpose, mishna 7 of chapter 2 might have been more appropriate: "The head of the court proclaims: ‘It is sanctified,’ and all of the people respond after him: ‘It is sanctified,’" which describes the usual procedure of sanctification of the month, rather than our mishna, which deals with special cases.
The Rav HaNazir suggests another reason:
And the main thing is to join the chapters dealing with seeing regarding the sanctification of the month to the hearing of the shofar.[10]
For this purpose, our mishna is indeed exceedingly appropriate, as it opens with: "If the court and all of Israel saw it."
It turns out, then, that this mishna was deliberately positioned at the beginning of chapter 3 in order to join together the two parts of the tractate, and to teach about an essential connection between them.[11]
VI. Editorial Considerations in the Chapter Endings
Upon closer examination, we see that much attention was given to the chapter endings in the form of correspondence between the two sets of chapters, chapters 1-2 and chapters 3-4. The end of each of the first two chapters deals with, among other things, the exposition of a verse in Parashat Emor: "These are the appointed seasons [mo’adei] of the Lord, even holy convocations, those [otam] which you shall proclaim in their appointed season" (Vayikra 23:4).
However, while the end of chapter 1 emphasizes the "appointed seasons" – which teaches that care must be taken that they be established on the proper day, even if that necessitates Shabbat desecration – chapter 2 emphasizes otam ("those"), which is expounded as if it reads atem, "you" – that is to say, according to your determination, "whether at the proper time or not at the proper time." Here we have two opposite values that confront each other frontally, the value of "appointed seasons" and the value of "you," and that which appears at the end of the second chapter overpowers that which appears at the end of the first chapter.
Scriptural verses are addressed also at the end of chapter 3. Perhaps this too is a reason that we find attached to the last mishna of the third chapter topics that do not appear to be strongly connected to each other.[12]  
The connection between the ends of the last two chapters is that they both deal with the issue of performing a mitzva on behalf of another person. The end of chapter 3 establishes the principle that "one who is not himself obligated to perform a mitzva cannot perform it on behalf of a congregation," and the end of chapter 4 records a disagreement about whether or not the congregational reader exempts the entire congregation of their obligation regarding prayer.[13]
VII. The End is Like the Beginning
The gemara in Berakhot (10a) states: "Every chapter [of Tehilim] that was particularly dear to David he commenced with 'Happy' (ashrei) and ended with 'Happy.'" Tosafot (ad loc.) note that the reference to the word "Happy" is imprecise; what the gemara means is that the end of the psalm is similar to the beginning of the psalm.[14] This phenomenon is occasionally found also in the Mishna, and it seems that we find it our tractate as well. Sometimes the connection is complementary, and sometimes it is contrasting.
Chapter 1 begins with the assertion that the first of Nisan is the new year for kings and for festivals.[15] At the end of the chapter, we find once again: "These are the appointed seasons of the Lord."
The beginning of chapter 2 speaks of the necessity to recognize the witnesses testifying about the new moon. When the "heretics" adopted their evil practices, it was no longer possible to accept testimony from witnesses who were not known to the court. The end of the chapter emphasizes the anonymity of the elders, whose names were deliberately not spelled out in order to teach that every group of three people which acted as a court over Israel enjoys the same authority as the court of Moshe, even if its level is not recognized and accepted.
Chapter 3 opens with "If the court and all of Israel saw it" – a situation in which everyone lifts their eyes to heaven and search for the new moon. The end of the chapter deals with Israel looking upward to heaven. Perhaps this also explains the location of the first mishna in the chapter. 
The end of chapter 4 is somewhat similar to its beginning. In the beginning of the chapter, we read:  "If the festive day of Rosh Hashana fell on Shabbat, they would blow the shofar in the Temple, but not elsewhere in the country." How, then, would the people in the rest of the country fulfill their obligation? It is possible that all of the people would fulfill their obligation with the shofar blast sounded in the Temple. This is similar to what is taught at the end of the chapter regarding the congregational reader's ability to exempt the entire congregation of their obligation, including "the people in the fields," who did not even hear the blessings of Malkhuyot, Zikhronot, and Shofarot, as is explained there in the gemara.
The end of the tractate may go back to something found at the beginning of the tractate, a matter that was taught in mishna 2. There we learned that on Rosh Hashana "all creatures pass before Him [God] like children of Maron." According to the explanation given in the gemara (18a), this means that they pass before Him one by one. This may be the basis of the first Tanna's position that the congregational reader cannot exempt the entire congregation of their obligation and that each and every individual must pray on his own, for on the day of judgment each person is tried individually. Rabban Gamliel, on the other hand, maintains that the congregational reader exempts the entire congregation of their obligation. He relies on the verse, "He that fashions the heart of them all" (Tehillim 33:15), on the basis of which R. Yochanan says in the Gemara (18a): "They are all viewed with a single glance." This being the case, they can all fulfill their obligation with the prayer of the congregational reader.
VIII. The Parallels between the Various Parts of the Tractate
As mentioned, there are two parts to the tractate, chapters 1-2 and chapters 3-4, and it is possible to identify parallels and relationships between the ends of the two parts.
At the end of chapter 2, we encounter a conflict between Rabban Gamliel and R. Yehoshua, whose opinion apparently reflected the opinion of most of the Sages. Similarly, at the end of the tractate we find a disagreement between Rabban Gamliel and the Sages. It is possible that the halakha that he establishes there that "the congregational reader exempts the congregation of their obligation" is connected in part to the firm position that he maintains at the end of chapter 2: The leader decides the matter and it is according to him that the month is sanctified.
Even the numbers used in the two mishnayot are the same, although they refer to different matters. At the end of chapter 2, we read of “every group of three that has acted as a court over Israel," and at the end of chapter 4 we learn that "the order of the blasts consists of three sets of three each."
IX. The Course of the Discussion in Chapters 1-2
More about numbers: As stated, the first two mishnayot in the tractate serve as two introductions to matters pertaining to Rosh Hashana and to the two parts of the tractate, and the discussion concerning sanctification of the month begins in mishna 3. On the face of it, it is puzzling that the discussion begins not with the initial stage of the testimony concerning the new moon, but with something more closely related to the end of the process – namely, that after the court sanctifies the month, messengers are sent out from Jerusalem to the Diaspora so that the Jews in the Diaspora would know on which day to celebrate the festivals. This mishna may have been pushed up because of a shared numerical element. The first two mishnayot mention numbers: "There are four new years"; "On four occasions the world is judged." The same is true about this mishna, which opens with a number: "There are six months in which messengers go out [from Jerusalem to the Diaspora]." This numerical relationship was already noted by the Melekhet Shelomo.[16]
Another connection between this mishna and the previous mishnayot is the matter of the festivals mentioned in them.
At this point, we come to a series of mishnayot that share the element of Shabbat desecration, which is permitted when necessary to enable testimony regarding sighting of the new moon. The series continues until 2:5. This is followed by a discussion regarding the examination of the witnesses, which continues until the end of the chapter.
X. Two Aspects of Rosh Hashana
This twofold image of the day of Rosh Hashana – Rosh Chodesh and Rosh Hashana – may reflect two different dimensions of this day.
Rosh Chodesh in its entirety is a uniquely Jewish phenomenon. The first mitzva received by Israel as a people is, "This month shall be to you the beginning of months" (Shemot 12:1), and Chazal expounded:
"This month shall be to you" – But the first man, Adam, did not mark time by it. You say "to you," but the first man did not mark time by it. Or perhaps: "You," and not the nations. When it says: "It shall be the first month of the year to you" – we say: "To you" and not to the nations… Thus, we learn that Israel marks time by the moon, whereas the nations by the sun.[17]
In contrast, Rosh Hashana as a day of judgment is universal. The mishna establishes (1:2): "On Rosh Hashana, all creatures pass before Him as children of Maron." In the Zikhronot blessing we say: "On it, sentence is pronounced upon countries for war or peace, for famine or abundance… Who is not called to account on this day?" And in the Malkhuyot blessing, we crown God as king over the entire world.[18] It is possible that by giving precedence to matters relating to the sanctification of the month, the Mishna alludes that the unique Jewish dimension precedes the universal dimension.
In this context, it is appropriate to consider the meaning of one of the Malkhuyot verses:
None sees iniquity in Yaakov,
none marks perverseness in Israel.
The Lord their God is with them,
and they shout (teru'at) in honor of their king. (Bemidbar 23:21)
The Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni understood the word teru'at in the sense of a shofar blast, but Rashi explains: "A term of affection and friendship." R. Saadya Gaon explains similarly: "The friendship of their king is given to them." The way that the King looks at Israel is not the same as the way He looks at the nations of the world. For Israel, God is a close and friendly king, a king whose face beams affection and is full of love.
(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] In Bava Batra 14b, this idea is used to explain why the prophecies of twelve different prophets from different eras were combined into one book, the book of Terei Asar. In fact, there is no extant Talmudic tractate that is less than three chapters long. This idea can also be used to explain why varous topics unrelated to Purim or the Megilla were included in tractate Megilla, why the laws of mourning were included in Mo’ed Katan, and the like. This was all done to "thicken" the tractates, so that they would suffice to stand on their own.
[2] The Ritva (chiddushim to Rosh Hashana 8a) brings a lengthy discussion concerning the gemara's statement: "Which is the feast on which the moon is covered over?" The Ritva summarizes by stating: "The correct understanding is: Which Rosh Chodesh is covered up, such that it does not rise in the heart, for we consider only the more important matter, and a person does not mention it at all, and everything that is done on that day is done for the sake of Rosh Hashana." According to our proposal, however, it is precisely on Rosh Chodesh Tishrei that people are especially aware of the determination of the day of Rosh Chodesh, for the day of Rosh Hashana is entirely dependent on it. We must therefore follow one of the other interpretations suggested there.
Another interpretation is that the “month is covered” refers to the usual significance of the new month, i.e., atonement. In the Musaf prayer recited on Rosh Chodesh we say, "You have assigned Rosh Chodesh to Your people for a time of atonement throughout their generations." This aspect of Rosh Chodesh – as a time of atonement – should be covered on Rosh Hashana, for Rosh Hashana is a day of judgment. The element of atonement will be emphasized and highlighted on Yom Kippur.
Another possibility is that the covering is by was of the shofar blast, for when they would sanctify the month, they would blow the shofar (see Sanhedrin 41b and Rashi, ad loc., s.v. shipura: "They would blow the shofar when sanctifying the month on the day that the month begins"). This was the case on every Rosh Chodesh with the exception of Rosh Chodesh Tishrei, when the shofar blast was “covered” so that there would be no confusion between that shofar blast and the obligatory shofar blasts of Rosh Hashana.
[3] See Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuva 3:4. The trumpet blasts on the festival days might come in part to arouse dread in anticipation of the judgment that is conducted on the festivals (on Pesach regarding grain, etc., as spelled out in the second mishna in the tractate).
[4] The principle of kingship is one of the central motifs of the day of Rosh Hashana.
[5] He was preceded by R. Shelomo Adani, who writes in his commentary, Melekhet Shelomo: "This is exceedingly difficult. Why did the Tanna leave this mishna, which deals with the sanctification of the month, and teach it in this chapter, which is entirely dedicated to the laws relating to the shofar, when it should have been included in the previous chapter?!"
[6] It is very difficult to accept the assumption of R. Y.N. Epstein (Mavo Le-Nusach Ha-Mishna [Jerusalem, 2000], p. 994) that there exist errors not only of copyists, but even of the Tannaim regarding the division of the tractates into chapters.
[7] An example of the approach of constraint is the solution proposed by R. Albeck, who explains that the mishna was pushed off to chapter 3 because the compiler of the Mishna wished to end chapter 2 on a more positive note. This does not explain why the compiler did not insert this mishna somewhere within chapter 2; for example, it would have been appropriate to place it after mishna 7.
Another possibility of constraint would be to assume that the compiler of the Mishna wished to include approximately the same number of mishnayot in each chapter: In chapter 1 there are 9 mishnayot, in chapter 2 there are 9 mishnayot, in chapter 3 there are 8 mishnayot, and in chapter 4 there are 9 mishnayot. Were the first mishna in chapter 3 transferred to chapter 2, the proportions would change altogether; chapter 2 would have 10 mishnayot, while chapter 3 would have only 7 mishnayot. (See Mavo Le-Nusach Ha-Mishna [n. 6 above], p. 999, which notes that the division into mishnayot predates the Yerushalmi and the Bavli.) But it is difficult to accept this proposal for several reasons. First, it would have been possible to split the mishnayot in chapter 3, thereby increasing their number. Furthermore, in the Rambam's Commentary to the Mishna, the division into mishnayot is different; chapter 2 is comprised of 10 mishnayot, whereas chapter 3 is made up of only 6 mishnayot. Moreover, we do not find in other places that the compiler of the Mishna was particular about the number of mishnayot in each chapter.
[8] He is apparently referring to what is stated later in the mishna that after the destruction of the Temple, R. Yochanan ben Zakkai enacted that the shofar is blown on Shabbat in all places where there is a court.
[9] R. David Cohen, Kol Ve-OrShevivei Orot Rosh Hashana (Jerusalem, 1987), pp. 151-152.
[10] This is a central idea in the Rav HaNazir's thought. See at length in his book, Kol Ha-Nevu'a – Ha-Higayon Ha-Ivri Ha-Shim'i (Jerusalem, 1970).
[11] Examples of such a connection can be found in Tractate Pe'ah, which deals with all of the mitzvot of gifts for the poor: pe'ah, leket, shikhecha, peret, and olalot. Instead of assigning separate chapters for each mitzva, mishnayot dealing with one gift are integrated, in a manner that appears deliberate, in a chapter dealing primarily with another gift. Thus, toward the end of chapter 4, the Mishna begins to deal with the laws of leket, and at the end of chapter 5 it begins to deal with the laws of shikhecha, which will continue until the beginning of chapter 7. There, however, the breach into other chapters is done with two mishnayot, and not one.
[12] There may, however, be a connection regarding intention: A deaf-mute, an idiot, and a minor, apart from the fact that they are not obligated in the mitzva, have an additional deficiency (which is apparently the reason for their not being obligated) – namely, they lack the requisite intention.
[13] There is a connection also to the next-to-last mishna, which states: "One who blows merely to practice does not thereby fulfill his religious obligation, nor does one who hears the blast made by another when practicing." Once again, this is close to and brings to mind what was stated at the end of chapter 3.
The end of chapter 3 describes the arms of Moshe that "do war." Moshe stands in prayer, while the people of Israel who are engaged in battle are unable to pray, and therefore it suffices that they direct their hearts heavenward. This is sort of an intermediate situation, in which one person stands in prayer and clears the obligation of others, provided that they direct their hearts heavenward.
[14] See Y. Kiehl's introduction to his Da'at Mikra commentary to the book of Shemuel (Jerusalem, 1981), pp. 16-17.
[15] Kings are mentioned before the festivals because their new year comes first; the new year for kings is on the first of Nisan, whereas the new year for festivals is on the fifteenth of the month.
[16] The next mishna, mishna 4, also opens with a number, "For two months," but that is the beginning of a new series of mishnayot that deal with a single issue, whereas mishna 3 stands on its own.
[17] Mekhilta De-Rabbi Yishmael, Masekhta De-Pischa Bo, parasha 1 (ed. Horowitz-Rabin, p. 7).
[18] In Rosh Hashana 32b, R. Yehuda and R. Yose discuss the verses: "Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our king, sing praises. For God is the King of all the earth; sing you praises in a skillful song" (Tehillim 47:7-8). R. Yose counts here two mentions of kingship, whereas R. Yehuda counts only one. Rashi explains: "R. Yehuda does not count 'sing praises to our king,' because he crowns Him as king of only one nation."