Last Thursday, a Biblical commandment that hasn’t been seen in 2,000 years was fulfilled. In the Cardo neighborhood of the Old City of Jerusalem, two witnesses stood before the Sanhedrin and gave testimony that established the beginning of the new month.
Setting the new month by witnesses is considered by Rashi, a prominent commentator on the Bible, to be the first mitzvah (Biblical commandment) the Nation of Israel received after leaving Egypt. With great spiritual meaning, establishing the calendar is far more than a convenience. It is so important that it takes precedence over the Sabbath. In Biblical times, witnesses were permitted to break the Sabbath in order to arrive in Jerusalem and stand before the Sanhedrin.
Professor Hillel Weiss, spokesman and secretary of the Sanhedrin, explained the significance to Breaking Israel News.
“On a simple level, without this mitzvah, we are saying that God does not exist in nature or the passage of time, that nature runs like mechanical clockwork,” Professor Weiss said.
On a technical level, the event was a step in the process of correcting the Hebrew calendar. By Biblical law, the new month for the Hebrew calendar was established by reliable witnesses appearing before the Sanhedrin. Hillel II, president of the Sanhedrin in the fourth century, established a written calendar based on astronomical calculations. This calendar, still in use, standardized the length of months and the addition of months in leap years over the course of a 19-year cycle, so that the lunar calendar realigns with the solar years.
In the times of the Temple, the new month would be established by both calculation and by witnesses appearing before the Sanhedrin. When the Temple was destroyed and the Sanhedrin disbanded, the Hebrew calendar was figured solely according to the astrological calculations and the template established by Hillel II.
It is remarkable that Hillel II’s calculations stood for as long as they did. However, 1,700 years later, there are discrepancies between his calendar and the astronomical reality. This is a serious problem the Sanhedrin is taking steps to gradually fix.
“Though we have received witnesses in the past, this is the first time we have done so publicly, which is an essential part of the mitzvah,” Professor Weiss explained.
“The only thing lacking is for all of Israel to agree on one central authority for this,” he continued. “This is just one of many mitzvot we neglect merely because we haven’t done them for so long. There is no other reason not to do this and raise Judaism.”
Professor Weiss expanded on the idea. “For 2,000 years we practiced Judaism a certain way. Even though we are in Israel, the Torah and mitzvot are still in galut (diaspora). There are many practical things we could do, and in truth, should do, to make Judaism richer and more like it was in the times of the Temple.”
Joshua Wander, a resident of the Mount of Olives who attended, thought the event was clearly necessary. “Things come up when you actually do these things, dilemmas that you could never anticipate from just sitting in Yeshiva and learning from a book.
“For example, the witnesses were questioned by the Sanhedrin. They were asked where in the sky it was, what direction the moon was facing, what time it was exactly. It seemed that the witnesses were not prepared for this level of questioning, which is dictated by the Talmud. One of them asked if he could look at a photo from his cell phone. After consultation, the Sanhedrin ruled that it was permissible.”
The Sanhedrin’s declaration of the new month was preceded by a ceremony recreating the Temple service. The ceremony, intended for instructional and not religious purposes, did not include slaughtering an animal, though in many other respects it was absolutely authentic. The musical instruments, and vessels, provided by the Temple Institute, were made to Biblical specifications. The priests were kohanim, members of the Jewish priestly class. Dressed in holy garments, they performed the priestly blessing. A small scale model of the altar was also set up, and a grain offering was burnt on it.