Thursday, March 03, 2005

The Eternity of the Torah V

Months of the Year

I. Changing Months

R. Yosef Albo, in his Sefer Ha-Ikkarim (3:16) poses a number of challenges to the principle of the eternity of the Torah. Let us examine one of these questions.

He notes that the Torah (Ex. 12:2) commands: "This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you." In other words, the month that we now call Nissan must be the first month of the year and we must count the months of the year beginning from it. Nissan must be the first month and, after it, the second month and then the third month, etc. And that is how the Bible consistently refers to the months - the first, the second,... This is all to remind us that God redeemed us from Egypt. Our counting dates from the time of the Exodus is meant to maintain in our minds that we were taken out of Egypt.

However, when the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile they retained the Babylonian names of the months - Nissan, Iyar, Sivan, etc. They no longer referred to the months as had been done previously in the Bible, by their orders, but by their Babylonian names. This seems to contradict an earlier command. Evidently, the commandment in Ex. 12:2, which obligates us to refer to the months in a way that causes us to remember that we were redeemed from Egypt, was changed when the Jews were redeemed from Babylonia. Instead of maintaining a calendar that reminds us of our redemption from Egypt, we now use a calendar that reminds us of our redemption from Babylonia. A mitzvah from the Torah has been switched! R. Albo points out that this is a clear challenge to the principle that the commandments are eternal and will never be switched.

R. Albo certainly based his question on the Ramban's commentary to Ex. 12:2. The Ramban is the one who explained that the rationale of the commandment to count months from Nissan is so that we constantly remember that we were redeemed from Egypt and he also pointed out that when the Jews returned from Babylonia they retained the Babylonian names for the months in order to remember that God redeemed them from that exile. See also the commentaries of Rabbenu Bahya ben Asher and the Tur (long commentary), ad loc. and the Derashos R. Yehoshua Ibn Shu'ib. The Ramban writes: "Every time we mention the months, the miracle will be remembered." The Tur adds: "When one says 'the first month' it means the first from the Exodus from Egypt. And so with the second and third, we always remember the miracle." Therefore, when the returnees from Babylonia changed the names of the months, they removed this obligated remembrance of the Exodus.

II. Establishing a Calendar

One answer to this challenge is simply that the premise is not universally acknowledged. It seems that there are rishonim who disagree with the Ramban that there is a commandment to refer to months in common usage by their order from the Exodus. A baraisa in Rosh Hashanah 7a states that the month of Nissan is the "new year" for years. The Rashba, in his novellae, explains that the practical relevance of this status for Nissan is that through it we can identify and anchor the times of the biblical holidays. The holidays in the Bible are located in the "the seventh month" or "the third month" and one might assume that we can start counting months at any point and determine the place of the holidays by counting from our arbitrary starting point. That is why we are commanded to begin counting from Nissan. It is the first month of the year for determining when the holidays occur. This is also the view of the Ran and the Ritva. According to these scholars, the commandment of making Nissan the first month is not that we have to refer in our daily conversation to all months based on their order from Nissan, but to determine the annual calendar by starting from Nissan. If that is the case, then R. Albo's question falls aside.

III. Counting Months

However, this question can be answered even according to the Ramban's view. R. Ya'akov Ibn Habib, in his Ha-Kosev commentary to the Ein Ya'akov (Megillah, p. 8 sv. od kasav), writes that we are obligated to count months from Nissan. However, assigning names to months does not reflect on that obligation because the names are not referring to months in numerical order. Even if we call the month Nissan, we are not changing it from the first to the seventh month. If, however, we were to call it the seventh month, then we would be violating the commandment to count months from Nissan. He adds that if we were to say that Reuven borrowed money in the month of March or April we are still not circumventing this commandment, as long as we do not refer to March as the third month or April as the fourth month. This is also the approach of the Maharal in Tiferes Yisrael, ch. 64.

Therefore, according to R. Ya'akov Ibn Habib and the Maharal, when the returnees from Babylonia retained the Babylonian names for the months, they did not in any way circumvent, violate or change the biblical commandment to count months from Nissan. Cf. Yefeh To'ar (unabridged) to Vayikra Rabbah 13:3.

While R. Ya'akov Ibn Habib answeres R. Albo's question, he stated something somewhat surprising. He clearly implied, and later posekim note this explicitly, that referring to March as the third month (i.e. counting months from January) is a violation of the commandment to count months from Nissan. Thus, to refer to today's date as 3/3/05 is prohibited. I find this difficult because a Jewish month (hodesh) is one lunar cycle. When counting days, there is no obligation to begin with Nissan. When counting weeks, there is no obligation to begin with Nissan. When counting years, there is certainly no obligation to begin with Nissan. Then why, when counting solar months, is there any obligation to begin counting from Nissan? March is not a hodesh but a solar month. Therefore, there should be nothing preventing us from calling March the third solar month.

The Pesikta De-Rav Kahana (ch. 5 p. 46a) states: "The nations of the world count according to the sun and Israel to the moon." [Cf. Torah Shelemah, Bo ch. 12 nos. 32, 34 and in the notes.] R. Eliezer of Metz writes similarly in his Yere'im (103) that "hodesh" specifically implies a lunar month. The Kuzari (3:35) writes that without the Oral Torah we might have thought that the verse (Ex. 12:2) refers to solar months but the Oral Torah teaches us that it does not - it only refers to lunar months. The Rashbatz (Magen Avos, part 2 ch. 2) repeats this. See also the Seforno's commentary to Deut. 16:3. If the commandment is only to count lunar months from Nissan, then there should be no reason to refrain from counting solar months from January. (I heard this reasoning forcefully argued by R. Lipa Geldwerth a number of years ago.)

IV. Prophetic Tradition

However, it seems that none of these answers are necessary, even if they are nevertheless true. The simple answer is that the returnees from Babylonia found prophetic dispensation to change the names of the month. Jeremiah (23:7-8):

Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it shall no longer be said, "As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt," but "As the Lord lives who brought out and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where I had driven them."
The prophet surely did not dispute a biblical commandment on his own. Rather, he must have had a tradition that the commandment is to use the names of the months as a way to remember the most recent Divine redemption. Since the prophet's words were not rejected as contradicting the Torah, there must have been an oral tradition on the matter and the prophet "came and connected it to a verse" (cf. Sanhedrin 22b).

This is the explanation that the Maharatz Chajes gives (Toras Nevi'im, Ma'amar Hukas Olam in Kol Sifrei Maharatz Chajes, vol. 1 p. 74), as does R. Hershel Schachter (Be-Ikvei Ha-Tzon, ch. 2). With this approach, R. Schachter explains how certain laws - such as when a child becomes an adult and when the anniversary of a death falls out - can be affected by the name of the month (e.g. whether it happens in the first Adar or the second). There must have been an oral tradition about this matter that the prophet recorded and upon which the returnees acted.

Additionally, a careful reading of the Sefer Ha-Ikkarim reveals that R. Yosef Albo, in 3:19, also proposes this answer:
That Israel listened to Jeremiah to nullify the count of the months, as we said, it is possible that they did this because they found a verse and expounded upon it, as Tosafos wrote in the beginning of Megillah... and their intention was not to nullify the words of Moses but to make a memorial to the second redemption like they did to the first, for they had received a tradition that it was proper to make for it a remembrance as long as they do not uproot the Exodus from Egypt from its place.
(B"n more to come)

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