To Everything There Is a Season − or Two / Parashat Devarim / Shabbat Hazon

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Yakov Z. Meyer

The Sabbath preceding Tisha B’Av, the fast day that commemorates the destruction of the Temple, is called Shabbat Hazon ‏(the Sabbath of Vision‏) because of the haftarah read that day, which begins with the words: “The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz” ‏(Isaiah 1:1‏). In the haftarah, the prophet Isaiah rebukes the Children of Israel for their moral flaws, and in effect his words, in the first-person singular, express God’s disgust with improper worship at the Temple: “Your new moons and your appointed seasons [holidays and festivals] My soul hateth; they are a burden unto Me; I am weary to bear them” ‏(Isa. 1:14‏).

Anchored in the chronology of ritual events, time is supposed to serve as an instrument that facilitates the encounter between God and his people. However, that people’s sinful conduct angers him now, and he is willing to forgo the chronological parameters. The phrase “[y]our new moons and your appointed seasons” is a rhetorical device that transforms the point in time that once “belonged” to both sides into a sterile, chronological coordinate. God is saying to the Israelites: “These are your holidays, not mine.”

A midrash discusses God’s apparent writ of indictment against Israel in a Pauline-like scenario, in which a gentile debates with Rabbi Akiva: “One day a gentile asked Rabbi Akiva: Why do you people celebrate holidays? Has God not told all of you, ‘Your new moons and your appointed seasons my soul hateth’? Rabbi Akiva replied: If God had said, ‘My new moons and my appointed seasons’ − I would have asked the same question. However, the phrase is: ‘Your new moons and your appointed seasons.’ The reference is to appointed seasons established by Jeroboam, as it is written, ‘And Jeroboam ordained a feast in the eighth month, on the fifteenth day of the month, like unto the feast that is in Judah, and he went up unto the altar; so did he in Beth-el, to sacrifice unto the calves ... and he ordained a feast for the children of Israel’ ‏(1 Kings 12:32-33‏). However, the new moons and the appointed seasons established by God will never be canceled. Why? Because they belong to God, as it is written: ‘These are the appoin

ted seasons of the Lord’ ‏(Leviticus 23:4‏). Furthermore, it is also written, ‘And Moses declared ... the appointed seasons of the Lord’ ‏(Lev. 23:44‏). That is why they will never be canceled. Concerning God’s new moons and seasons, for, ‘They are established for ever and ever, they are done in truth and uprightness’ ‏(Psalms 111:8‏)” ‏(Midrash Tanhuma, Pinhas 13‏).

The gentile’s question is seemingly provoked by what is stated in the Book of Isaiah. If God is disgusted with the new moons and appointed seasons − why do his people continue to celebrate them? In his reply, Rabbi Akiva places the prophet’s prophecy in a historical context and constructs a new concept of time accordingly.

To prevent his subjects from making pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem, Jeroboam, son of Nebat, the first monarch of the Kingdom of Israel, declares a new holiday, to be celebrated in Marheshvan, the eighth month. ‏(According to the Bible, Nissan, the month when Passover is celebrated, is the first month; Tishrei, when Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are observed, is the seventh.‏) Jeroboam celebrates on the “month which he had devised of his own heart” ‏(1 Kings 12:33‏) and offers sacrifices on the altar that he built “in the hill-country of Ephraim” ‏(1 Kings 12:25‏).

According to Rabbi Akiva, Isaiah is referring to the holiday that Jeroboam invented − not the “appointed seasons of the Lord,” which are celebrated year in and year out. These seasons, as Rabbi Akiva deduces from the description in Leviticus of events on the Jewish calendar, are those “of the Lord” − as opposed to those of the people; for that reason, they “will never be canceled.” Rabbi Akiva distinguishes between two chronological systems: One is human, as embodied by Jeroboam, who invents his own festivals; the other is a divine, supreme system of time, which never changes.

According to Isaiah, time is a dynamic entity in which each “appointed season” constitutes an encounter between God and his nation − although when Israel’s hands “are full of blood” ‏(Isa. 1:15‏), God can cancel that meeting. However, to effectively respond to his gentile interlocutor’s Pauline-like query, Rabbi Akiva is forced to harden this concept of time − to turn it into something that is eternal. The so-called appointed season is thus transformed from an occasion on which God and his people meet into a manifestation of the Creator’s eternal dominion.

An additional, fascinating Mishnah further attests to Rabbi Akiva’s perception of time. In the Mishnah Tractate Rosh Hashanah, the subject of the sanctification of the new moon is discussed. The Mishnah presents the story of witnesses who come before the rabbinical court to testify that they saw the new moon the night before. Determination of the timing of the new moon is fixed on the basis of their report, but the following night, the moon is not seen. Although their testimony was ostensibly incorrect, Rabban Gamliel, head of the supreme Sanhedrin court in Yavneh, still marks the new month according to it.

However, according to the Mishnah, Rabbi Joshua issues a counter-ruling that the new month must be fixed after that date. It is the beginning of the month of Tishrei and determination of the date of the new moon also establishes the dates of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Rabban Gamliel challenges Rabbi Joshua in a message: “I hereby decree that you must come to see me with your staff and with your wallet on the day that the fast of Yom Kippur falls, according to your calculations.” If Rabbi Joshua accepts Rabban Gamliel’s decree, he will desecrate Yom Kippur, as determined by his own calculations. If he does not accept the decree, he will violate the instructions of the supreme religious authority.

“Rabbi Akiva has found Rabbi Joshua in great distress. Rabbi Akiva said to him: I must learn that whatever Rabban Gamliel decrees is proper, as it is written, ‘These are the appointed seasons of the Lord, even holy convocations, which ye shall proclaim’ [Lev. 23:4]. Whether they fall on the proper date or not, these alone, says God, are my appointed seasons’” ‏(Mishnah, Tractate Rosh Hashanah, 2:9‏).

Upon hearing Rabbi Akiva’s words and those of another scholar, Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas, who speaks in favor of the authority of the Sanhedrin in Yavneh, Rabbi Joshua decides to obey Rabban Gamliel.

In his conversation with the gentile, Rabbi Akiva teaches that God’s “appointed seasons” are contrary to those of man − that human holidays are worthless and ephemeral, and that God’s holidays will be celebrated forever. However, in his conversation with Rabbi Joshua, using the same verse, Rabbi Akiva expands on this subject. While the seasons in question belong to God, man has the task of sanctifying the new moon and thereby fixing the dates of the seasons on the calendar. The “appointed season” thus once more means an encounter between man and God − not as the prophet Isaiah presents it, as a date on which both sides meet, but rather as the interface between two systems of time: a collaboration, as it were, between the supreme, eternal, divine system and the human system; the latter shapes the divine system but is also biased, reflecting political considerations.

Isaiah’s dynamic concept of chronology is rendered inflexible by Rabbi Akiva in his conversation with the gentile and is broken down into two parallel systems. But something of Isaiah’s perception and flexibility is restored and revealed in the story about Rabbi Joshua, albeit in a different way. There, like Isaiah before him, Rabbi Akiva uses the first-person singular to convey God’s words in Leviticus 23:4. Through the voice of the rabbi, the Almighty declares, in essence: “Whether they fall on the proper date or not, these alone are my appointed seasons.” God is saying, “Even if the Children of Israel have been mistaken in the fixing of the proper dates, my appointed seasons cannot fall on any other dates.”

An axis can be drawn from the prophet Isaiah to the Tannaitic scholar Rabbi Akiva, both figures who used the same person to “quote” God, an axis from God’s disgust with the timing of the new moons and the holidays celebrated by sinners to a divine reconciliation in the context of the covenant between him and his people − despite their mistake in determining dates. This is an axis that reflects development. To use the Aramaic phrase lulei demistafina ‏(“were I not afraid”‏) − I would almost venture to say that it is also an axis that reflects a process of growing maturity.

'Jeroboam’s Sacrifice at Bethel,' by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1656).