Aramaic Literature – Part 7 – The MishnahThe eighth treatise in Mo’ed is Rosh Hashanah. This literally means “the head of the year,” or “the first of the year,” thus it is the New Year celebration. In our modern calendar, Rosh Hashanah occurs in September. It corresponds to the first day of the seventh month in the Old Testament liturgical calendar (Leviticus 23). The celebration of Rosh Hashanah seems to be a post-biblical development. In the Old Testament period there seems to have been two calendars, a religious (summarized in Lev 23) that started in the spring, and a civil calendar, that started in the fall. According to Edmund Thiele, the use of these different calendars account for some of the apparent discrepancies between the chronologies of the Israelite and Judean kings between the time of Solomon, and the destruction of Solomon’s temple (see his major work The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings). In the post-biblical period, this civil calendar has become the primary calendar for the reckoning of Jewish dates. As a result, Rosh Hashanah occurs at the beginning of the liturgical seventh month.
The treatise “Rosh Hashanah,” besides dealing with Rosh Hashanah proper, also deals with other calendar-related issues. It treats, for example, the shofar, which is the horn blown to announce the arrival of the day. It also deals with various other issues related to setting the calendar, since the Jewish calendar is lunar, and occasionally a thirteenth month must be added in order to keep the calendar in line with the seasons. This also explains why it is that Jewish holy days do not always fall on the same days in our calendar. In that way, the determination of the Jewish calendar is a little like the determination of Easter in the Christian calendar. In Western Christianity, the date of Easter is determined as the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal (spring) equinox (when the sun’s orbit recrosses the equator).
Following the treatise on Rosh Hashanah, the Mishnah deals with issues relative to fasting in the treatise Ta’anith. This treatise on fasting not only defines the practices related to fasting, but also sets out certain prayers. There are two full fast days, defined as lasting from sunset until full darkness the following evening. These are Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement, the only regular fast day mentioned in the Pentateuch) and the 9th of Av, which commemorates the destruction of the temple. Several other minor fasts are discussed. These minor fasts last only from dawn to sunset. In this feature, the Jewish minor fasts are like the fasting of Ramadan the Muslim month of fasting. In that month, the fasting lasts during the daylight hours of each day of the month, but does not include nighttime hours.
The tenth treatise in Mo’ed is Megillah (scroll). It deals with the practices related to Purim. The name comes from the fact that the Book of Esther, which explains the origin of Purim, is one of the Five Scrolls that is read at particular times during the Jewish year. Obviously, Esther is read at Purim. Song of Songs is read at Passover. Ruth is read at Pentecost (the Feast of Weeks). Lamentations is read on the 9th of Av. Ecclesiastes is read at the Feast of Tabernacles.
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