March 17, 2007
Shabbat Hahodesh is the fourth special Shabbat preceding Pesah. Its special maftir Torah reading recounts the taking of the lamb in preparation for the Korban Pesah – the Passover sacrifice. Its haftarah was chosen because the Prophet Ezekiel recounts special sacrifices offered during the first month of the year (Nisan), as well as the Passover sacrifice. Much ink has been spilled over the fact that many of the sacrifices mentioned in this passage from Ezekiel are different from those found in the Torah. (See my drashah for the year 5761.) In particular, Ezekiel calls for an inaugural sacrifice on the first day of the first month to ritually purify the Temple: \”Thus said the Lord God: On the first day of the first month, you shall take a bull of the herd with out blemish, and you shall cleanse the sanctuary.\” (verse 18) and a second sacrifice, described in these words: \”You shall do the same on the seventh day of the month (basheeva bahodesh) to purge the Temple from uncleanness caused by unwitting or ignorant people.\” (verse 20)
The first sacrifice is generally understood to have been an inaugural offering. (See Rashi and Radak.) What then was the purpose of the second offering and when was it to be offered? In part, the answer to these questions depends on the meaning of the words \”basheeva bahodesh\”, generally translated as \”on the seventh day of the month\”. The modern scholar, R. Kasher points out that while he agrees with this understanding, still, the phrasing of these words is unusual in Biblical Hebrew. (Ezekiel, Mikra L\’Yisrael, p. 889)
This ambiguity led to a number of different interpretations. The Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Bible, translated these words \”in the seventh month\”, meaning that this second sacrifice happened not in the month of Nisan but rather in Tishrei, the month of the fall festivals. (Ibid.) Consequently, it played the same role as the first sacrifice. This interpretation was also accepted by Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman (19th century Germany). (Peirush L\’sefer Vayikra Vol. 2 p.130) Rashi, on the other hand, understood this phase to mean that this sacrifice was offered each of the first seven days of the month of Nisan in order to atone for Temple\’s altar. Rabbi David Kimche emphasized that this offering would be a future innovation and that it would be offered only on the seventh day. Its purpose would be to atone for sins committed on the Temple\’s sacrificial altar by accidental trespass by those who were overtaken by their rejoicing.
The Talmud, when it takes on this verse, seems challenged by two issues. One is obviously the meaning of the words \”basheeva bahodesh\” and the other concerns the fact that the sacrifice mentioned in this verse was not mentioned in the Torah. In the following passage, Rabbi Yochanan\’s interpretation veers from the \”pshat\” or plain meaning of the text but offers an interesting insight by radically reinterpreting the meaning of each part of the verse: \’Seven\’, says Rabbi Yochanan, refers to a sin committed by seven [of the twelve tribes, which constitute a majority of the tribes] even though they do not constitute the majority of the community. \’Hodesh – month\’ [is taken to mean instead \’hadash – new\’, [implies that the sages] decided a new law that something which is really prohibited is now permitted. \’Unwitting or ignorant people\’ – [comes to] teach that [in such a situation] the community is liable [to bring a special sin offering] when the ruling of the court was made in ignorance and the transgression [of the community] was made in error [by following the ruling of the court]. (adapted from Menahoth 45a)
This passage uses this verse as a vehicle to tell us that the sages were aware that their colleagues were capable of making mistakes in their judgments and that their mistaken decisions might potentially lead the community to sin by following their judgment. In situations like this, the sages held both the community and the sages, who accidentally misled them, liable to God for the accidental misjudgment. Neither courts nor people are perfect. The tradition appreciates this reality, but still, both leaders and the community must bear responsibility for their actions.