A Great Orthodox Rabbi Offered a Huge Unorthodox Idea

Rashbam (1085) was the grandson of the famed Bible and Talmud commentators Rashi (1040-1105) and brother to the famed Rabbeinu Tam (1100-1171). Rashbam’s commentary to the Torah is very rational, so much so that the far right modern volume ArtScroll deletes some of his comments. The following is a chapter from my latest book, “Mysteries of Judaism: How the Rabbis and Others Changed Judaism.”

 

                                                                  Was the Great Sage Rashbam Orthodox?

 

We have seen that Jews are not required to believe everything that the general population of Jews believe because, as in all cultures and religions, the general population is made up of people who are insufficiently educated, rely on superstitious teachings, and live their lives with erroneous ideas. Educated people should study the laws of nature, think for themselves, and discard the foolish notions of the multitude. However, to sustain social harmony and to avoid disassociating oneself from Judaism it is necessary for Jews to follow traditional Jewish practices. Orthodox is a word created from two Greek roots; it implies acceptance of the “beliefs” of the general population. Orthopractic, also based on two Greek words, describes a person who rejects many beliefs of the general population but follows their “practices.”

Being Orthopractic

Many of the great Jewish thinkers were orthopractic and not orthodox because their intellect made it impossible for them to accept all the notions held by the masses. These people included Maimonides, Abraham ibn Ezra, Rashbam, and many others.

Rashbam, as stated previously, rejected the notion that the Torah day began in the evening and explained that day in the Bible began at daybreak. According to his view, Jews celebrate Shabbat at the wrong time. While his understanding is contrary to the generally accepted belief, no one would say that Rashbam – the grandson of Rashi, and the author of renowned Bible and Talmud commentaries – was not a well-respected Jew.

Rashbam highlights his view that the biblical day began at daybreak in his commentary on Genesis 1:5. The Torah states that God performed certain acts of creation on the first day; then there was evening and then morning when the first day ended and God began new activities for the second day.

Apparently, the Jews changed the biblical practice during their exile in Babylon during the sixth century BCE. The temple ritual, however, did not change; sacrifices during the Second Temple period continued to start during the morning, as they did before the biblical practice was changed.[1]

This fact is seen in Exodus 12:10 in regard to the Paschal sacrifice that had to be brought and eaten on the fourteenth day of the first month, now called Nissan. The Torah states that it could only be “eaten until morning” when the fourteenth day ended.

Similarly, Leviticus 7:15 states that the thanksgiving and peace offerings must be “eaten on the day of the offering; he shall not leave any of it until morning” because that is when the new day started.

This is why Leviticus 6:2 requires that the fire of the sacrifice offered during the day should burn on the altar all night. If the day started at night in biblical times, as it does in Judaism now, the daily offerings should have been brought at night when the day officially started, and the Torah should have required that the priests let the fire of these offerings remain on the altar until the next nightfall.

While it was clear to Rashbam that the biblical day began in the morning, he followed Jewish law, which stipulated that the day begins at night. In doing so, Rashbam made a sharp distinction between his understanding of the Torah law and the way he practiced the law. He also made crystal clear that he recognized that Judaism and its laws change over time; even the Sabbath is not observed today at the time that the Torah mandates.

Not Separating from the Community

Rabbi Joshua, like Rashbam, struggled with the tension between belief and practice. The Talmud[2] reports that Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah, one of the senior rabbinic leaders after the destruction of the Second Temple, rejected the testimony of witnesses who claimed to have seen the first sliver of the moon for the month of Tishrei, the month in which the holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot fall. The witnesses’ testimony was accepted by Rabban Gamaliel the Patriarch – the leader of the Jewish community and the head of the Jewish court. As a result, Rabbi Joshua held that the holidays, including Yom Kippur, fell on different days than those proclaimed by Rabban Gamaliel and his court.

This disagreement threatened to challenge the authority of the rabbinical court. Accordingly, Rabban Gamaliel sent a message to Rabbi Joshua, saying: “I command you to come to me with your staff and money on the day of Yom Kippur according to your calculation.” Rabbi Joshua was faced with a dilemma: On the one hand he had to comply with the order of the patriarch. On the other hand, he felt that carrying a staff and money on the day he knew was Yom Kippur would be a violation of the law.

Knowing of Rabbi Joshua’s quandary, Rabbi Akiva sought to help him. Rabbi Akiva quoted Leviticus 23:4 in support of Rabban Gamaliel’s position: “These are the seasons of the Lord, the holy assemblies, which you shall proclaim.” The verse is understood to mean that God has given the rabbis the right to decide when the month begins and their decision on this matter is decisive. Hearing this, Rabbi Joshua was persuaded. The Talmud relates:

He took his staff and money in his hand and went to Yavneh to Rabban Gamaliel on the day he [Rabban Gamliel] had calculated to be the Day of Atonement. Rabban Gamaliel stood up and kissed him on his head and said to him: “Come in peace, my rabbi and my pupil; my rabbi in wisdom, and my pupil, because you accepted my words.”

This Talmudic tale teaches that Jews, such as the exceptionally wise Rabbi Joshua, must think for themselves but retain Jewish practices of the general population. The rabbis are not telling Jews that intelligent individuals must abandon their views. They can continue to think as they wish, but must conform their behavior to the majority, for to do otherwise would endanger the survival of society.

 

[1] Probably at the same time ancient Jews changed when the year starts. Exodus 12 states that the month of the exodus is the first month. It is the month when Passover occurs. Today, despite the clear biblical rule, the year starts on the first day of the seventh month and that day was given the name Rosh Hashanah, New Year, a name that is not in the Bible.

[2] Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 25a, and Mishna Rosh Hashanah 2:9.

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