What’s going on here

Some questions which may be considered in reflecting upon the Dispute over the calendar:

1.     Why does it matter who controls the calendar?

2.     Why does Rabban Gamaliel react sharply to Rabbi Yehoshua but not at all to the other rabbis?

3.     Why does Rabbi Yehoshua struggle with acquiescing to Rabban Gamaliel on this issue?

4.     What convinces R. Yehoshua to acquiesce?

5.     What can we learn from how Rabban Gamaliel receives Rabbi Yehoshua?


To control the calendar is to assert one’s authority over the community as being legitimate. Note how Rabban Gamaliel does not react to the perceived threat to his authority until the disgruntlement includes Rabbi Yehoshua, a sage whose seniority is on par with his own, and who therefore cannot be ignored. Rabban Gamaliel realizes that the fabric of the community would be unraveled if every sage determined for himself the dates of a major holiday such as Yom Kippur. Rabbi Yehoshua feels just as strongly that Rabban Gamaliel’s determination of the date rests on problematic testimony, and he feels he must observe Yom Kippur on the “right” day. By commanding Rabbi Yehoshua to appear before him as though it were an ordinary day (money is not carried on Yom Kippur), Rabban Gamaliel is forcing Rabbi Yehoshua to either rebel openly or to capitulate to his authority.


Rabbi Yehoshua is persuaded to acquiesce to Rabban Gamaliel’s demand by Rabbi Dosa and Rabbi Akiva. These colleagues discourage the course of open rebellion on the grounds of textual interpretation, called midrash. For Rabbi Akiva’s midrash, certain dates are Jewish holidays if and only if they have been “declared” as such by a duly constituted authority. According to this view, the result of a “scientific” investigation and critical analysis of the witnesses’ testimony matters no more than the opinion of a random observer in the gallery of a trial. It is the opinion of the judge in a trial that ultimately matters and the “judge” of the Jewish calendar is the rabbi with the title “Rabban.” Interestingly, modern philosophical studies on how language works have arrived at an insight similar to Rabbi Akiva’s (cf. J.L. AustinHow To Do Things With Words). According to Rabbi Dosa’s midrash, not only is it the judgment of the duly constituted authority which is determinative, to question a particular ruling is to set a precedent for calling into question any ruling throughout the history of Judaism; a threat which risks undermining the very basis for rabbinic authority.   


Rabbi Yehoshua becomes reconciled to violating his Yom Kippur, though it is not clear to what extent he is motivated by the arguments posed by his allies or, perhaps, to the realization that he may not be able to count on their political support. Rabban Gamaliel receives him graciously. This is Rabban Gamaliel at his best; the consummate politician. He demonstrates great respect for a humbled Rabbi Yehoshua, even as he affirms the latter’s subordinate position with elegance and simplicity. However, as we see in a future episode, the terms of reconciliation may not prove stable.    

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Dispute over the calendar

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