I Love This Story

I am looking forward to tomorrow morning. I teach the  5th grade class at the Hebrew Day School in Ann Arbor for one hour each Friday morning and tomorrow I plan to teach one of my favorite stories from Jewish tradition.

The class is in Mishna and we’ve been talking about the Jewish calendar over the past few weeks and studying the sections of the Mishna in Masechet Rosh Hodesh which deal with the sighting of the New Moon marking the beginning of the new month. The Mishna discusses in detail the process by which witnesses would come to Jerusalem to testify that they had seen the new moon. If the testimony was accepted, the new month was declared.

The Mishna goes on to tell this wonderful story:

Rabban Gamliel, the head of the Rabbinic court, was approached by two witnesses who claimed they saw the new moon at one point but then subsequently did not see it. Rabban Gamliel, who was apparently somewhat lenient in his acceptance of testimony accepted their statement as proof that the New Moon had arrived. Rabbi Dosa ben Herkanas scoffed at this and rejected their testimony and Rabbi Yehoshua, a prominent Rabbi, agreed with his hesitation.

There now was a serious problem among the Jewish people. There could be only one calendar if the people were to be united. So, Rabban Gamliel needed to put a stop to this disagreement. So,  he ordered Rabbi Yehoshua to come to him on the day that Rabbi Yehoshua thought was Yom Kippur carrying his walking stick and money with him (I always add in teaching this story to kids that he probably told him to eat an apple as well), all things which are forbidden on Yom Kippur in order to prove that Rabban Gamliel’s calendar was correct.

Rabbi Yehoshua is stuck in a bad situation. He seeks the advice of other Rabbis and Rabbi Akiva says to him that he must accept Rabban Gamliel’s decision or else we would always question the decisions made by any Rabbinic Court.

So, Rabbi Yehoshua, reluctantly perhaps, gives in and goes to Rabban Gamliel with his walking stick and money in his hand on the day that Yom Kippur would have fallen if his calendar was accepted.

And, here is the beautiful part of the story.

As he comes to him, Rabban Gamliel stands up,  kisses Rabbi Yehoshua and says to him: Bo bishalom, come in peace, my teacher and my student. My teacher in wisdom and my student in that you accepted my words.

Once he had made his decision it was impossible for Rabban Gamliel to admit he was wrong. Perhaps he learned to make better decisions in the future. But, at this moment, he had to go along with what he had begun. Rabbi Yehoshua got very good advice from Rabbi Akiva: avoid the confrontation, accept the decision.

This is a story about the way Jewish law works and how important both authority and sensitivity are to the process of making halachic decisions. Rabban Gamliel had to do what he did but he did it in the gentlest way possible, publicly thanking his student for accepting his word and avoiding the temptation to humiliate him, acknowledging that he had learned something very important from him. What did he learn from him? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Come in peace my teacher and my student. I love that last line because I, like any teacher, have learned so much from my students and that really comes first.

I wonder what I’ll learn from my students tomorrow morning.

May God bless all school children and all students everywhere.


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