Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Teshuva: Out Like a Light
A common misconception: In the olden times, people did not know
as much as we do today about the cycles of the heavenly bodies, so
they needed eye-witnesses to testify to the first visibility of the new-
moon in order to know when Rosh Chodesh should be. Today, with
advanced knowledge of astronomy and mathematics, and with
computers and all that, we don't need witnesses.
In the olden times, the heavenly cycles were well studied and known.
The position of the moon was known at all times. In fact, the
Rambam (Maimonides) says that it is a mitzva incumbent upon the
Sanhedrin (High Court) to make the necessary calculations in order
to be able to tell if the witnesses actually saw what they claim to have
seen. This means that when witnesses came to Yerushalayim to
testify to what the Sanhedrin already knew. If the Court determined
that the new-moon would not be visible on a certain evening, then
they did not even receive witnesses. Hundreds of witnesses can come
to testify on that night, each wanting to swear that he saw the new-
moon; it won't move the Sanhedrin to do more than to double-check
Unlike other kinds of testimony, where witnesses testify to a truth that
is unknown to the judges, here we have the opposite: The witness
thinks he saw the first visibility of the new moon, yet he really cannot
have. The moon at this time of the month is showing a very small
chip of light - too small to be called a crescent yet - very low on the
horizon where visibility is poorest, shortly after sunset when the sky is
not really dark yet, for a short period of time before the moon sets.
Clouds, ground haze, pollution, fog, trees, buildings, and other
obstructions will block out the new moon. Yet all this time, the
Sanhedrin (and anyone else with knowledge of astronomy) will know
exactly where the moon is. (Torah Tidbits - 5758)
So, if the Sanhedrin knew when to expect witnesses, why did they
need them? Why do we want witnesses when, (a) We know what they
are going to say before they do, and, (b) They are less reliable than
our calculations? (And to think that, IY"H, when we will once again
have a Sanhedrin, we will return to this "primitive" method of doing
The Midrash describes the onslaught of the plague of frogs:
Originally, there was just one big "mother frog." Thinking they would
nip things in the bud, the Egyptians began striking the frog with their
sticks in an attempt to kill it. Yet each time they would strike it,
instead of dying, the giant frog simply multiplied. (Would this,
perhaps, be an alternate method to teach students their
Now at first, this must have come to them as quite a surprise. But as
time wore on, and the novelty wore off, one would have thought the
Egyptians might have seen a pattern emerging, and stopped striking
the frog, so as to not further increase the plague. Yet they did not.
Foolish? Imbecilic. Yet how often does this happen to us: We have a
problem to handle. It's there. It's obvious. It's staring us in the face.
Yet instead of dealing with the problem, we actually add it through ill-
advised actions. Even as we act, we know that we are doing unwisely,
compounding an already difficult situation, and winding the web of
our tzures even tighter. What may have started off as a relatively small
and manageable challenge has now grown and multiplied into a
gawky, unwieldy monster. Sound familiar?
So teshuva, repentance, is not simply "knowing what to do." It's the
conscious decision to make a change for the better, and to take the
necessary actions to do so. To stop things from spiralling out of
control, preferably before we have a serious plague to deal with.
Chazal, our Sages, put it thus: "Lo ha-midrash hu ha-ikkar, elah ha-
ma'aseh, Knowing what to do isn't the main point - the main point is
doing it! (Avos 1:17)"
Commentators write that the mitzvah of sanctifying the new-moon is
an allusion to teshuva. We rejoice in the emergence of a renewed
light, however small, from what had just before been total darkness.
Although at first small, that light is destined, in a relatively short time,
to develop into a full-fledged moon, which will light up the nighttime
Nothing can hold a person back from teshuva - not his childhood, not
his family, his financial standing, his life-history, not even the previous
moment just before now. As someone once wrote, "The very first step
of change is so powerful; the boundaries of time fall aside. In one
bittersweet moment, the sting of the past is dissolved, and its honey
salvaged." If your past resembles the spiralling spring, winding and
burying itself deeper and deeper, then use the built-up tension to
catapult yourself to heights before unreachable. (In fact, in some
sense, the further back the spring is pulled, the greater its potential,
which is kind of encouraging.) From the darkness, a new light
Perhaps this is why, for everything Sanhedrin knew, they could not
declare the new moon without the testimony of witnesses. When it
comes to teshuva, knowledge alone will not suffice. There must be
the conscious decision to get up and do something. To abandon the
self-defeating ways that seem to have gotten the better of us, and get
ourselves moving on the right track again. Making that decision, and
taking the first serious steps, are the hardest part. After that, the
sailing gets smoother.
Have a good Shabbos.
This week's publication is sponsored in honour of
the engagement of Sara Shifra, daughter of Etel
Goldenstein and Moshe Zeidel Kaiserman, to Yehoshua
Shlomo Wunder. And in gratitude to Hashem Yisborach
for sending me my wife, Etel, and for all the kindness He
has done with us. From Moshe Mordechai Daniel.
Text Copyright © 2002 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.