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Their duty was twofold: to represent all Israel in the services of the sanctuary, and to act as a sort of guide to those who had business in the Temple. Thus, at a certain part of the service, the head of the course brought up those who had come to make an atonement on being cleansed from any impurity, and ranged them along the 'Gate of Nicanor,' in readiness for the ministry of the officiating priests. The 'men of the station' were dispensed from attendance in the Temple on all occasions when the 'Hallel' was chanted, * possibly because the responses of the people when the hymn was sung showed that they needed no formal representatives.
* This happened therefore on eighteen days of the year. These will be specified in a subsequent chapter.
Difficulties of the Calendar
Hitherto we have not adverted to the difficulties which those who intended to appear in Jerusalem at the feasts would experience from the want of any fixed calendar. As the year of the Hebrews was lunar, not solar, it consisted of only 354 days 8 hours 48' 38". This, distributed among twelve months, would in the course of years have completely disordered the months, so that the first month, or Nisan (corresponding to the end of March or the beginning of April), in the middle of which the first ripe barley was to be presented to the Lord, might have fallen in the middle of winter. Accordingly, the Sanhedrim appointed a Committee of three, of which the chief of the Sanhedrim was always president, and which, if not unanimous, might be increased to seven, when a majority of voices would suffice, to determine which year was to be made a leap-year by the insertion of a thirteenth month. Their resolution * was generally taken in the twelfth month (Adar), the additional, or thirteenth month (Ve-Adar), being inserted between the twelfth and the first.
* Tradition has it, that neither high-priest nor king ever took part in these deliberations, the former because he might object to a leap-year as throwing the Day of Atonement later into the cold season; the king, because he might wish for thirteen months, in order to get thirteen months' revenue in one year!
A Sabbatical year could not be a leap-year, but that preceding it was always such. Sometimes two, but never three, leap-years succeeded each other. Commonly, every third year required the addition of a month. The mean duration of the Jewish month being 29 days 12 hours 44' 3 1/3", it required, during a period of nineteen years, the insertion of seven months to bring the lunar era in accordance with the Julian.
The New Moon
And this brings up yet another difficulty. The Jews calculated the month according to the phases of the moon, each month consisting of either twenty-nine or thirty days, and beginning with the appearance of the new moon. But this opened a fresh field of uncertainty. It is quite true that every one might observe for himself the appearance of a new moon. But this would again partly depend on the state of the weather. Besides, it left an authoritative declaration of the commencement of a month unsupplied. And yet not only was the first of every month to be observed as 'New Moon's Day,' but the feasts took place on the 10th, 15th, or other day of the month, which could not be accurately determined without a certain knowledge of its beginning. To supply this want the Sanhedrim sat in the 'Hall of Polished Stones' to receive the testimony of credible witnesses that they had seen the new moon. To encourage as many as possible to come forward on so important a testimony, these witnesses were handsomely entertained at the public expense. If the new moon had appeared at the commencement of the 30th day--which would correspond to our evening of the 29th, as the Jews reckoned the day from evening to evening--the Sanhedrim declared the previous month to have been one of twenty-nine days, or 'imperfect.' Immediately thereon men were sent to a signal-station on the Mount of Olives, where beacon-fires were lit and torches waved, till a kindling flame on a hill in the distance indicated that the signal had been perceived. Thus the tidings, that this was the new moon, would be carried from hill to hill, far beyond the boundaries of Palestine, to those of the dispersion, 'beyond the river.' Again, if credible witnesses had not appeared to testify to the appearance of the new moon on the evening of the 29th, the next evening, or that of the 30th, according to our reckoning, was taken as the commencement of the new month, in which case the previous month was declared to have been one of thirty days, or 'full.' It was ruled that a year should neither have less than four nor more than eight such full months of thirty days.
The Seven Messengers of the New Moon
But these early fire-signals opened the way for serious inconvenience. The enemies of the Jews lit beacons to deceive those at a distance, and it became necessary to send special messengers to announce the new moon. These were, however, despatched only seven times in the year, just in time for the various feasts--in Nisan, for the Passover on the 15th, and in the month following, Iyar, for the 'Second Passover,' kept by those who had been debarred from the first (Num 9:9-11); in Ab (the fifth month), for the fast on the 9th, on account of the destruction of Jerusalem; in Elul (the sixth month), on account of the approaching solemnities of Tishri; in Tishri (the seventh month), for its festivals; in Kislev (the ninth month), for the Feast of the Dedication of the Temple; and in Adar, for Purim. Thus, practically, all difficulties were removed, except in reference to the month Elul, since, as the new moon of the following month, or Tishri, was the 'Feast of Trumpets,' it would be exceedingly important to know in time whether Elul had twenty-nine or thirty days. But here the Rabbis ruled that Elul should be regarded as a month of twenty-nine days, unless a message to the contrary were received--that, indeed, since the days of Ezra it had always been so, and that accordingly New Year's Day would be the day after the 29th of Elul. To make, however, assurance doubly sure, it soon became the practice to keep New Year's Day on two successive days, and this has since been extended into a duplication of all the great feast days (of course, with the exception of fasts), and that, although the calendar has long been fixed, and error is therefore no more possible.