the Second Temple period, Jews in Palestine
and in the Babylonian exile were notified of
the new moon's arrival by fire beacons that
were lit across the mountaintops.
is to be presumed that when the ancient Israelites
were still nomadic shepherd tribes in the wilderness,
they reckoned time entirely by the moon, as did all
nomadic peoples. After settling in Palestine where
they began to observe the agricultural seasons, they
also began to reckon according to the position of
the sun, and with time, developed a system which equalized
the sun-year and the moon-year.
month, the year, and the festivals were figured entirely
by observation, by testimony offered that the moon
had appeared and had been seen. Although astronomic
calculation were gradually instituted in connection
with the calendar, the Jews were not certain of its
exactness and continued to resort to witnesses. The
authority to hear this testimony and through it to
establish the beginning of the month, the intercalation
of the calendar, and the dates of the festivals was
vested in the Sanhedrin (Jewish high court in Palestine
during Roman and Byzantine periods).
Sanhedrin gathered on the thirtieth of the month,
formally proclaiming the New Month only after it had
heard evidence of witnesses who had actually seen
the new moon.
the new moon was not sighted on the thirtieth day
of the month, the proclamation would be made on the
thirty-first. Once the witness' testimony was accepted,
the head of the court proclaimed the new moon with
the words, "It is hallowed." Then all the
people assembled would respond, "It is hallowed!
It is hallowed."
The witness was given a lavish meal, and fire beacons
were lit on the mountaintops to notify Jews wherever
they lived, including the Babylonian diaspora, of
the new moon's arrival. This ceremonial procedure
is described in Mishnah Rosh Hashanah..
to view enlarged
How did they light the beacons? They used to bring
long poles of cedar and reeds and olivewood and flax
fluff which they tied to the poles with a string.
And someone used to go up to the top of a mountain,
and set fire to them, and wave them to and fro and
up and down, until you saw the next one doing the
same thing on the top of the second mountain. And
so on on top of the third mountain.
to view enlarged
Whence did they carry the chain of beacons? From
the Mount of Olives [in Jerusalem] to Sartaba, and
from Sartaba to Grofina and from Grofina to Hauran,
and from Hauran to Beit Baltin. The one on Beit
Baltin did not budge from there, but when on waving
to and fro and up and down, until he saw the entire
Diaspora before him like one bonfire [because the
inhabitants, upon seeing the beacon fire on the
mountaintop, used to light torches].
is no general agreement as to the exact locations
of these places. Scholar Obermeyer locates them
as follows: Sartaba is Karn Sartaba, five kilometers
from the western bank of the Jordan; Grofina Arafun,
a hill situated among the Gilead range of mountains;
Hauran south of Damascus, and Beit Baltin is Beiram
which is some miles northwest of Pumbeditah, in
the rabbis determined that the lighting of fire beacons
was dangerous, the system was stopped and messengers
were sent out. Because it took time for the messengers
of the Palestinian Sanhedrin to reach the distant
Babylonian communities, it was decreed that outside
of Palestine, in the lands of the Diaspora, festivals
were to be observed for two days instead of one. This
added second day was called "the second holiday
of the Diaspora."[*]
the middle of the fourth century CE, the astronomical
calculation of the calendar was established with such
precision, that the the elaborate system of hearing
witnesses was discarded. Proclaiming and spreading
the word of the new moon came to an end.
An exception was made in the case of Yom Kippur
which, because of the hardship of fasting, could
not be prolonged. Rosh Hashanah was also an
exception in that it was observed for two days
even in Palestine, for Rosh Hashanah was also
the New Moon, the first day of Tishrei. Even
in Palestine it could not always be ascertained
on the preceding day whether the particular
day was the first day of Tishrei or the last
day of Elul. Even after the calendar was established,
the observance of the "second holiday of
the Diaspora," was retained outside of
Schauss' essay, "The Jewish Calendar"
in The Jewish Festivals: A Guide to their
History and Observance.(Schocken 1996, reprinted
with the permission of the Union of American
Title page of tractate Rosh Hashanah with illustration
of priests lighting a fire to signal the new
moon. Hebrew Latin manuscript, Amsterdam, 1700-1704.