Rabbi Eliezer was sure that the world was created in the fall month of Tishrei, the season of the New Year. His rival, Rabbi Joshua, was equally positive that the world was created at Passover time, in the spring month of Nisan:
Rabbi Eliezer asks: From what biblical source do we learn that the world was created in Tishrei? From the verse: God said, let the earth sprout grasses, seed bearing plants, fruit trees of every kind on earth bearing fruit with the seed in it—and it was so. (Genesis 1:11) In what month is the earth bringing forth grasses while the trees are filled with fruit? You must say that it is the fall month of Tishrei.
Rabbi Joshua asks: From what biblical source do we learn that the world was created in Nisan? From the verse: God said, let the earth bring forth grasses that carry seed of their own kind and trees that produce fruit each containing its own kind of seed—and God saw that it was good (Genesis 1:12). In what month is the earth filled with grasses while the trees are just bringing forth fruit? You must say that it is the spring month of Nisan.
(Click here for Talmudic text in Hebrew and English)
Both of these 2nd century sages were certain of their positions, each only seeking a verse to confirm what he already believed. Sometimes, people need visual proof to reinforce belief: “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua exemplified just the opposite: “I’ll see it when I believe it.” Each sage pulled his thread of certainty from a complicated weave of the calendar that warms and protects each one’s certainty. Tishrei is the 7th month of the calendar year. Yet, in the world of the sages, Tishrei was time for celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the New Year. Nisan, the month of Passover, is the 1st month of the year, according to Exodus 12, because it marks the beginning of Israel’s freedom from slavery in Egypt.
For Rabbi Eliezer, creation’s pattern and plan appeared in the ripe fall evidence of Tishrei. The world was created with fruit trees already bearing fruits that contained their seeds. In the beginning, there was fruit that carried the seed.
The world’s first movement was not from fullness to promise but from promise to fullness, according to Rabbi Joshua. The Passover season of Nisan was the beginning of the beginning; the time of year when Israel’s seed, long nurtured underground in Egypt, burst into blossom. This was the foundational pattern of creation: In the beginning, there was seed that carried the fruit.
Each teacher saw in his verse a distinct beginning. Of course, each knew that both beginnings are found in consecutive verses in the story of one day of creation.
The Israeli poet, Rivka Miriam, explicitly elaborated the idea that Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua offered two beginnings that are enfolded into one:
Night of the Seder, or New Year’s Day, I ask the questions and I reply.
I am the girl here and the elder as well.
One is the time that at first seems to change and one is the likeness.
My father commanded me not to die.
(Click here for Rivka Miriam poem in Hebrew and English)
Rivka began with the Seder, and its familiar image of the questions which she called kushiyot, the common name for the traditional Seder questions. But if transposed into the key of Rosh Hashanah, the kushiot of the Seder would have to coax the hard seed of the Seder ritual story into the ripe fruit of the New Year: What is the story that begins but does not end? How shall we overcome “pharonic” influences? Where do we find the purpose to cross seas of constraint? When do we emerge into a new world unbounded by the past? Why is this day different from all other days such that we resolve to move forward despite our habitual behavior?
Like the Seder and Rosh Hashanah, like the questions and the answers, the girl and the elder are seed and fruit, the blossom of possibility and possibility ripened.
Once begun, the time of the year and the image of the individual are one and endless. But they must begin somewhere. For Rabbi Joshua, time and image begin with the Seder; for Rabbi Eliezer, they begin with the New Year. For Rivka Miriam, they are engendered by a father who commanded the girl to become the elder and the elder to become the girl—in an endless cycle of seed and fruit.
Absolutely beautiful and sensible. Thank you.