February 16, 2011
Observing Moses' yartzeit in a leap year
Mendele Mokher Seforim, the nineteenth century Yiddish writer, famously wrote, “Among Jews, a birthday is no holiday. But the anniversary of a death; that a Jew remembers.”
Last Friday’s (2/11) Hebrew date was the 7th of Adar I, the date of the death of Moshe Rabbeinu, as well as the date of his birth. (Kiddushin 38a)
One of the recurring debates is how to best observe the anniversary of the death of the ultimate Jewish leader.
There are those who try very hard to avoid saying tachanun on the 7th of Adar. I will not pass judgment on these individuals, but I will say there is no real precedent in halakha to do this.
There are those who might fast on a yartzeit – any yartzeit. This is highly appropriate – the Talmud (Nedarim 12a) and Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 580:1-2) recommend this for many dated events, or for one’s parent or deceased rebbe.
The question that comes up in a leap year is “Which Adar is the one in which we mark the date of Moshe’s death?”
While one approach to the question could be answered through the choice we might make of which Adar is the real month, versus which one is the additional month (most people believe the first Adar is the extra month), a more pressing question is “What is the actual date of Moshe’s death?”
The Mechilta (Beshalach, Vayisa 5) raises three possible answers to this question: Rabbi Yehoshua confirms the Talmudic approach that Moshe’s death took place in Adar of a regular non-leap year. Rabbi Eliezer Hamodai says Moshe died in the first Adar of a leap year. Rabbi Elazar raises the suggestion that Moshe died on the 7th day of Shvat in a regular year.
With the addition of the 7th day of Shvat only one possible date remains that no one suggests. Moshe may have died on the 7th of Adar II in a leap year.
Rabbis Eliezer and Elazar are working with the premise that Moshe’s death preceded the entering of the land of Israel by 63 days (Midrash Sechel Tov Shmot 15:35), while the straightforward Talmudic position is that Moshe’s death took place 33 days before crossing the Jordan River on the 10th of Nissan.