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Jews and the moon – New play explores an ancient astronomical crisis

By Cindy Mindell

WEST HARTFORD – Among the first mitzvot cited in the Torah is the commemoration of the first day of the (nameless) month that would spawn the Passover offering. This marker was essential so that the Jews could follow God’s commandment to slaughter a lamb on the 14th day of the month, the act that set off the exodus from Egypt.

Once the Jews reached the Land of Israel, the start of each month would be proclaimed after two eyewitnesses reported their sighting of the crescent moon to the Beit Din (High Court) in Jerusalem. In the first century CE, when Rabban Gamaliel II led the Sanhedrin, the witnesses’ testimony would be verified with the help of drawings of the moon’s phases and astrological calculations.

This may seem like a straightforward process, but one of the most renowned rabbinic disputes chronicled in the Mishnah is over the sighting of the new moon 2,000 years ago.

The argument inspired West Hartford resident Ben Engel to write “Rabbi of the Stars,” a play that will debut on Sunday, Dec. 18 at The Emanuel Synagogue.

The drama highlights the most famous conflict between Rabban Gamliel and his fellow on the Beit Din, Rabbi Joshua: reports about the new moon of Tishrei.

“Gamliel accepted questionable testimony from witnesses as to whether the new moon of Tishrei had appeared, which would start the month and also set the date of Yom Kippur,” says Engel. “Joshua and other Sages challenged Gamliel, who forced Joshua to travel and carry money on the date Joshua considered Yom Kippur. The result was a constitutional crisis in ancient Israel.”

Rabbi of the Stars is Engel’s first play since his playwriting debut in 2014, when Jacob and Esau: The Birthright. The Blessing. The Confrontation, was performed to a community-wide audience by The Emanuel Players.

Now an attorney with Rogin Nassau LLC in Hartford, Engel began writing in elementary school and originally pursued a career as a newspaper reporter and editor in Kentucky and Connecticut. About 20 years ago, he began to take an interest in the works of the ancient Greek authors, and in recent years, in the great Greek tragic playwrights.

In 2012, Engel learned that the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago was staging a recreation of the trial of Socrates as a fundraiser, with a cast of the city’s leading judges and attorneys and a jury of distinguished Chicagoans.

“I instantly saw that we could do an Emanuel fundraiser based on ancient Hebrew history,” Engel says. “Right after that, I realized how much I would love to write a play.”

Rabbi of the Stars was inspired during a foray into Pirke Avot. “I ran across Rabbi Hertz’s comments on Rabbi Joshua, and I was intrigued that an ancient sage would also be something of a scientist,” says Engel referring to the rabbi’s notoriety as an astronomer. “In looking up more about his life, I found out about his many conflicts with Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh, and those conflicts became the premise for the play. I had to take the Talmud’s basic source material and try to represent what the Rabbis and their disagreements might have been like in real life.”

Engel wrote the play partly as an homage to Rabbi Joshua.

“Every Jew should know more about him,” he says. “His was a Judaism of humility and human understanding. At another time in his life, he wisely counseled against the Jews going to war against Rome. After he died, that war was fought, resulting in an untold number of Jewish deaths.”

The Emanuel Players present a costumed and staged reading of Rabbi of the Stars by Ben Engel: Sunday, Dec. 18, 7 PM, The Emanuel Synagogue, 160 Mohegan Drive, West Hartford | Tickets/info: (860) 236-1275 / emanuelsynagogue.org.

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