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Birkath HaL’vana and Calendrical Confusion, Part 1

August 13, 2013

(Part 2 here.)

Rabbi David Bar Hayim maintains that the monthly recitation of Birkath HaL’vana should, in accordance with the plain meaning of the Talmud and the opinion of the Rishonim, ideally be said on Rosh Hodesh, and in the event that that can not be done, as soon as possible there after. Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch also told me that that is the halacha, and it is proper to make others aware of this. (http://machonshilo.org/en/eng/list-ask-the-rav/46-tphilla-and-brakhoth/603-birkath-halvana-when-and-why) The blessing should be recited on the first appearance of the new moon, and the various later opinions that say that it should be delayed by three or seven days or until Saturday night, are not accepted. This should come as a surprise to many. In America, the prevailing practice is to wait specifically for after the Sabbath, while here in Israel most are used to hearing about the three-day or seven-day customs, both of which are heavily reinforced by the numerous printed calendars. My goal is to attempt to show my readers how not only are those customs not able to override the main halacha, namely that the blessing on the new moon should be recited as soon in the month as possible, but that this was the opinion of the greatest decisors all along, and that the way the three-day and seven-day practices are presented by the calendars is severely skewed.

I believe that Hazal instituted this blessing specifically for the first sighting of the moon because, once upon a time, the Jewish people joyously anticipated the first sighting of the moon. The Mishna in Rosh Hashana (chapter 2) describes how the Sanhedrin actually wanted to encourage competition among potential witnesses! Jewish life once revolved around the calendar, which itself was not predetermined. Thus, every month, Jews throughout ancient Israel and the Diaspora were involved in keeping track of the sighting of the new moon, as it affected when the holidays would fall out. Imagine not knowing during the first of week of Elul if the first of Tishrei was going to be on Thursday or perhaps on Friday some weeks later. It can have a major effect on everyone’s holiday plans.

There is a group called the Israeli New Moon Society that keeps track of the sightings of the new moon and publishes online guides for amateurs who wish to spot the new moon. The society enjoys the support of Rabbi Naum Rabinovitch, the math professor turned Rosh Yeshiva, who used the society’s founder’s diagrams in his own commentary on Maimonides’s Hilchoth Qiddush Hahodesh.

I maintain that the usual synagogue calendars, like the Ittim L’vina calendar and the Tukachinsky calendar, mislead the public with regards to when the earliest time for saying the blessing really is. I have tried to speak to the publishers about this issue, but to no avail.

Most of the calendars do not take into account when the actual first sighting of the moon will be every month. Instead, they follow a mistaken interpretation of a view cited in the Beith Yosef, thus presenting a first time for Birkath HaL’vana that is sometimes as many as three days after the actual first opportunity.

As cited by the Beith Yosef, Rabbeinu Yona’s students actually claim that one should wait after the molad “shnayim o shlosha yamim” (Beith Yosef to Tur Orah Hayim 426, “garsinan b’masecheth sof’rim”) which means “two to three days” from the molad, the mean lunar conjunction, before reciting the blessing. Now, the molad as discussed by the authorities is just an average; the actual conjunction is usually a few hours before or after it. It takes some time after the actual conjunction for the new moon to become visible. Enough time has to elapse from the conjunction for the moon to be both objectively large enough to actually be seen and far enough from the sun’s location in the sky for it not to be out shone. The first time any moon is visible is usually after sunset the day after the actual molad, and sometimes only after the sunset two days after the molad. Now, even though Rabbi Bar Hayim has shown that Rabbeinu Yona’s position should be rejected by the halacha, in practice it is usually impossible to see the new moon on the halachic day of the molad or on the halachic day after the molad. Only on the third day, which starts at sundown concluding the second day, is the new moon visible. A typical example: when both the mean molad and the actual molad happen early Sunday morning, e.g. between 4 am and 9 am, the moon is not visible Sunday night, nor visible all Monday during the day, but Monday night, after sunset, which is halachically Tuesday, the new moon will usually be visible to most people, assuming cooperative weather conditions. Thus, it takes “two to three days,”  i.e., a vague window of 26 to 72 hours, for the new moon to show up. In our case, it took most of Sunday, all of Monday, and just the beginning of Tuesday, about 40 hours later, for the moon to reappear. Rabbi Rabinovitch’s son, Rabbi Mordechai Rabinovitch, pointed this out to me some years ago. The idea that miqtzath hayom k’khullo, that a part of the day is considered a full halachic day, is well grounded in halacha. Best example: the Torah commands that a boy be circumcised on the eighth day of his life, and both boys born Saturday night at 9pm, an hour and a half after sundown, and Sunday night 15 minutes before sundown will be circumcised at 8am the next Sunday, even though the former has lived for eight and half days, while the latter has only lived for seven and a half.

This is the first premise of the misunderstanding: the actual first sighting of the new moon will, in the overwhelming majority of cases, satisfy Rabbeinu Yona’s rule as actually stated, but if one were to decide to wait to recite the blessing the maximum interpretation of “three days” from the molad, and only decide to use the mean molad, which has no actually bearing on the reality of the moon’s visibility, then he would wait 72 hours from that molad, and in the vast majority of months the end of that 72 hour period will either greatly precede the next possible citing of the moon or just miss that sighting. Because the new moon is visible for a few minutes to an hour and a half or so after the sunset, if those 72 hours do not terminate around then, one will have to wait for the next night to recite the blessing. In our example above, such a person would wait until Wednesday morning between 4am and 9am to recite the blessing, when the moon by definition is not visible due to its proximity to the sun, and then be forced to wait even longer, until Wednesday night, which is halachically Thursday, in order to recite the blessing “at the first opportunity”! Thus, he has delayed the recitation two full days! It gets worse, when for some reason, the calendar invokes the non-rule that the blessing not be recited on Friday night even when it is the “first opportunity,” pushing off the blessing to Saturday night, three days after the true first opportunity.

Why would anyone do such a thing? Who would read Rabbeinu Yona such a way and then rule that normative practice should follow it?

The answer is the Pri M’gadim, but first some more background.

The last opportunity for the blessing is, as described by the Gemara, the 16th of the month. Now, the Gemara is speaking quite generally. It assumes that a month is 30 days long, thus making the 16th night the begining of the second half of the month, and usually marking the point that the moon beginning to wane. Indeed, in deficient, 29-day months, it makes sense that the last opportunity should be the night of the 15th. The Beith Yosef (ibid., “uma shekathav rabbeinu w’hanei shisha asar”) makes note of this and other similar issues, and then notes that there are more exact ways of determining the mid point of the lunar month, because the Gemara declared that the 16th is when the moon is no longer efficient. That is, the Gemara gave a very imprecise sign for determining when the moon is no longer waxing, but leaves room for more precise calculations. The Tur, (ibid.) for example, mentions that the true last time for the blessing is exactly half the time between average moladoth, what the decisors term me’eth l’eth (literally, “from time to time”), and often meant to mean exactly 24 hours after a  certain event. In this case, the term means exactly half the time between the moladoth, which, as pointed out by many commentators, can actually fallout before or after the 16th (or 15th) night of the month. This is the opinion adopted by the Rema (Orah Hayim 426:3) for determining the final time for the blessing. The Beith Yosef (ibid.) mentions an even more exact determination of the middle of the lunar month: the lunar eclipse, which by definition occurs at the exact midpoint of the month. Presumably, in a month absent a lunar eclipse the midpoint of the month could be calculated by studying the actual moladoth before and after that month, and there are now many free computer programs that can easily do this. Halachically speaking, one can stick with the most inexact calculation (Orah Hayim 426:3), but the Pri M’gadim (Eshel Avraham 13 to Orah Hayim 426) declares that just like we follow the Rema, who said that the yard stick for measuring the last time of the blessing is me’eth l’eth, exactly half the time between the moladoth, so too with regards to the first time of the blessing, the practice is to wait three days me’eth l’eth, exactly 72 hours from the molad, before reciting the blessing! The Pri M’gadim makes no explanation as to why that should be so, and it is especially hard to justify his claim, as the first time for saying the blessing should strictly depend on the first sighting of the moon, whereas the final time for the blessing should depend on when the moon is full, but his opinion is mentioned by the Mishna Berura (426:20), and that has ended the discussion for the calendar printers, despite the fact that it was clear for millennia before the Pri M’gadim, who was born in 1727, that the first opportunity for the recitation of this blessing should not be delayed. After all, how many of us ever delay the blessing over seeing the ocean or lightning?

I further believe that just like the blessing was instituted over sighting something that Jews around the world looked forward to seeing, with the abolition of the Sanhedrin and the promulgation of the set calendar, which has no correlation or connection to the actual sighting of any moon, Jews became less and less enthusiastic or even noticing of the Hodesh, the appearance of the new moon. It is to our disgrace. Whenever I get to speak with a Torah scholar, I like to bring up these two questions: 1. If it is clear from the Gemara and Rishonim that the blessing should be recited as soon as possible during the lunar month, why did Rabbeinu Yona’s novel opinion gain so much support? 2. Why has this opinion of the Pri M’gadim become so popular? Does it not misunderstand an opinion that itself should be discounted?

I only hope that this can help serve to persuade other Jews to perform this commandment as Hazal intended.

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From → halacha, original

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