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Birkath HaL’vana and Calendrical Confusion, Part 2

May 20, 2015

(Part 1 here)

Some more points:

1. Rabbeinu Yona’s comments at the end of the fourth chapter of B’rachoth describe three ways to understand what Massecheth Sof’rim meant by not reciting the blessing “ad shetithbasseim.” This verb, like most future tenses with the prefix tau but no suffix, can either have a second person masculine singular subject (in  this case, the one reciting the blessing), or a feminine third person singular subject (the moon). He rejects the interpretation that it means until Saturday night, because Saturday night and Sunday have nothing to do with Rosh Hodesh. Our Rosh Hodesh is actually distributed perfectly evenly among the days of the week. That is, one out of every seven days of Rosh Hodesh is a Sunday, and waiting for Saturday night every month can often delay the blessing way too much. What if Rosh Hodesh was Monday? Why wait practically a whole week? The idea does not fit with the typical halachic principle of trying to perform a religious function as soon as possible. Rabbeinu Yona then offers his own interpretation: that the moon should look like a “canopy.” If only about a 90 degree arc is visible, it is a stretch to say that it looks canopy-like, but if it is closer to 180 degrees, then it looks like what he is describing. This opinion was apparently not accepted by any subsequent scholars, because it finds no mention in subsequent literature. Lastly, Rabbeinu Yona offers his own mentor’s understanding, and this is the basis for all later misunderstandings: tithbasseim refers to the light of the moon being significantly “sweet,” a state that it only achieves “two to (or ‘or’) three days” into the new lunar cycle. Why the vague language? Because no two months are the same. By the time the moon becomes visible for the first time, it could be that that the molad itself was anywhere from twelve hours to 48 hours to even more or even less before that, and each month has its own set of astronomical conditions that affect this. See this chart. Notice that no two months share a percent illumination, nor location in the sky, and each has its own level of difficulty being spotted. When two days are shown consecutively, it is because the first day’s conditions were not sufficient for most to have actually enjoyed or even seen the light of the moon. The possibilities are endless, and there is no objective rule for determining how much time the moon takes each month to get to the stage Rabbeinu Yonah’s mentor describes, and that is why he used the vague terminology “two to three days.” (As pointed out on the last page of the linked file, Maimonides did feel that there was a mathematical formula for determining minimal visibility.) More importantly, the “two to three days” statement is just an example of how long it takes, but the underlying rule is when the light becomes “sweet.

I will give an analogy.

Rubin wished to buy a silver goblet from Simon. Simon asked Rubin for $200 in exchange for the goblet. Rubin, searching through his wallet, realized he had not the cash, but he needed the goblet very soon. Turning to Simon, he said, “Right now, its about 9:30 Wednesday morning. I need this goblet at lunch today, and if you give me two to three days to come up with the cash, I would be grateful.” Simon agreed, because he knew that Rubin was going to go back to his own business selling tomatoes and shoes, and that sometimes he did not work Fridays, and the odds were good that Rubin would have enough left after sales and buying his children snacks to pay Simon. Now, we would all consider it perfectly reasonable for Rubin to come back to Simon Thursday night at 8pm, or Friday morning at 10am, or right before shabbos, or even right after shabbos, because in languages like 13th-century Rabbinic Hebrew and Modern Hebrew and English, “two to three days” or “two or three days” allow for all of those possibilities. The halacha also allows for that. Thursday evening is at the end of two business days, right before shabbos is at the end of three, and right after shabbos is the end of the third day from when Rubin asked for more time. But all  can be described as having as taken place “two to three days” from when Rubin made his request.

Back to the moon: it seems that in every subsequent work you can find (with the the very important and critical exception of the Beth Yosef), the opinion of Rabbeinu Yona’s mentor is referred to as “Rabbeinu Yona’s opinion,” even though he offered one that actually differed from that of his mentor, and it is inaccurately reported as waiting for three days after the molad, taking out the the critical “two or/to.” Even later, it is further transformed into waiting until after three days have passed, i.e., at least 72 hours. This evolution is clear from reading the sources as they appear in the halachic record in chronological order. This is unfortunate and also illogical, because we saw above that the whole idea of “two to three days” is only offered as a way to describe how long it may take the light of the moon to become “sweet.” It could actually vary, because the sweetness is the point. Rabbeinu Yona did not mean “three days, in every single situation, no matter what,” and even if he had said that the underlying rule is to wait three days from the beginning of the cycle, why did they add that “at least” modifier?

2. A while ago I received this from someone who wished to dispute my earlier claims:

In the Shulkhan Arukh (chapter 426 paragraph 3) it was ruled that one has to wait till seven days have passed, and the Rama did not override the halachik ruling of the Mechaber (the Shulkhan Arukh). Therefore this is the basic core law for Sepharadim and Ashkenasim alike. However, there is an Ashkenasi minhag to make the Kiddush Levana blessing after only three days. This minhag  being based on the Gr”A (the Gaon miVilna) as brought down by the Mishna Brura in se’if katan (clause) 20. This minhag has on what to be based, however less than three days, is not the minhag at all.  Nevertheless, if bedi’avad (if someone has not done according to the aforementioned minhag, and already has done otherwise i.e. less than three days), if the person made the blessing of Kiddush Levana, Rav Nevensal writes (in his commentary on the Mishna Brura in the name of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach) that he accomplished the mitzva of Kiddush Levana and his blessing was not a brakha levatala, ( a blessing in vain.) This is also understood from the Shar haTziyun (an additional commentary of the Mishna Brura).

I would like to refute this, point by point.

Rabbi Joseph Karo was aware that the halacha, as stated by the Talmud and understood by the rishonim, was that this blessing should ideally be recited on the first of the month, and he was aware of the much later, kabbalistic, non-talmudic opinion that the blessing should be delayed until seven days after the molad. He wrote much about this in his commentaries to the Tur and Mishneh Torah. It is impossible to properly understand his intent in the Shulhan Aruch before reading his longer dissertations in the Beith Yosef, and when we analyze the style he used to present many other halachoth in the Shulhan Aruch, we see that when Rabbi Karo actually subscribes to a position that was explicated later in history as opposed to an earlier explicated halacha, he simply records that later opinion without mentioning the earlier differing opinions, or he may make mention of them and then dismiss them. (In order to see this most clearly one should read the actual text of the Shulahn Aruch as Rabbi Karo himself wrote it, without the interjections of the Rema.) Once again, a good example is the laws of t’filln. In Orah Hayim 31:2 he writes straight out that it is forbidden to wear t’fillin on Hol Hamoed. This is the kabbalistic opinion, and he does not mention at all the opinion prevalent among the rishonim that t’fililn are meant to be worn on Hol Hamoed, because he dismissed it, and one can not claim that he was honestly unaware of such an opinion, because in both his commentary to the Tur and the Mishneh Torah, he wrote about that opinion and its sources in the Talmud, and even explained why he rejected it. However, with regards to the blessing on the new moon, Orah Hayim 426:1, he first states the straight halacha as recorded by the Talmud and the early commentators that “one who sees the moon in its renewal blesses…” and as he wrote in his earlier works, this was always understood to be ideally at the very begining of the month. It is only in 426:2 that he brings the custom to wait until Saturday night, and in 426:4 he mentions to wait until after seven days. These three rules are all in conflict with each other. Which is it? The first of the month? Saturday night a few days in, or a week after the begining of the month? The answer is that he presents the straight law as understood and received by generations, and then alternate practices that each have their own merit, but which do not and can not trump the original rule. This is made clear when you also read what he wrote in 426:3, before mentioning the seven-day rule: the last time for saying the blessing is the fifteenth of the month. This shows that in 426:1-3 he defines the blessing’s set time as ordained by the sages and as to be followed, and only at the end does he mention an optional practice that does not readily fit the enactment. More importantly, if you look even more closely at the exact wording of the Shulhan Aruch you see that 426:2 and 426:4 are not discussing the precise ordained time for the blessing, but rather different issues entirely.

For our reference, here is the full text of Orah Hayim 426 without the Rema and further commentaries:

א. הרואה לבנה בחדושה מברך אשר במאמרו ברא שחקים וכו’
ב. אין מברכין על הירח אלא במוצאי שבת כשהוא מבושם ובגדיו נאים. ותולה עיניו ומיישר רגליו ומברך. ואומר שלש פעמים סימן טוב תהיה לכל ישראל ברוך יוצרך וכו’
ג. עד אימתי מברכין עליה עד ט”ז מיום המולד ולא ט”ז בכלל.
ד. אין מברכין עליה עד שיעברו שבעת ימים עליה.

A. One who sees the moon in its renewal blesses, “…Who hast through His speech created the heavens…”

B. We do not recite the blessing upon the moon unless it is the night after the Sabbath, when the reciter is perfumed and his clothes nice. He should raise his high and stand straight, and bless. He should recite three times, “a good omen, blessed be, etc.”

C. Until when may he recite the blessing? Up until but not including the 16th day from the molad.

D. We do not recite the blessing until seven days have passed from the molad.

And now for a brief point about an expression used here twice, which I emboldened in both the Hebrew and English. Our heroes have said the following, each in its own context:

אין שמחה אלא בבשר ויין
אין שמחה אלא תורה
אין שמחה כהתרת ספקות
אין שמחה גדולה ומפוארת לפני הקב״ה אלא לשמח לב עניים

Lit., each of these begins with “happiness is nothing but”, and each end differently. Respectively: meat and wine, Torah, resolution of doubts, and gladdening the hearts of the poor. How can these all be true? How can there be four ultimate forms of happiness? The answer is that this is the sages’ way of saying that with regard to a particular situation, there is something that can give someone the best feeling. When it comes to celebrating on a festival, the best way is to have a meal with meat and wine. With regards to achieveing a sublme intellectual high, there is nothing like Torah study. With regards to feeling the joy of relief, there is nothing like resolving lingering doubts. With regards to doing something good for others, there is nothing greater than picking up those who are down. There is no contradiction.

Now, we can fully see how to read the four rules of the Shulhan Aruch: The first rule tells us to say the blessing on the moon, and as we saw before, the running assumption of the rishonim and logic is that the first time is right at the beginning of the month, similar to the obvious point that if one were told to perform a commandment in the morning and that he had until 9am, then it would be understood that he can start doing it when the morning starts. After all, is he supposed to do it before the morning, while it still the preceding night? So too, the fact that the Shulhan Aruch places this chapter within the laws of Rosh Hodesh, and then says in the third rule that there is a deadline, the assumption, and the only way the first rule can be understood, is that he may start to do so when the month starts, for after all, would it even be possible to recite such a blessing before the month starts,  at the end of the previous month? The first and third rules thus form a pair, defining when to say this blessing. The second rule, which mentions Saturday night, is not contradictory, nor does it modify the objective time for saying the blessing. Rather, from the facts that a. it begins with that rabbinical term of speech “einella…” and b. it then explains that it is so that he will be in a proper state of dress, it is telling us the proper mode of reciting this blessing. Dress nicely, smell good, stand straight, and take a good look at the moon. Consider this: Saturday night is not objectively the best time for saying this blessing which should be timed with the new moon regardless of the day of the week, as Rabbeinu Yona pointed out above, but rather it is because that happens to be when he is still clean and wearing his Sabbath clothes, implying that if it were Saturday night and he were filthy, he gains nothing by reciting the blessing then, but if it were, say, Thursday night and he has just dressed up in a tuxedo in order to go meet the King of Siam, he should say the blessing on the moon if the opportunity presents itself. The way the third rule is introduced, it is Rabbi Karo’s way of saying “the best way to perform this commandment, the most gevaldikke way, is to do it like this…” Finally, the fourth rule also begins with that terminology, “einad…” (the ad replaces ella because ella is used to describe things not defined by time, like gladdening and eating, whereas ad describes a period of time) because, once again, it is Rabbi Karo’s way of saying, “al pi qabbala, the most awesome way to perform this commandment for those who are mystically inclined and on a high enough level is too…”

3. Therefore, Rabbi Joseph Karo did not rule against saying the blessing on the new moon on Rosh Hodesh, nor did he rule that it may only be recited after seven days from the molad. It is clear that our master’s writings mean that the blessing was meant to be said on Rosh Hodesh, and that there are two conflicting middath-hasiduth practices to delay it, and most of the time it is impossible to satisfy both if understood literally, but as I have shown, the first practice is less about when to say the blessing and more about how to say the blessing, and the second is not halacha for the masses. I have written this to defend what he really said, and how his words have been twisted by those who came later, because there is a common claim made that his opinion was to delay the blessing until seven days have passed from the molad, and does not allow for other opinions. The writer above also claimed that this is also the implicit opinion of the Rema (!) and therefore should also be the default practice of all Jews, Ashkenazim and Sephardim alike, to wait until at least a week from the molad in order to recite Birkath Hal’vana. If our master, the Beith Yosef, had meant as he says, he should have written mark 426:1 thusly:

הרואה הלבנה אחר שעברו עליה שבעה ימים מברך וכו׳

“One who sees the moon after seven days have passed [from the molad] blesses…”

thereby combining both 426:1 and 4:26:4 in order to accurately reflect his purported view, and then we would still be left with the superficial problem of 426:2 adding the practice to wait until Saturday night. But our master did not do so, because he actually understood the rules as I have presented them here, namely that Rabbi Yosef Karo ruled like Maimonides and the sages of old, that the true time for saying Birkath Hal’vanna is on Rosh Hodesh or as early in the month as possible, and that the seven-day rule is, like he wrote in the Beith Yosef, a practice of those who live according to esoteric and uncommon kabbalisitc ideas.

4. If one were to adopt the mystical practice mentioned by Rabbi Karo, namely to wait seven days to recite the blessing, Rabbi Karo has already stated that those seven days are a colloquial seven days. This is also the case with regard to many other realms of halacha which deal with groups of days. He dismissed the notion that the final time for the blessing should be calculated to the second, minute, heileq, or hour. However, just like the Pri M’gadim unilaterally declared that the Rema calculates the first time for the blessing exactly 72 hours after the average molad even though the Rema implies that he holds like Rabbeinu Yona (see above,) the calendar makers have taken a further step and decided that those seven days mentioned by Rabbi Karo should also be calculated by adding exactly 168 hours from the time of the molad. We can see what may have influenced the Pri M’gadim making such a claim within the Rema’s opinion, but there is no reason whatsoever for any of us to then extend a possible stringency within the Rema’s opinion to that of the Beith Yosef. I have thus shown that the calendar makers grossly misrepresent our master’s opinion, and thereby cause many unwitting Jews to miss the proper times for reciting this blessing.

For those interested, I am willing to provide further proof to all of this.

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From → halacha, original

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