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Hallel and Atonement on Rosh Hodesh

August 21, 2017

There is a late custom to fast most days preceding Rosh Hodesh, the New Moon. Dubbed “Yom Kippur Qatan,” a Minor Day of Atonement, the pre-new-moon fast is usually not observed before Teiveth, for example, because it would coincide with Hanukka. Similarly, is not observed at the end of Tishrei or Nisan because of the festivity of those outgoing months. The basis for the practice is ostensibly that Rosh Hodesh is a day of extra atonement, and therefore it is appropriate to increase supplications and prayers prior to Rosh Hodesh. However, the question may be asked: how do we know that Rosh Hodesh is all about atonement? What is the basis for that?

Last year I heard someone offer that the basis is the following passage (Bava Metzia 85b):

Elijah used to frequent Rabbi’s academy. One day, on Rosh Hodesh, [Rabbi] was waiting for him, but he failed to come. Said he to him [the next day]: ‘Why did you not come?’ — He replied: ‘[I had to wait] until I awoke Abraham, washed his hands, and he prayed and I put him to rest again; likewise to Isaac and Jacob.’ ‘But why not wake them all together?’ — ‘I feared that they would pray too strongly and bring the Messiah before his time.’ ‘And is there anyone like them in this world?’ he asked. — ‘There is R’ Hiyya and his sons.’

He concluded that this teaches us that Rosh Hodesh is an auspicious time for prayer. I responded that this Midrash is certainly not the source for anything about Rosh Hodesh, but rather illustrative of what the Sages believed about Rosh Hodesh, which was itself sourced in the written Torah.


In the Bible, Rosh Hodesh is connected to the Sabbath. In Numbers 28, the sacrifices for special days are introduced with the sacrifices for Rosh Hodesh and the Sabbath. In II Kings 4 the assumption is that the people would gather for instruction on New Moons and Sabbaths, and the book of Isaiah opens by connecting the two days: “Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations— I cannot bear your worthless assemblies,” and concludes with, “It shall come to pass, that from one New Moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, all flesh shall come to worship before Me.” Further, Unlike the other biblical mo’adim, appointed times, the Sabbath and Rosh Hodesh are bereft of positive commandments peculiar to themselves. On the rest of the appointed times, there are pilgrimages and personal sacrifices, sukka, and shofar blowing, and feasting. On the Sabbath, we are bidden to refrain from certain labors, and all of the positive observances we know, candle lighting, three meals, qiddush, etc., are institutions of the sages. On Rosh Hodesh, not only are there no positive commandments typical of the other special days, there is no prohibition of labor that characterizes the Sabbath and festivals. The sages taught that the Sabbaths were dedicated to Torah study, and to a lesser extent, the Yamim Tovim, but we can not do likewise on Rosh Hodesh, because six out of seven times, Rosh Hodesh is on a workday. It is thus no surprise that the sages could not decree some form of work stoppage on Rosh Hodesh like they did on the Hol Hamo’ed. Along with the matter of interrogating the witnesses and declaring the begining of the month in order to establish the calendar, the only other commandment of the day was the additional sacrifices in the Temple, a matter which was the prerogative of the court. However, we find something very interesting concerning those sacrifices: Every day, the offering consisted of two lambs, and on the Sabbath an additional two lambs, but on Rosh Hodesh, the offering was a whopping two bulls, a ram, seven lambs, and a he goat for a sin offering, which, by no coincidence, was the same as that offered on every day of Passover and on Pentecost. Not only that, the offerings for Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Sh’mini Atzereth were almost identical, except that instead of two bulls, only one bull was offered. (See here for an interesting idea on this topic.) In the Temple, the Rosh Hodesh service was basically that of a holiday due to its multiplicity of sacrifices, and as we have seen before, the main purpose of any sacrifice was the atonement. That is, the sages realized that only positive commandment of the Torah related to the day of Rosh Hodesh was an atonement service on par with that of all the other holidays, and therefore the theme of the day was atonement.

This is the meaning of the formula we use in the prayers of every Rosh Hodesh:

רָאשֵׁי חֳדָשִׁים לְעַמְּךָ נָתָתָּ.

You gave New Moons to your people

זְמַן כַּפָּרָה לְכָל תּולְדותָם.

A time for atonement for all their generations,

בִּהְיותָם מַקְרִיבִים לְפָנֶיךָ זִבְחֵי רָצון.

When they would offer before You desired sacrifices

וּשעִירֵי חַטָּאת לְכַפֵּר בַּעֲדָם.

and he-goats of sin-offerings to atone on their behalf.

And this is in contrast to the formulas used on the festivals, which describes their purposes:

וַתִּתֶּן לָנוּ יְ-יָ אֱלֹקינוּ בְּאַהֲבָה

And you lovingly gave us, O Lord, our God,

שַׁבָּתות לִמְנוּחָה

Sabbaths for rest

מועֲדִים לְשִׂמְחָה חַגִּים וּזְמַנִּים לְשָׂשׂוֹן

appointed times for happiness, festivals and seasons for gladness.


יום הזכרון הזה, יום תרועה

This Memorial Day, a day of sounding the shofar.

יום הכפורים הזה, למחילה לסליחה ולכפרה ולמחל בל את כל עעונותינו

This Day of Atonement, for forgiveness, for pardoning, and for atonement, and to forgive all of our sins.

In this light we can also understand why the Jews of Babylon developed what was a perplexing practice in the eyes of one of the last tanna’im (Ta’anith 28b):

Rav once came to Babylonia and noticed that they recited the Hallel on Rosh Hodesh; at first he thought of stopping them, but when he saw that they omitted parts of it, he said, “it is clearly evident that it is an old ancestral custom of theirs.” A Tanna taught: The individual should not recite [the Hallel], but once he has begun he should complete it.

That is, in early 3rd century Israel, the custom of reciting Hallel on Rosh Hodesh was unknown to our sages. Of all the rituals the Jews of the Diaspora could have conceived of to mark the begining of the month, why would they choose the recitation of the Hallel? Why not some other biblical or rabbinical practices? Further, why would the recitation of such a Hallel be ideally limited to public prayer? What is wrong if one praying alone or if groups less than ten recite the Hallel?*

When the Temple stood, the recitation of the Hallel was the hallmark of the sacrificial service on Festivals (Arachin 10b). In the centuries after the Destruction, when the observance of Rosh Hodesh was sorely lacking its defining feature, the Temple service, the Jewish people of the Diaspora developed a practice, reciting Hallel, that harked back to Temple times. But because this new Hallel was not like the Hallel of the festivals and Hanukka, which is an obligation on every individual, but rather a means of recalling the Temple service which was on the behalf of the community, the sages limited this Hallel to the public prayers.

With all this in mind, we can better focus on another aspect of the Musaf prayer that is unique to Rosh Hodesh, one that we do not mention in all the other musafim:

מִזְבֵּחַ חָדָשׁ בְּצִיּון תָּכִין וְעולַת ראשׁ חודֶשׁ נַעֲלֶה עָלָיו

Establish a new altar in Zion, and we shall bring the New Moon burnt offering upon it.

וּשעִירֵי עִזִּים נַעֲשה בְרָצון. וּבַעֲבודַת בֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ נִשמַח כֻּלָּנוּ.

And we shall prepare he-goats with favor, and all of shall rejoice in the service of the Holy Temple.

וּבְשִׁירֵי דָּוִד עַבְדֶּךָ הַנִּשְׁמָעִים בְּעִירֶךָ. הָאֲמוּרִים לִפְנֵי מִזְבְּחֶךָ.

and through the songs of Your servant, David, heard in Your city, recited before Your Altar,
אַהֲבַת עולָם תָּבִיא לָהֶם וּבְרִית אָבות לַבָּנִים תִּזְכּור:

You shall grant them eternal love, and remember the covenant of the fathers on behalf of the children.

Only on Rosh Hodesh do we mention the recitation of the psalms that was an integral part of the Temple service, because it is only on Rosh Hodesh that we publicly recite psalms dedicated to the recollection of that service.

*I considered that perhaps sounding the trumpets (See Sukka 53-55 and Laws of the Temple Appointments, 7:6) could have been introduced as a monthly custom, because it was also a a feature of the Temple services during the musafim, including Rosh Hodesh, but the Gemara mentions that at times in history, the Jews were wary of blowing the shofar even on Rosh Hashana, when it was an obligation everywhere and on everyone. Indeed, it was because of this that the shofar blowing was moved from the morning service to before musaf, so it would be difficult to introduce it when not necessary.


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