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Birkath Hal’vana and Calendrical Confusion, Part 3

December 31, 2017
R’ Schachter has shed much light on the subject of Birkath Ha’L’vana.
In a shiur recently uploaded to, R’ Schachter mentioned the opinion of the P’ri M’gadim (Yoreh Deah 15:2) regarding the eight-day waiting period between an animal’s birth and its becoming fit for sacrifice: the period is calculated as exactly 7 times 24 hours (me’eth l’eth) after the moment of its birth. R’ Schachter further mentioned that Rabbi Akiva Eiger (ad loc.) takes the P’ri Mgadim to task for this claim, as it contradicts the plain meaning of the relevant Talmudic sources which assume that the eight days are calculated according to the general rule of miqztath hayom k’chullo, that a part of the day is considered the entire day, just like with all the other similar calculations demanded by halacha, e.g., what day a child will be circumcised. For example, a child born at the end of halachic Sunday is circumcised the next Sunday morning, and we do not say that we should wait at least until the exact hour of Sunday at which the child was born.
I am gratified that R’ Schachter pointed this out, because when I first researched the matter, I found that, to my extremely limited wisdom and knowledge, a similar conclusion is reached by the P’ri M’gadim regarding calculating the time for the monthly Birkath Hal’vana. As I attempted to explain at length, the explicit opinion of the Rishonim regarding this matter is that the blessing is recited as soon as one sees the new moon (Rashi and Rambam both declare that the blessing is intended for Rosh Hodesh), or “two or three days” from the molad, and the P’ri M’gadim was the first to assert that the calculation, at least according to the R’ma, is also me’eth l’eth, or exactly three times 24 hours from the molad, i.e., at least three full days. My claim is thus twofold:
1. With all due respect to the P’ri Mgadim, he appears to be incorrect with regard to his claim within the opinion of the R’ma, just as R’ Schachter pointed out in the case above (Yoreh Deah 15:2).
2.  The modern-day calendar makers declare that according to the opinion of the Shulhan Aruch, the practice of waiting for seven days to pass from the molad is also calculated me’eth l’eth, by adding seven times 24 hours to the time of the molad, in essence extending the novel opinion of the P’ri M’gadim to the opinion of the Shulhan Aruch, but the fact is that the Beth Yosef explicitly rejects such exact calculation regarding the final time for Birkath Hal’vana, and there appears to be no reason for him to have used such a method to calculate the first time for reciting the blessing, or to even have a need to calculate such a thing. For him and the rishonim, it is sufficient to see the moon any time after it has become renewed.
In  summary, we have here two further applications of the P’ri M’gadim’s opinion (which was rejected by Rabbi Akiva Eiger) regarding a topic that is not commonly studied.
In another shiur, R’ Schachter discussed the issue of two-day Rosh Hodesh in Temple times: On which day of Rosh Hodesh were the additional sacrifices offered? While there is a Talmudic source that assumes that the sacrifices were only brought on one day of Rosh Hodesh, there is also Biblical evidence that even before the Temple was built, Rosh Hodesh was sometimes observed as two days, and even today, it is observed that way about half the time. At about six minutes in, R’ Schachter mentions an answer offered by Rabbi Soloveichik: In Numbers 28, we are bidden to offer the offering of the Sabbath, “olath shabbath b’shabbatto,” which literally means, “the Sabbath burnt offering on its Sabbath,”  but which is rendered by Onqelos, “alath shabba tith’aveid b’shabba,” the Sabbath burnt offering should be made on the Sabbath. Onqelos’s addition clarifies the meaning. However, in the subsequent paragraph describing the Rosh Hodesh offering, we read, “zoth olath hodesh b’hodsho,” literally “this is the [Rosh] Hodesh burnt offering on its Hodesh,” and we would expect Onqelos to render this along the same lines as shabbath b’shabbatto, but he does not. Instead, he abandons a literal translation with a one-word addition, and gives an explanation (which, by the way, is common. Whenever an anthropomorphism is used with regards to God, or whenever the halacha does not fit the literal translation, Onqelos does not translate literally): “da ‘alath reish yarha b’ithkhadathutheh,” which in Hebrew would be “zoth olath rosh yarei’ah b’hiddusho,” or “this is the New Moon burnt offering at the time of [the moon’s] renewal.” Rabbi Soloveichik offered that even if Rosh Hodesh were a two-day event, the special sacrifice of the beginning of the month should only be offered on the day of the renewal, that is, on the day of the two-day Rosh Hodesh that is observed as the renewal of the moon.
This is greatly enlightening, because for years I have been saying that when the Shulhan Aruch (Orah Hayim 426:1) says hal’vana b’hiddusha, the moon (this time described in the feminine form, l’vana, as opposed to the masculine hodeshyarei’ah, yarha, or molad) in its renewal, he means it as Rambam and Rashi meant it, on the first day of the month. Here, we have a teaching from Onqelos and Rabbi Soloveichik strengthening my position. The hiddush of the moon is  by definition Rosh Hodesh.
It should not come as a surprise then that the Hafetz Hayim himself also was aware of this important halacha and endorsed it. He held that me’iqqar hadin, according to the letter of the law, Birkath Hal’vana is to be said on Rosh Hodesh, and that although there are other practices to delay the recitation, none of them override the letter of the law. In Mishna B’rura, 426:20, he responds to the Shulhan Aruch’s proposition that we should wait for seven days to pass over the new moon before reciting the blessing, and mentions that “most Aharonim held that it is sufficient for the  moon to be three days old for the blessing to be recited,” and for good measure he adds the P’ri M’gadim’s condition that those three days are calculated as exactly three time 24 hours, and then suggests that there is a way to maybe delay the recitation just a little bit more in order to also recite it on Saturday night. But then, he says something that only someone aware of the letter of the law will fully understand: “And some Aharonim, including the Vilna Gaon, are lenient even in this regard, [i.e., waiting about three days for birkath hal’vana], and they hold that it is not worthwhile to delay the commandment in any event, and therefore, one who practices like that certainly has on whom to rely, especially during the winter and the rainy season; certainly someone punctilious and quick to sanctify [the new moon] is praiseworthy.” Here, in no uncertain terms, the Hafetz Hayim champions those who would say birkath hal’vana at the very first opportunity. When, based on all of the available halachic sources, would that be, if not on Rosh Hodesh itself? Years ago, someone declared to me that the earliest time for birkath hal’vana has to be that three-days-into-the-month custom, but that cannot be, because we have seen that the Talmud, the Rishonim, and Rabbi Yosef Karo himself knew that Rosh Hodesh was the first opportunity  for birkath hal’vana, and the Hafetz Hayim was certainly aware of all this. Further, he mentioned the three-day custom in the previous sentence, and it was to that custom to which he was bringing an even earlier-in-the-month custom!
(As an aside, I would like to dispute what R’ Schachter says in the first five minutes, namely why a particular day is Rosh Hodesh. As far as I understood, there are two reasons: when the Sanhederin is properly functioning, a day is considered Rosh Hodesh when the court declares it to be Rosh Hodesh based on the testimony of valid witnesses who spotted the new moon, and when the Sanhedrin is not functioning, our set calendar considers only the moladoth of each Tishrei to determine days of weeks for Rosh Hashana, and once a particular year’s length is known, the first days of each month are then determined based upon alternating 30-day and 29-day months, with certain exceptions. Most importantly, the moladoth of the months that are not Tishrei have absolutely no bearing on when the individual rashei hodashim are celebrated, and I believe that the misconception was fostered by the new practice of announcing the molad each month, which leads people to believe that it somehow has weight in determining Rosh Hodesh. On the contrary, announcing the molad seems to be a recent error.)
I would deeply appreciate if anyone out there would be able to bring all of these points to R’ Schachter’s attention.
Recently, I discovered the life and work of the prolific and tragic Rabbi Moshe Levi, a prize student of Rabbi Meir Mazuz. Lo and behold, in his treatise on the blessings, Birkath Hashem, he lists the prominent authorities, down to the Magen Avraham, who ruled that according to the straight letter of the law, Birkath Hal’vana should be said on Rosh Hodesh, and he himself rules that way.
Which brings me to address a fundamental issue in understanding the nature of practice versus the letter of the law. Four years ago, a number of individuals made the curious claim that because “The minhag” is to say birkath hal’vana sometime after Rosh Hodesh, be it three days thereafter, or seven, or whenever Saturday night may be, it is therefore forbidden to recite the blessing any time earlier. While it would have helped to show them what Rabbi Moshe Levi had to write about it at the time, we mentioned earlier the clear proofs against this claim, but it also highlights an argument that is applicable elsewhere.
It is well-known that the ideal time for the morning prayer is right at sunrise, which is when the morning sacrificial service is supposed to start in the Temple, and this was the practice of the wathiqin of Jerusalem. However, in Orah Hayim 281, the Rema mentions that the practice on Sabbath morning is to arrive at the synagogue later than on weekdays. It cannot mean that people show up later than they would on weekdays, just to make sure that the amida prayer still starts at sunrise, because that would entail somehow abridging the recitation of all of the liturgy that precedes the amida, but that is not possible, because the practice is also to recite more psalms before the reading of the sh’ma and to recite a longer version of the blessings that accompany the sh’ma. The Rma is plainly stating that on the Sabbath, the morning service is delayed, and he even cites the explanation that it is based on what sounds like a d’rasha, that the verse that describes the Sabbath offering says that it is offered by day and not by morning. It must be said that the teaching in question is not a true d’rasha. It is not brought by Hazal, it is not followed by the halacha, as even on the Sabbath the morning lamb was offered at sunrise, and even in context, it is referring to the additional lambs brought after the morning lamb. Now, can one reasonably claim that because “the Minhag” is to pray later Sabbath morning, it is therefore wrong for some of us to pray at sunrise? After all, the R’ma is fairly clear that that is the minhag. Of course it cannot be, but I dread the day someone will say that. This point was made implicitly by the Mishna B’rura, who pointed out that the assumption of Rashi was that in Talmudic times, the Sabbath morning service was also at sunrise. By giving this veiled reference, he is respectfully disagreeing with the practice endorsed by the R’ma. Just because there is a practice to delay the performance of the commandment, it does not mean that the letter of the law may not be followed.
Similarly, there is a practice to delay the evening service the night of Pentecost. Now, it must be said the very idea postdates the Shulhan Aruch and the R’ma, but the letter of the law is and always was that any Sabbath or festival can be accepted before the holy day officially starts, and that is considered a very meritorious deed. Can one reasonably claim that because “the Minhag” is to pray later Pentecost evening, it is therefore wrong for some of us to pray before nightfall? After all, the Mishna B’rura is fairly clear that that is the minhag. Of course it cannot be, but I dread the day someone will say that. Just because there is a practice to delay the performance of the commandment, it does not mean that the letter of the law may not be followed. A few years ago I wrote about my surprise that Rav Aviner ruled that it is forbidden for Ashkenazim to begin the prayers before nightfall on Pentecost, thus ruling that that which the R’ma did and the rest of the Ashkenazim did for centuries was against halacha.
Lastly, we come to the issue of birkath hal’vana, which, according to the letter of the law, should be on Rosh Hodesh. Can one reasonably claim that because “the Minhag” is to recite it some days later, it is therefore wrong for some us to say it earlier? After all, the printed calendar is fairly clear that that is the minhag. Of course it cannot be, but as punishment for my “sins,” I heard many times from those who should have known better that it may not be said earlier, despite the fact that it only takes a few hours of research to find that the letter of the law’s practice is actually endorsed by the sages, and Rashi, and Maimonides, and the Shulhan Aruch, and the Vilna Gaon, and the Mishna B’rura. Just because there is a practice to delay the performance of the commandment, it does not mean that the letter of the law may not be followed. On the contrary, the punctilious seek to perform commandments as soon as possible.
Sometime ago I encountered someone who still made the claim that in the gloss cited above, the Mishna B’rura was merely encouraging the wait-three-days practice for birkath hal’vana, but not at all encouraging actually saying the blessing on Rosh Hodesh, or any time before whenever it is the calendar indicates the time for the blessing. After all, where does the Mishna B’rura, or the Shulhan Aruch for that matter, mention such an idea explicitly? In the entire chapter, the words Rosh Hodesh never appear!
I responded that one has to study the rishonim in order to understand that (and I should have noted that the chapter was included in the group of chapters titled “Hilchoth Rosh Hodesh”).
He then countered, sort of off the point, that “we pasken like the Aharonim, not the Rishonim.”
I then clarified: 1. I do not know who “we” are. Why should anybody follow the Aharonim more than the Rishonim? The notion flies in the face of logic, and also does not follow our sages’maxim, “the words of the master against the words of the student: who will we heed?” such methodology was implicitly rejected by the Vilna Gaon and the Hafetz Hayim. 2. I was saying that in order to understand what the Aharonim are saying, we have to be familiar with the words of the Rishonim, just like if we want to understand the words of the Rishonim, we have to understand the words of the sages, including that of Onqelos. I know what the Mishna B’rura meant because I follow the chain of terminology back to its source in the words of our sages. The moon in its renewal is, by definition, Rosh Hodesh.

From → halacha

  1. I have heard people make the same claim, that in order to understand the mishna berurah’s real intent (or for that matter, the Beis Yosef/ Shulchan Aruch), you have to be familiar with the sources they are quoting. And it obviously is extremely important to see the primary sources before the codification. Nevertheless, the mishna berurah writes quite clearly that he is writing his sefer for those people who don’t even have the time to learn Tur/Shulchan Aruch, let alone the earlier sources (likewise the beis Yosef is meant for people without time to see gemara/rishonim). Such a person can just learn the mishna berurah and come out with a halachic conclusion. The meaning of the mishna berurah is what he says inside, not what should come out by tracing him comments to the earlier sources and seeing what they are talking about in their terminology. The Mishnah berurah did not expect you to be looking up the sources inside!

    BTW it is noteworthy that Rav S.R.Hirsch, in Horev, also quotes the Halacha as being like the pri megadim. Just an interesting source not often quoted.

    • I am aware of what the MB’s intent in writing the book. My point that it is the very vocabulary of the sugyot that he assumes can often be unknown. in practice, the scope of the MB and the thoroughness of the Beiur halacha make it something he did not intend. Like Maimonides and the Beth Yosef, he thought he would write something that would be the final word, and it just did not work out that way. Biggest case in point: Most of MB volume 4.

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