Monday, January 07, 2019

On the Times Commonly Presented for Birkat HaL’vana: Part 1

On the Times Commonly Presented for Birkat HaL’vana: Part 1
Avi Grossman


Typical Jewish calendars list two particular z’manim for “the first time that one may begin to recite kiddush l’vana (or birkat hal’vana).” The first is referred to as minhag yerushalayim or minhag haperushim, or simply “the three-day minhag,” and the second time, to wait for seven days to pass from the start of the lunar month to recite the blessing, is attributed to the Shulhan Aruch. These two times are calculated as exactly either 72 hours or 168 hours after the average molad of each Hebrew month. These positions do not truly reflect those of our sages, nor of the Rishonim, and nor of the Shulhan Aruch. The usual shul 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. The issue is based on a number of fallacious calculations, including misapplying a chumra of the Pri M’gadim regarding an opinion of the Rema to an opinion of the Shulhan Aruch, and assuming that the Shulhan Aruch completely dismissed the halacha as described by the Talmud in favor of a later, kabbalistic opinion. The purpose of this article is to argue for a reevaluation as to how the typical calendars present these issues to the laymen and to call for a more accurate presentation of the z’manim as understood by Rishonim like Maimonides.
If you take a look at the usual Jewish calendars, you will find that every month two particular z’manim are presented for “the first time that one may begin to recite kiddush l’vana (or birkat hal’vana).” The first is based on the writings of the Vilna Gaon, and referred to as minhag yerushalayim or minhag haperushim, or simply “the three-day minhag,” and the second is attributed to Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Beth Yosef and the Shulhan Aruch, who was usually referred to by the name of his former work. The Shulhan Aruch makes mention of waiting for seven days to pass (ostensibly from the start of the lunar month) to recite the blessing. These two times are calculated as follows: exactly 72 hours (3 times 24 hours) or 168 hours (7 times 24 hours) after the average molad of each Hebrew month, the molad that is announced in the synagogue before each Rosh Hodesh and used to calculate when each Tishrei is to start, thereby making it the basis for our set calendar.
It is my goal to show that these positions do not truly reflect those of our sages, nor of the Rishonim, and that Beth Yosef himself actually held like the majority of Rishonim, while his seven-day minhag is also misrepresented in the printed calendars. The usual shul 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.
Talmud And Rishonim: Birkat Hal’vana Ideally On Rosh Hodesh
Rabbi David Bar Hayim maintains that the monthly recitation of birkat hal’vana should, in accordance with the plain meaning of the Talmud and the opinion of the rishonim, ideally be on Rosh Hodesh, and in the event that that cannot be done, as soon as possible thereafter. See here. His first proofs are the most elegant.

"Whoever recites the b'rakha over the new moon at the proper time (bizmano) welcomes, as it were, the presence of the Sh'khina" (Sanhedrin 42a). What does bizmano mean if not that one should strive to recite this b’rakha at the earliest opportunity? In a number of manuscripts we find a variant reading – "Whoever recites the b'rakha for Rosh Hodhesh…” – which leaves no room for doubt as to R. Yohanan’s intention.

It should also be noted that throughout the rest of the Talmud, “z’mano” of the new moon is the night it is supposed to be sighted, i.e., the first night of the month. He also points out that
The Talmud Y’rushalmi (B’rakhoth 9:2) speaks plainly of reciting the b’rakha at the time of the moon’s reappearance (HaRo’e eth HaL’vana b’hidhusha). This is also the very deliberate wording of both Halakhoth G’dholoth and Riph (Chap 9 43b). This expression can only be understood as explained above.

This is also the language utilized by Maimonides and the Shulhan Aruch, and will become crucial when we seek to understand the opinion of the Beth Yosef. Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch, the math professor turned Rosh Yeshiva, also told me that such is the halacha, and it is proper to make others aware of this. 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 Rabbi Rabinovitch’s support, and he used the society’s founder’s diagrams in his own commentary on Maimonides’s Hilchot Kiddush HaHodesh.
This position 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.
We should begin our discussion with the relevant Talmudic sources, YT Berachot 9:2 and BT Sanhedrin 42-43, which state that one has until the sixteenth of the month to recite birkat hal’vana. The running assumption of the rishonim and logic is that the assumed first time to recite the blessing 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 is still the preceding night? This position is explicit in Rashi’s comments to the gemara, the Meiri’s explanation thereof, and in Maimonides’s codification of the law (Berachot, 10:16-17), but is also the only way to understand the halacha unless other considerations are introduced. A simple reading of the both Talmudim indicate without a doubt that the blessing is to be recited on Rosh Hodesh. Rabbi Kappah, in his commentary to the Mishneh Torah (ibid.), writes that this is and always was the Yemenite practice. Note also that this halacha makes no mention of the molad or of any calculation concerning the first time for reciting this blessing, because as one of the birkot har’iya, it only depends on seeing something.
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 be. 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.
However, 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 different interpretation of a view cited in the Beth Yosef, thus presenting a first time for birkat hal’vana that is sometimes as many as three days after the actual first opportunity.
Massechet Sof’rim And Rabbeinu Yona: Other Considerations

Rabbeinu Yona (attached to the Rif’s rulings at the very end of the fourth chapter of BT Berachot, page 21a in the Vilna printing, and cited by the Beth Yosef to Tur Orah Hayim 426, garsinan b’masechet sof’rim;) describes three ways to understand what Massechet Sof’rim meant by not reciting the blessing ad shetitbassem.” Evidently, his version of Sof’rim was different from ours, in which the first line of chapter 20 begins with “ad motza’ei shabbat, k’shehu m’vusam.” This verb, titbassem, is from the root b-s-m, and like most future tense forms with the prefix tau but no suffix, it 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). Rabbeinu Yona rejects the interpretation that it means to wait until Motzaei Shabbat, when we recite the blessing over the besamim, because Saturday night and Sunday have nothing to do with Rosh Hodesh more than other days of the week. Our Rosh Hodesh is actually distributed perfectly evenly among the days of the week. That is, one out of every seven days that we observe as Rosh Hodesh is a Sunday, and waiting for Saturday night every month can often considerably delay the blessing. What if Rosh Hodesh was Monday? Why wait practically a whole week to recite birkat hal’vana? The idea does not fit with the typical halachic principle of trying to perform a religious function as soon as possible.
Rabbeinu Yona does not then entertain the reading of Sof’rim we possess, which offers a different connection between the root b-s-m and Motza’ei Shabbat, but instead 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: titbassem 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. He uses intentionally vague language, because no two months are the same. By the time the moon becomes visible for the first time, it could be that the molad itself was anywhere from approximately twelve hours to 48 hours before that, and each month has its own set of astronomical conditions that affect this.[1] 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 Yona’s mentor describes, and that is why he used the vague terminology two to three days.” 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, it is 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 Shabbat, or even right after Shabbat, 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 Shabbat is at the end of three, and right after Shabbat 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 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 critical two or/to.” Even later, it is further transformed into waiting until after three full 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.
A typical example was Rosh Hodesh Adar 5777, when both the mean molad and the actual molad happened early Sunday morning, e.g. between 4 am and 9 am, the moon was not visible Sunday night, nor visible all Monday during the day, but Monday night, after sunset, which is halachically Tuesday, the new moon became 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 after the molad. 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 miktzat hayom k’chullo, that a part of the day is considered a full halachic day, is well grounded in halacha. To sum up, 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 later authorities add that at least” modifier?
The Beth Yosef and others who came after Rabbeinu Yona mentioned that the new lunar cycle officially starts with the molad. 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. 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.[2]
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 more extreme, when for some reason, the calendar invokes the (not so talmudic) 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.[3]
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 Beth Yosef himself does not subscribe to Rabbeinu Yona’s rule to begin with.
The answer is the Pri M’gadim, but first some more background.

The Last Time For Birkat Hal’vana
According to BT Sanhedrin (ibid.), the last opportunity for the birkat hal’vana is 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 beginning of the second half of the month, and usually marking the point that the moon is beginning to wane. Indeed, in deficient, 29-day months, it makes sense that the last opportunity should be the night of the 15th. The Beth 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 midpoint of the lunar month.
That is, the Talmud 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 the average moladoth, what the pos’kim call me’et l’et (literally, from time to time”), and often meant to mean exactly 24 hours after a certain event. In this case, it means exactly half the time between the moladoth,[4] 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 Beth 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. The Shulhan Aruch thus rules that 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, the Ashkenazim, follow the Rema, who said that the yard stick for measuring the last time of the blessing is me’et l’et, exactly half the time between the average moladot, so too, with regards to the first time of the blessing, the practice is to wait three days me’et l’et, 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. Further, the Rema himself made no actual mention of when he believes to be the first time for the recitation of Birkat Hal’vana, and without this interjection of the Pri M’gadim, one would figure that the Rema holds like the implication of the Talmud above, that the ideal time for the blessing is on Rosh Hodesh, or at least perhaps when Rabbeinu Yona says it should be.
Despite this, the Pri M’gadim’s 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? Further, one cannot derive that there is a both a rule as to how luminous the moon needs to be and about how Saturday night is ideal because they are mutually exclusive, alternate readings of the same line in Sof’rim. The whole idea that the authorities ever accepted that the moon needs to be a minimum size was never fully accepted, and even if there were those who subscribed to Rabbeinu Yona’s vague position, none of them before the Pri M’gadim assigned a strictly quantifiable time period to that standard.
We now need to address the following 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?
In Maaseh Rav 159, it is recorded in the name of the Vilna Gaon (who was a contemporary of the Pri M’gadim) that birkat hal’vana should not be postponed until seven days after (the start of the month), nor until Saturday night, but rather “we sanctify immediately after 3 days from the molad.” This seems to be an endorsement of Rabbeinu Yona’s position and the source for minhag yerushalyim, but as we have just argued, it would be a stretch to say that it could only be understood as the Pri M’gadim did. It would seem to make more sense to interpret this as Rabbeinu Yona himself wrote, “2 or 3 days” which allows for periods of time much shorter than the maximum 72 hours.
We have thus shown that with regards to general Ashkenazic practice, the calendars present a time for birkat hal’vana that has little basis in the oldest sources. I have not found a single work that takes up the problem of the Pri M’gadim declaring what the Rema’s position is with regard to the first time of birkat hal’vana, and the contemporary scholars familiar with the matter all hold like the simple understanding of the gemara according to Maimonides, namely that birkat hal’vana should be recited as soon as the new moon can be seen, with no consideration of how much time that actually takes after the molad. It would seem that the calendars, if they were to be honest, would notify their readers of when the moon is first technically visible each month, as per the Israeli New Moon Society’s charts, which usually satisfy Rabbeinu Yona’s and anyone who subscribes to his position’s conditions, and then to present the Pri M’gadim’s position, and refer to it as such.
To be continued in part 2.

[1] 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 days conditions were not sufficient for most to have actually enjoyed or even seen the light of the moon.
[2] As pointed out on the last page of the linked file in note 1, Maimonides did feel that there was a mathematical formula for determining minimal visibility.
[3] The Mishna Berurah (426:12 and Sha’ar Hatziyun ad loc) mentions that based on Kabbala, birkat hal’vana should not be said on Friday night, probably lest reciters come to dance, However, the way the halacha stood for millennia never included this novel rule, and the prohibition against dancing on the Sabbath and Festivals is itself a Rabbinic “fence” around a Biblical prohibition, and there is a Talmudic rule that we do not make “decrees to protect decrees.” More so, even though there are still some lone holdouts who maintain that this prohibition against dancing is still in force, most communities follow the opinion of the Tosafists (Beitza 30a) that nowadays there is no such prohibition. Thus, the almost universal custom of hakafot on Simchat Torah, which, if not for the Tosafists’ leniency, would be rabbinically forbidden.
[4] 29 days, 12 hours, and 793 chalakim. Each chelek is 3 and 1/3 seconds, so 793 chalakim equals 2643 and 1/3 seconds, or about 44 minutes. The half way point between the moladot would therefore be 14 days, 18 hours and 22 minutes or so after the first molad.

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