In 41 C.E., the Aristocratic system of determining new moons and the intercalation of a year, previously calculated only by the priests who were the descendants of Aaron, the high priest, was officially usurped by the Nasi (head of the Sanhedrin) of the Hillelic Pharisees.
Thus began a process wherein the Hillelic party, starting with Gamaliel I, using the “traditions of their fathers” and heavily influenced by Babylonian customs, instituted a series of modifications that forever changed the requirements for determining the beginning of a month and a year in what became known as Orthodox Judaism.
These new calendar regulations were created for two reasons:
1. As a deliberate attempt to camouflage the true scriptural mechanism (which they believed they were obligated to keep as a secret).
2. To adjust the method of determining years and months to reflect the understanding of the Hillelic school.
Unfortunately, these Hillelic traditions have resulted in changing the original priestly system (which itself had been covered over by the late priestly innovation of secrecy) by introducing various arbitrary and capricious rules designed to enhance the power of the Hillelic leadership.
Three parts of the Hillelic system require our discussion:
• The Calendar Court System used by the Pharisees.
• The Hillelic methods for determining new moons.
• The Hillelic methods for deciding when to intercalate years.
With this study, we shall deal with the issue of what kind of court system was used to determine new moons and the intercalation of years. It will become apparent that the older aristocratic calendric system, which relied upon simple calculations and procedures, was replaced by a complex system heavily dependent upon personal interpretations.
These scribal and Pharisaic interpretations, in turn, led to various contradictions that gave arbitrary, contrary, and convoluted results.
The Older Views
Let us frame our discussion by first recalling the older, more conservative views regarding how to determine the first day of the new moon and the beginning of the new year. These views were held by the right-wing faction of the Pharisees and the old Hasidic groups (such as the Qumran Covenanteers), as well as the Aristocratic groups (i.e., the Sadducees, ancient Samaritans, and early Christians).
The Jews prior to 70 C.E. began their year, so Passover (which came on the 14th of Abib) always fell on a day after the vernal equinox. We find this view advocated by the Jewish priests living in the 3rd century B.C.E., like Aristobulus (one of the 70 who created the Septuagint version of the Torah), all the way up to the Jewish priests and writers Josephus and Philo, who lived during the 1st century C.E.
The early Christian assemblies also followed this arrangement. After 70 C.E., on the other hand, the Hillelic Pharisees changed the state system so that only the day of the omer wave offering needed to fall after the day of the vernal equinox.1
Regarding new moons, the more conservative Pharisaic writers, like Philo (fl. 45 C.E.), reflect the Pharisaic view of his day. He believed that a lunar month was “the period between one conjunction and the next, the length of which has been accurately calculated in the astronomical schools.”2 The lunar month, he writes, “wanes to her conjunction with the sun” and “dies away into the conjunction,”3 i.e., the night of her conjunction with the sun was the last day of the lunar month.
The time of the conjunction is defined as “when the moon is lost to sight under the sun,” at which time “the side which faces the earth is darkened.”4 The first day of the new moon begins when the moon “resumes its natural brightness.”5 The moon determines the moadim. Yet, it can only regulate at night.6 Accordingly, the day begins with the twilight that starts at sunset, during which time the moon makes its first appearance of the month.
Many from the older Hasidic groups of the 2nd century B.C.E. until the 1st century C.E. believed in the same construct. The Qumran Covenanteers, for example, argued that if the conjunction of the moon and the sun happens at night—i.e., after sunset and before sunrise—the next day, which begins with the following sunset, is the first day of the new lunar month.7
Conversely, if the conjunction happens after sunrise, the moon is still considered to be in conjunction during the following night. As a result, the first day of the new lunar month does not occur until the second night after, i.e., the day after the night of the conjunction.8 The antiquity of this view is proven by the fact that the Qumran Covenanteers, as demonstrated in their book of Jubilees, held this lunar reckoning despite using a solar reckoning for their year.9
As O. S. Wintermute points out:
The writer mentions only the sun, and not the moon, as the determinant for holy days. This is in keeping with his quasi-solar year of 364 days and his strident opposition to lunar calculations.10
This ancient view is repeated as late as c.100 C.E. by the Pharisee named Rabbi Eliezer the Great, who, on this issue, followed the earlier and more conservative Pharisaic practice. Eliezer wrote that the conjunction of the moon and sun must be calculated first by counting the night in which the conjunction occurs. Added to this night must come the daylight period of the conjunction. The next night becomes the first day of the new moon.11
Interestingly, even in the Talmud, the premise for all of the different systems is stated when it reports:
It is necessary that there should be a night and a day of the new moon.12
The reason for this, Eliezer notes, is that:
. . . the moon’s light does not rule over the sun’s light by day, nor does the sun’s light rule over the moon’s light by night, likewise the calculation of the moon does not rule by day nor does the calculation of the sun by night, and the one does not trespass on the boundary of the other.13
Accordingly, if the conjunction occurs during the daylight hours, the night and day following can only be counted as belonging to the time of the conjunction. As a result, the first day of the new month arrives the next night, which follows the night and day of the conjunction.
After 70 C.E.
Of course, after 70 C.E., the Hillelic Pharisees began to suppress this more conservative and simpler view. Yet this understanding was continued for some time by the Sadducees, Boethusians, Samaritans, and early Christians (all called minim or heretics by the Hillelic Pharisees). These groups clearly opposed the Hillelic form of determining the New Moon Day. For this reason, they were sometimes found trying to trick the Pharisaic leadership into starting the first day of the lunar month one day earlier than the Hillelic Pharisees were given to do.
However, this conflict between the older, more conservative view of determining the New Moon Day and the late liberal Hillelic view retains an apparent contradiction. Despite their different approaches, the results of their calculations in the majority of cases were nearly identical. Even if one observed the older method, for example, he would still almost invariably see with the naked eye the first crescent of the new moon on the same night determined by the calculations of the Hillelic Pharisees.
If it were merely a matter of seeing a thin, visible crescent, it would only be on a rare occasion that a difference of opinion would arise (due to weather or other atmospheric conditions, the ability of one’s eyes, or other circumstances). Indeed, all of these ancient groups used calculations that came to approximately the same result regarding which days actually represented new moons. Why, then, was there a conflict?
The problem arose for two reasons:
1. The Hillelic Pharisees would have allowed for various exceptions, even if the crescent of the moon was without question visible on a known date. In these cases, due to their particular religious interpretations, they might begin the New Moon Day on the day after the crescent was seen or even on the day before.
2. Even though a crescent might have been visible or at least have mathematically existed, due to common observational problems or other circumstances, if no witness came forward to testify as having actually seen the new moon’s crescent, that day was discarded as a New Moon Day. At other times, even if all of Israel saw the new crescent, yet it was not reported to the Nasi and his court so that they could sanctify it, that day also was not counted as a New Moon Day.
The capricious nature of the Hillelic system created the problem, and some of the Aristocratic groups felt justified in their resorting to deception to counter these false reckonings.
Built on Oral Traditions
The first premise of the Hillelic calendar and the even more conservative Pharisaic views of the calendar was their contention that their respective methods arose out of oral traditions that go back to at least Moses and Mount Sinai.
The Pharisaic pattern was to take some grain of truth, factual statement, or some obvious point of reference and then embellish it with interpretations, traditions, and fables to create their own system, all the while claiming it was really the older system. Further, they argued that their views were so secret that they were only known to their sages.
To demonstrate, Rabbi Eliezer argues that Yahweh delivered the calculations for “the numbering of years, months, days, nights, terms, seasons, cycles, and intercalations” to Adam in the garden of Eden.14 Adam then gave these instructions to Enoch, Enoch to Noah, Noah to Shem, Shem to Abraham, Abraham to Isaak, Isaak to Jacob, and finally Jacob to Joseph and his brothers.15
When that generation died out, the knowledge of new moons and intercalations diminished from the Israelites. The information did not reappear again until Yahweh gave it to Moses and Aaron.16 From them, it passed down to the Pharisaic sages. The Hasidic Jews of the 2nd century B.C.E. similarly argued that the pre-flood Patriarch Enoch, the grandfather of Noah, also understood the science behind an accurate calendar.17
Regarding the Pharisaic methods for determining new moons, Maimonides, who himself supported the validity of both astronomical calculations and visual confirmation, states that it was:
. . . a Mosaic TRADITION from Sinai that in times when there was a (Great) Sanhedrin (in the Promised Land), declaration of New Moon Days was based upon visual observation, while in times when no (Great) Sanhedrin existed, this declaration was based upon calculations such as we are using today and no attention was paid to observation of the new crescent.18
The Pharisaic position, nevertheless, is deceptive. Indeed, there was knowledge of how to determine months and years. Also, this knowledge was certainly known to Moses and Aaron and to many of the priests and prophets who followed them. There can be no doubt that these men also had some system for determining these calculations.
Indeed, the very fact that no detailed explanation is found in Scriptures points to the reality that these methods and their scriptural definitions were already well understood. Yet no ancient scriptural or other early source in existence prior to the writings of the Hillelic Pharisees actually states that Moses or his Great Sanhedrin “sanctified” the New Moon Day or required “witnesses” on that day to testify before a panel of judges of a calendar “court.”
At the same time, since Moses and the high priest, Aaron, represented the first government of Israel, they certainly would have declared which day a new month or new year would begin. The rabbis then embellished the story with the claim that Moses was actually given designs of the new moon and oral instructions and traditions from Yahweh to assist him in his visual determinations.
For example, the sages claim:
The sovereign (Yahweh) showed the form of the new moon unto Moses in a prophetic vision and said to him, When you do see the moon in such a shape you shall sanctify it.19
Secrets of the Calendar
The secrets of the calendar were considered part of the oral laws revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai and passed down through a line of elders and prophets until it came to the Pharisaic sages.20 It was upon these oral laws, premised upon their interpretation of a biblical passage, that the Pharisees rested all of their authority for the Calendar Court, witnesses, and the right to intercalate.
All that we have said above concerning the fixation of New Moon Days on the basis of observation of the new crescent, and concerning intercalation of the year because of the season or because of other reasons of expediency, applies only to the Sanhedrin in Palestine or to a Palestinian court of judges ordained in Palestine, to whom the Sanhedrin had delegated the authority to do so. For Moses and Aaron were thus ordered: “This new moon will be unto you the beginning of moons (months)” (Exod., 12:2), and the sages have learned FROM AN ORAL TRADITION going back to our teacher Moses that the meaning of this verse is: “The authority over this evidence is vested in you in your duly qualified successors.” In times, however, when no Sanhedrin existed in Palestine, fixation of New Moon Days and intercalation of years was effected only by such methods of calculation as we are using today.21
To put it another way, Yahweh’s instruction to Moses—who was at the head of the first Great Sanhedrin, included the words “unto you.” For the sages, “unto you” meant it was given unto any leader of the Great Sanhedrin who succeeded Moses in authority. Since the Hillelic line of Nasim was ruling the Great Sanhedrin (despite the fact that the Romans granted them authority and not Yahweh), the Pharisees believed that these words gave them total power to create a Calendar Court, call in witnesses, and even make exceptions to the determinations of New Moon Days and the intercalations of the year for expediency’s sake.
Only when there was no Great Sanhedrin—implying only when the Pharisees no longer ruled the Great Sanhedrin in Palestine—would normal methods of calculations be allowed. So in 358 C.E., when the Romans took away the authority of the Pharisees to conduct a Calendar Court, Nasi Hillel II (330–365 C.E.) authorized a calendar built upon a 19-year Metonic cycle.
More importantly, equating an instruction where Yahweh advised Moses that the month of Abib would be the first month of the year with giving any future leader of a Great Sanhedrin in Palestine authority to change the natural laws of new moons and the intercalations of years for expediency’s sake is a leap in logic. This interpretation is wholly self-serving. Furthermore, these so-called secrets of the calendar that were passed down in these oral laws and traditions were kept only by the sages.
. . . for these methods are indeed remote and deep, and they constitute the Secret of the Calendar, which was known ONLY TO THE GREAT SAGES and which they were not permitted to reveal to anyone except to ordained and sagacious (disciples).22
Finally, they reserved to the Nasi the sole authority over the calendar and its secrets.23 Notice that there is no claim by the Pharisees that any of the priests, especially the high priests, of former generations ever knew these calendric secrets; only the sages (rabbis). This fact alone proves that the high priests observed a system somewhat different from the Hillelic Pharisees.
Neither is there a recognition of the change in the number of days in the year and month which took place after the astronomical events occurring in the days of King Hezekiah. In this regard, it reminds us of the words of Plato, who points out that many people forgot the histories of great catastrophes that affected their nations. The survivors died off, leaving few records, and newer generations never saw what had actually occurred. It was presumed by those living long after the event that everything remained the same in their day as it had been in the past.24
Similarly, there was little evidence of the events in Scriptures, and records of other nations were not well-known but to a few. As a result, the historical truth was forgotten. The Jewish scribes and sages likewise failed to consider this evidence and presumed a uniformitarian premise as the basis for their history.
The plain fact is that there is no record before the Mishnah (200 C.E.)—and then only when it deals with the period of Pharisaic control over intercalation beginning in 41 C.E.—of any official sanctification of the new moons and the requirement for witnesses before a court to confirm a visual sighting of a new moon crescent.
Please proceed to The Pharisaic Calendar and Court – Pt. 2, where we will address the issue of the Court of Elders and, after the Temple’s destruction in 70 C.E., the Great Sanhedrin of Pharisees. This information will answer why there is confusion among many today regarding Yahweh’s sacred calendar.
Click for Bibliography.
1 B. R.Sh. 21a; cf., J. Sanh. 1:2 (fol. 18d); B. Sanh. 12b.
2 Philo, Spec. 2:26 §140
3 Philo, Spec. 1:35 §178, 2:26 §140.
4 Philo, Spec. 2:26 §141.
5 Philo, Spec. 2:26 §141.
6 Psalm 104:19; and see the numerous references to days being counted by the moon in Scriptures (e.g., SEC, pp. 687–688, v.s. month), cf., Gen. 1:16; Ps. 136:9; Jer. 31:35.
7 1 Enoch 73.
8 1 Enoch 73.
9 Jub. 2:8-9.
10 OTP 2, p. 56, n. p.
11 Eliezer 7.
12 B. R.Sh. 20b.
13 Eliezer 7.
14 Eliezer 8.
15 Eliezer 8.
16 Eliezer 8.
17 1 Enoch, 72–82.
18 Maimonides Code 3:8:5:2-3.
19 Maimonides Code 3:8:1:1.
20 Aboth 1:1–4:22.
21 Maimonides Code 3:8:5:1.
22 Maimonides Code 3:8:11:4.
23 Eduy. 7:7; B. Sanh. 11a.
24 Plato, Timaeus, p. 37.