Sanctification of New Moons – Pt. 1

The Hillelic Pharisees differed from their religious counterparts in that they followed the Babylonian custom of demanding that there must be witnesses who could testify to a Calendar Court confirming the sighting of the moon’s crescent on the very first day of the new moon. They also required official sanctification of the new moon by their Calendar Court.

Our attention will now shift to examining the rules for sanctification and dissemination for the Hillelic New Moon Day. As we shall see, many of these regulations prove to be arbitrary and counter to scriptural intent.

The Hillelic Pharisees considered it “a religious duty to sanctify (the new moon) on the strength of actual observation.”1 This duty was required, “even though the observation is not necessary for the purpose.”2

Maimonides argues this Pharisaic position when he writes:

Scripture made it incumbent upon the court to discover by calculation whether or not the new moon might be visible, to examine the witnesses, and then to sanctify the new moon and to send out messengers to inform the whole community which day was to be New Moon Day, so that the people would know on which days the sacred days would fall. For it is said: “These are the moadim of Yahweh which you will proclaim to be sacred convocations” (Lev., 23:37), and it is further said: “And you will observe this statute (of Phasekh) for this moad (Exod., 13:10).”3

Once more we see Pharisaic interpretation embellishing the original statutes of Yahweh. It is true that Scriptures make it incumbent upon the Israelite leadership to discover by calculation whether or not the new moon would be visible, and it would also stand to reason that there is a responsibility on the part of the government to send out messengers or use some form of communication to inform the whole community.

Nevertheless, nothing is implied that demands a Calendar Court, the examination of witnesses by that court on the day of the new moon, or any formal act of sanctification of the New Moon Day by a religious leader. Regardless, this requirement for sanctification was enforced while the Hillelic Pharisees governed.

Neither the calculations for, nor the sanctification of, the new moon could be carried out except by a court of three.4 The pronouncement fell to the Nasi, who usually sat as chief of the Calendar Court.5

The chief of the court says:

“It is sanctified!” and all the people answer after him, “It is sanctified! It is sanctified!”6

If the crescent of the new moon was not visible on the 30th day, the Calendar Court was sent home. Under Pharisaic interpretation, there was no need for the court because there was no sanctification required “on the day after” the 30th day: for the new moon “has already been sanctified in the heavens.”7 That is, no sanctification was required because “it was patent to all that the next day is the new moon, as no month exceeds 30 days.”8

It is also important to note that the more conservative Pharisees—as with their Aristocratic cousins, the Sadducees, Samaritans, and so forth—disagreed with the whole notion of sanctification of a New Moon Day.

In the Babylonian Talmud we read:

Rabbi Ashi said: In reality, the Mishnah refers to the “calculation” and as for the intercalation, it means the calculation relating to the intercalation. But having to state (explicitly) the intercalation of the year the Tanna also employs the phrase the intercalation of the month. The Mishnah thus holds that only calculation is required in fixing the length of the month, but no formal sanctification. Whose view is this? Rabbi Eliezer’s as it has been taught: Rabbi Eliezer says: Whether the moon appears at its due time or not, no sanctification is needed, for it is written, You will sanctify the fiftieth year (from which it is to be inferred that) you are to sanctify years but not months.9

Similarly, in the Jerusalem Talmud we are told:

Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai taught, “And you will sanctify the 50th year (Lev., 25:10). One sanctifies years, but not months.”10

To counter this logic, the Hillelic Beth Din taught that the true meaning of the expression “It is sanctified” was “It is affirmed.”11 Although the conservative wing of the Pharisaic party was uncomfortable with this justification, the Nasi represented the more liberal and powerful branch of the party. As a result, the Hillelic view controlled the debate.

There were a number of unique rules connected with the sanctification of the New Moon Day and the dissemination of the information to the general populace. To begin with, the sanctification of a month could only take place during the daytime.

The sanctification of a month is to be performed by day(light), and if it has been performed by night it is not valid. Rabbi Abba says: What passage (proves this)?—“Blow the shophar (horn) at the new moon, (blow it) at כסה (keseh, the full moon)12 for our khag day” (Ps. 81:3).13 Now on which khag is it a full moon? We must say (the one) at the beginning of the year.14 And it is written thereafter, “For this is a statute for Israel, and judgment for the eloahi of Jacob” (Ps. 81:4). Just as “judgment” is executed by day, so also must the sanctification of the month take place by day.15

Setting aside for the moment the fact that there is no scriptural commandment or statute requiring the sanctification of the new moon by a court or that judgment could only take place during the daytime, the Pharisaic logic is still elusive. Essentially, they were contending that judgments were connected with courts, and court judgments in capital cases (although not non-capital cases) could only be rendered during the daytime—a practice that was followed by the Jewish courts of the first century C.E.16 The Mishnah states:

In non-capital cases they hold the trial during the daytime and the verdict can be reached during the night; in capital cases they hold the trial during the daytime and the verdict also must be reached during the daytime.17

Since the blowing of the shophar at the time of the new moon was according to a judgment of the eloahi of Jacob, it was concluded that the proclamation or sanctification of the new moon by the Calendar Court could only occur during the daytime (as it would in a capital case). Accordingly, “if” the pronouncement of sanctification of the first day of the new moon was made at night, “the sanctification was not valid.”18

In the first years of Hillelic authority over intercalation, no sanctification of the new moon could take place after the afternoon offering had been performed.

This format was later changed.

After Temple Destruction
After the destruction of the Temple, however, a law was decreed by Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai and his court to the effect that evidence concerning the new moon be accepted during the whole of the 30th day. Hence, if witnesses came even at the end of the 30th day, near sunset, their evidence was accepted and the 30th day alone was duly observed as New Moon Day.19

The Calendar Court did not send out messengers to the people proclaiming sanctification for every new moon.

The Mishnah states:20

Because of six new moons do messengers go forth (to proclaim the time of their appearing): because of Nisan, to determine the time of Phasekh, because of Ab, to determine the time of the Fast (on the 9th of Ab); because of Elul, to determine the New Year (of Tishri, which follows on the first day of the following month);21 because of Tishri, to determine aright the set festivals (of that month); because of Khisleu, to determine the time (of the Festival of Dedication; Hanukkah);22 and because of Adar, to determine the time of Purim.23

For two of these new moons these messengers were under special instructions:

The messengers sent out to verify the New Moon Day of Nisan and Tishri could leave only on the first day of the month, after sunrise, and after they had heard the court pronounce the sanctification formula. If, however, the court had sanctified the new moon after the end of the 29th day, as we have explained above, and the messengers had heard the court pronounce “It is sanctified,” they could leave in the evening. The messengers, however, who were sent out to verify the sanctification for the other months could leave in the evening, after the new crescent had been observed, even if the court had not yet sanctified the new moon. Once the new phase had been observed, they were permitted to leave, inasmuch as the court was certain to sanctify the new moon the next day.24

Since it would take time for those in the Diaspora to receive word about which day the Nasi had decided was the first day of the moon, another rule was added that applied only to them:

In places that the messengers could reach in good time, each of the (new moon) holidays was observed one day only, as prescribed in the Torah. In remote places, however, which the messengers could not reach in time, it was customary to observe the holidays for two days, since the people were in doubt as to the exact day (the 30th or the next day) which the court had declared as New Moon Day.25

Sabbath Day Profaned
The Pharisees also would set aside their own laws regarding the profanation of the Sabbath day when dealing with the sanctification of a new moon. Under Pharisaic law, the Jews were not permitted to travel more than 2,000 cubits.26 This limit was set aside for both witnesses of the new moon and the messengers proclaiming the sanctification.

The Mishnah states:

Because of two new moons can the Sabbath be profaned: (the new moon) of Nisan and (the new moon) of Tishri, for on them messengers used to go forth to Syria, and by them the set festivals were determined. And while the Temple still stood the Sabbath might also be profaned because of any of the new moons, to determine aright the time of the offerings. Whether (the new moon) was manifestly visible or not, they can profane the Sabbath because of it. Rabbi Jose says: If it was manifestly visible they cannot profane the Sabbath because of it. . . . . . If a man saw the new moon but could not walk, he can be taken on an ass (on the Sabbath) or even on a bed; and if any lie in wait for them they can take staves in their hands (for protection). If it was a far journey they can take food in their hands, since for a journey enduring a night and a day they can profane the Sabbath and go forth to bear witness about the new moon; for it is written: “These are the moadi of Yahweh, sacred convocations which you will proclaim in their moadim” (Lev., 23:4).27

Therefore, since the Pharisees determined that it was necessary to have a visual sighting of the crescent on the day of the new moon, and there was a need to proclaim the moadim, the Sabbath itself could be profaned. Indeed, Tishri 1 was always a high Sabbath day,28 and the first day of the month occasionally began on a weekly Sabbath day.

Not only could the witnesses profane the Sabbath but “also a witness who accompanied them to certify their trustworthiness before the court” was ”permitted to profane the Sabbath, whenever the observing witnesses were not known to the court.”29

The Talmud adds:

Our Rabbis taught: Originally the Sabbath could be profaned for all of them (the new moons). When the Temple was destroyed, Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai said to them (the Beth Din): Is there then a sacrifice (waiting to be brought to the Temple)? (Since there was not) they therefore ordained that the Sabbath should not be profaned save for Nisan and Tishri alone.30

Once more, one discovers that rules regarding the New Moon Day continued to change after the destruction of the Temple of Yahweh in 70 C.E.

This concludes Part 1 of our study. Please proceed to Sanctification of New Moons – Pt. 2 where we will provide additional evidence for the distortion of Yahweh’s calendar by the Hillelic Pharisees.

Click for Bibliography.

1 B. R.Sh. 20a.
2 B. R.Sh., 20a, n. 6.
3 Maimonides Code, 3:8:1:7.
4 B. Sanh. 10b; Maimonides Code 3:8:2:8.
5 J. Sanh. 1:2:5a-i; Maimonides Code 3:8:2:8.
6 R.Sh. 2:7; J. R.Sh. 2:5.
7 B. Sanh. 10b.
8 HEEBT, Sanh. 10b, n. 1.
9 B. Sanh. 10b.
10 J. R.Sh. 2:5; J. Sanh. 1:2:5a.
11 J. R.Sh. 2:5:1.
12 SEC, Heb. #3677; also see NJB, loc. cit; REB, loc. cit.; NTB, loc. cit.; and so forth; LXX renders the term as εὐσήμῳ (eusemo), meaning. “good signs or omens . . .. easily known by signs, clear to be seen,” distinct, well-marked (GEL, p. 333; GEL, 1996, p. 732).
13 Some codices have the plural “festivals” (REB, p. 572, n. g).
14 It is not clear which beginning of the year is here meant, Nisan, which is scriptural, or Tishri, which was later used by the Jews as the beginning of their own year. Tishri is more likely.
15 B. Sanh. 11b.
16 Cf., Tosef. Sanh. 7:1. EJ 18, p. 22, “never at night, on the Sabbaths or festivals, or on their eves.”
17 Sanh. 4:1.
18 Maimonides Code 3:4:2:8; J. Sanh. 4:5.
19 Maimonides Code 3:8:3:6.
20 R.Sh. 1:3-4; cf., B. R.Sh. 19b; Maimonides Code 3:8:3:9, adds that during the existence of the Temple, “messengers were sent out also to verify the beginning of Iyyar, on account of the Lesser Phasekh.”
21 The Jewish new year of Tishri 1 is not the scriptural new year, which is on Abib 1.
22 An unscriptural Jewish holiday on Khisleu 25 that came about due to the Maccabaean revolt (1 Macc., 4:47-59). It is also called the Festival of Lights and Dedication (John 10:22).
23 A Jewish holiday celebrated from the 14th of Adar (Esther, 3:7, 9:24, 26; 2 Macc 15:36).
24 Maimonides Code 3:8:3:10; B. R.Sh. 21b.
25 Maimonides Code 3:8:3:11; cf., 3:8:5:9-12.
26 B. Erubin 51a. It is the product of Rabbinical exegesis of Exod. 16:19 and Num. 35:5.
27 R.Sh. 1:4-5, 9; cf., B. R.Sh. 22a; Maimonides Code 3:8:3:1–7.
28 Lev. 23:24.
29 Maimonides Code 3:8:3:3. This passage adds, “even if there was only one witness to introduce them to the court, he was allowed to accompany them and violate the Sabbath on account of the possibility that another witness might be found who would join him to form a pair.”
30 B. R.Sh. 21b, cf., 20a.

Back to Top

Leave a Reply