Birkath HaL’vana: When and Why

Yom 3, 15-03-65 —15 Siwan 5772

This last Mossa’ei Shabboth, after Arvith, the men of the schul where I daven went outside to do Qidush Levana, but when I looked up, I couldn’t bring myself to make the berakha. The moon was full (or at least appeared to be). I have understood that the “New Moon” is a small sliver. I have also understood that in the G’mara, Hazal discuss how full the moon can be before one can no longer make the berakha – and I am fairly sure that they all agreed that when it is full one can no longer bless. This has happened several times to me in both huss la-aress and Eress Yisrael.
Is there something wrong with the calendar that Rosh Hodhesh is falling out on the wrong day? When is the correct time to make the berakha on the New Moon every month? What if I am still within the month, but I see the new moon – even during the daytime – do I bless then or do I wait?
What bothered me about the whole thing was that it felt like it was out of step with the visible reality clearly before our eyes. Everyone was turned toward an obviously full moon making a berakha on its “newness”. It felt really wrong and artificial.
Was I wrong to abstain?

The Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 41b discusses until when one may recite Birkath HaL’vana. According to one view it may be said until the 7th day, i.e. until the moon becomes a full semi-circle. The other view states that the B’rakha may be recited up until the full moon, i.e. the 16th day. There is some discussion among the Pos’qim whether the Talmud’s intention was inclusive (including the night of the 16th) or exclusive (until the night of the 15th). The b’rakha may therefore be recited according to all opinions until the night of the 15th of the Jewish month – see Rambam’s MT B’rakhoth 10:19 and Tur OH 426.
The night to which you refer was 13-03-65, Siwan 13 5772. The moon may have seemed full to you, but it was not. The moon was 100% full on Yom 2, Monday, 15-03-65, Siwan 14, June 4.
Our present fixed calendar is in need of adjustment, but this has no significant bearing on our present discussion. You are, however, on to something; by the time many people get around to reciting the b’rakha, the ‘new moon’ is rather stale. The dates mentioned in TB Sanhedrin 41b are b’dhi’avadh, the last times for reciting the b’rakha, as explained below.
Rabenu Yona (commentary on Riph B’rakhoth, end of Chap. 4) claims that the Talmud (Sanhedrin 41b-42a) discusses only the latest time for reciting this b’rakha, and quotes from Masekheth Soph’rim (see below) regarding the earliest recommended time. This understanding, however, is incorrect. The Talmud quotes R. Yohanan: “Whoever recites the b’rakha over the new moon at the proper time (bizmano) welcomes, as it were, the presence of the Sh’khina” (TB Sanhedrin 42a). What does bizmano mean if not that one should striv¬e 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.
This was obvious to all the Rishonim (with the exception of Rabenu Yona). We thus find Rashi explaining: “If one did not recite the b’rakha today, one does so on the morrow”. “Today” refers to the first sighting of the new moon. So too RaMaH (R. Meir HaLewi Abul’aphya, commentary on Sanhedrin): “If one did not recite the B’rakha on the first day, one may do so until it fills out”. Rambam and M’iri (Sanhedrin 42a) are also of this view, as are SMaGH (Positive 27) and Rabenu Manoah (commentary on Rambam). According to all these Rishonim, Birkath HaL’vana is to be recited on the very first evening the new moon is visible, or as early in the month as possible. This is also the view of the Maharshal (commentary on Smagh).
R. Yohanan’s words are not divre Hagada; they are an Halakhic statement directing to us act in a certain manner. This is why Riph, who never quotes Hagadoth, mentions this statement of R. Yohanan. (The other statement quoted by Riph – “In the school of Rabbi Yishma’el it was taught: Were the Jewish People privileged to greet the presence of their Heavenly Father only once a month, this would be sufficient. Abaye said: Therefore we should recite it standing” – is quoted because of Abaye’s Halakhic conclusion.)
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’hidusha). This is also the very deliberate wording of both Halakhoht G’dholoth and Riph (Chap 9 43b). This expression can only be understood as explained above.
The fact that many people deliberately delay reciting this b’rakha until later in the month is based on two sources. R. Yoseph Karo in his Beth Yoseph (OH 426) mentions a responsum written by the medieval Spanish Qabalist R. Yoseph Jiqtillia, best known for his work Sha’are Ora, according to which one should wait till 7 days have passed. It is curious, to say the least, that R. Yoseph Karo saw fit to quote this view in his Shulhan ‘Arukh; it clearly contradicts Hazal and the Rishonim – see ‘Arokh Hashulhan (OH 426:13). This is an instructive instance of a phenomenon which is much more common than many realize: R. Yoseph Karo does not always follow his own rules. In his introduction to his commentary Beth Yoseph, he writes that he will follow the view of Riph, Rambam and Rosh, or the majority view of these three pos’qim. In practice, he not infrequently strays from his own rule of thumb. In our case, R. Yoseph Karo adopted the view of a Qabalist, not known for his Halakhic expertise, despite that fact that it contradicts all the primary sources.
The other source is the statement in Masekheth Soph’rim 20:1 which, according to the standard text, speaks of waiting till Mossa’e Shabath. The combination of these two factors leads to the far from ideal reality to which you refer.
According to Rabenu Yona (ibid.), Masekheth Soph’rim does not speak of the person being “m’vusam” on Mossa’e Shabath, but rather refers to the moon itself being “m’vusam”, i.e. of sufficient size so that we benefit (“nehenim”) from its light, which is interpreted by R. Yona to be 2 or 3 days after the new moon.
I have never understood R. Yona’s position. In the first place, human beings can only be said to benefit from the moon’s light around the time of the full moon (see below). Much before or after that the moon’s light is insignificant. I recently saw that the Hida (R. Yoseph Dawidh Azulai) in his Birke Yoseph (OH 426) makes this very point. And if Rabenu Yona meant that our pleasure at seeing the moon is greater when the moon is 3 or more days old, I believe most people would disagree: seeing the thin crescent of a truly new moon is a much more powerful experience than seeing it some days later.
Secondly, R. Yona’s interpretation is clearly forced; the term “m’vusam” does not refer to the moon’s light but rather to the person. A person in uplifted mood as a result of imbibing wine is described as m’vusam, as in the famous statement in TB M’ghila 7b about drinking wine on Purim.
R. Yona opted to explain it as referring to the moon in order to dispense with the dubious connection to Mossa’e Shabath. The truth, however, is that Masekheth Soph’rim clearly refers to the person reciting the b’rakha, and thus was it understood by all authorities with the exception of Rabenu Yona. (It is possible that the original text contained no reference to Mossa’e Shabath, as claimed by R. Yona, and the words “on Mossa’e Shabath” were added in order to explain that this is usually the case on Mossa’e Shabath when a person is dressed in Shabath clothes and has eaten well and partaken of wine.)
This understanding of Rabenu Yona is apparently the source of the comment first mentioned in Shibole HaLeqett (no. 167) and later in the Agur (591) and quoted in Beth Yoseph on the Tur, that one should only recite this b’rakha at night when the moon’s light is beneficial. R. Yoseph Karo does not mention this in his Shulhan ‘Arukh; the RaMa (R. Moshe Isserles), however, added it in his annotations (OH 426:1).
This position is incorrect on two counts. Firstly, this b’rakha is not recited because of any benefit which we derive from the moon’s light, but rather because of the beauty and majesty of the lunar cycle which reminds¬ us of HASHEM who created it so (see M’iri and Maharshal on Sanhedrin 42a, and Birke Yoseph quoted above). It is akin to Birkath HaHama, or the b’rakha recited upon seeing lightning or a great mountain range (Barukh ‘Ose B’reshith, see Rambam’s MT Hilkhoth B’rakhoth 10:16-17). Secondly, in practice, if one sees the new moon on the very first night of the month, it will usually be before nightfall. There is absolutely no requirement that we benefit by the moon’s light – see Birke Yoseph. It follows that one may and should recite this b’rakha whenever the new moon is visible, day or night.
Be that as it may, the entire Halakha as it appears in Masekheth Soph’rim, with its references to jumping and reciting words or chants directed at the moon, is suspect. Rabenu M’nahem haM’iri (Sanhedrin 42a), clearly perturbed by these Questionable practices which smack of witchcraft and worse, stressed that occult practices are forbidden and that all prayers are to be directed to HASHEM. If we are honest with ourselves we are forced to admit that many people are engaging in the very practices that M’iri warned against.
Rav ‘Amram Gaon, Halakhoth G’dholoth (B’rakhoth Chap. 9), Rav Sa’adhya Gaon (Sidur p. 91), Riph (end of Chap. 4 of B’rakhoth), Rambam, Rosh (Sanhedrin 5:1), Ra’avya (B’rakhoth no. 85) and other Pos’qim mention reciting only the B’rakha. It is proper, therefore, to recite the B’rakha and no more. If one wishes to add “Dawidh Melekh Yisrael Hay w’Qayam”, which refers to our national aspiration and obligation to reconstitute a sovereign Jewish nation in EY based on the precepts and values of the Tora, one may do so. As the b’rakha itself explains, we are compared to the moon; our unique, spiritual light comes to us from HASHEM by way of His Tora. Just as the moon wanes but eventually waxes anew, so too does the Jewish nation have two phases: Galuth and G’ula.
10. In summary: Birkath HaL’vana belongs to the class of B’rakhoth instituted by Hazal which we say upon experiencing or seeing an awesome and humbling aspect of HASHEM’s Creation. As happened with other misswoth, this profoundly meaningful Halakha was hijacked and transformed almost beyond recognition due to the influence of dubious, sectarian teachings. This transformation has been so complete that one could be forgiven for viewing Birkath HaL’vana as something pagan.
By reciting the b’rakha (and nothing more) when the new moon appears, we perform a meaningful misswa as Hazal intended; we connect to HASHEM, we note the majesty of HASHEM’s Creation and mark the new month, and are reminded that HASHEM is the source of all we see and experience.
Rabbi David Bar-Hayim