This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

New Year, New Moon *

Rosh Hashanah is unique among the festivals of the biblical calendar in that it inevitably coincides with another holy day—because it falls on the first day of the Hebrew month, it also qualifies as a Rosh Ḥodesh, a New Moon. While the Jerusalem Temple was in existence, this New Moon was commemorated by the offering its own sacrifices, in addition to those of Rosh Hashanah.

The festival prayers were ordained so as to correspond to the sacrificial services. It is therefore understandable that the Talmud asks whether the Rosh Hashanah prayers should also include an acknowledgment of Rosh Ḥodesh. After all, when a festival coincides with Shabbat, it is the normal practice to mention both themes in the text of the liturgy.

By the time the rabbis in the Talmud reached the end of their discussion, they had not arrived at a definitive answer to their question. They did, however, give serious consideration to the argument that "a single 'memorial'" can suffice for both the New Year and the New Moon. As explained by Rashi, this is an allusion to the fact that the Torah (Leviticus 23:24) speaks of Rosh Hashanah as "a memorial of blowing of trumpets," whereas regarding the New Moon it states "in the beginnings of your months, ye shall blow with the trumpets... that they may be to you for a memorial before your God" (Numbers 10:10). Hence, when the liturgy makes a reference to "the day of memorial"—yom ha-zikkaron—the expression could be understood as alluding to both aspects of the day. And in fact, the earliest known prayer books produced by the Babylonian Ge'onim did not contain any more explicit mention of the New Moon than this indirect verbal allusion to memorials.

Now all this is well and good as long as we are speaking of expressions in the prayers that were composed by the rabbis. There is, however, a widespread practice of including in the Additional (Musaf) Prayer verbatim recitations of the actual passages from the Torah that outline the sacrificial offerings for the respective holy days.  As several commentators observed, the requisite verses recounting the Rosh Hashanah and Rosh Ḥodesh sacrifices are quite distinct and cannot be combined. And yet, they argued, it would seem inappropriate to omit either of those texts from the festival prayer service.

In the eleventh century a controversy erupted in the European Jewish communities in connection with this question. Toward the end of his life, Rabbi Isaac Hallevi or Worms instituted in his community the full recitation of the holiday sacrifices, and he stipulated that it should include a separate mention of the New Moon. Evidently, this constituted a departure from the community's previous norm, and it provoked the ire of his more conservative contemporaries who, following Rabbi Isaac's death, tried to overturn his innovation. Another prominent authority in Worms, Rabbi Jacob ben Yakar, following what was apparently the established local custom, chose to omit the full recitations of the Torah passages describing the sacrifices.

Indeed, aside from adding a few extra lines to an already lengthy service (a consideration that would hardly have troubled the medieval Jewish worshipers), it is not immediately obvious what objection anyone would have had to inserting a brief paragraph about the New Moon sacrifices.

There was, however, one particular issue that was repeatedly raised by those who opposed the mentioning of the New Moon in the prayers: they feared that by juxtaposing the two holy days in the same prayer, they would be promoting a misunderstanding that could lead to some dangerous consequences.

In order to understand their concerns, we must first examine some subtle differences between two models of Jewish sacred time.

Rosh Hashanah has been observed for many centuries as a two-day festival in spite of the fact that the Torah assigns it only one day. A Rosh Ḥodesh can have either one or two days, depending on whether the previous month is deemed to consist of twenty-nine or thirty days. In both instances, the reasons for the insertion of the second day are ostensibly similar, deriving from ancient uncertainties in determining the dates (this was originally done on the basis of visual observations of the lunar cycle) and then announcing those dates to Jews in far-flung localities.

Nevertheless, there are critical differences between the two occasions.

In the case of a normal two-day Rosh Ḥodesh, the first day is actually the thirtieth day of the previous month, while the second is the first day of the new one. Rosh Hashanah, on the other hand, is observed on the first and second days of the month of Tishri and according to the Talmud, it constitutes a unique instance of virtual "extended day."

Although these conceptual distinctions might appear very abstract, they have some decidedly practical consequences when it comes to holiday observances. In days of yore, Jews could not rely on receiving an attractively printed calendar from their local yeshivah or kosher bakery, so they had to do their own computations to determine the dates of festivals, usually by counting the number of days that had elapsed since the most recent New Moon. For this purpose, they knew to begin their count from the latest one-day Rosh Ḥodesh or from the second day of a two-day Rosh Ḥodesh.

The two days of Rosh Hashanah threatened to confuse the calculations, since it would be perfectly natural and understandable for people to treat them like normal months, and to start counting the days of Tishri from the second day of the festival rather than the first. This could ultimately lead people to observe Yom Kippur and Sukkot on the wrong dates, and to treat the actual holy days as profane weekdays--with all the dreadful religious repercussions that would ensue if their prohibitions were inadvertently violated!

The probability of such catastrophic confusion would be increased drastically if the New Moon were to be given prominent billing in the Rosh Hashanah prayers. Hence, argued Rabbi Isaac's opponents, it was more prudent to stick as close as possible to the talmudic policy of concealing the Rosh Ḥodesh of Tishri under the obscure rubric of the "memorial."

An inquiry was eventually submitted to the leading authority of the next generation, Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes—Rashi. Rashi was himself a disciple of both Rabbi Isaac Hallevi and Rabbi Jacob ben Yakar. Evidently, his questioners were hopeful of obtaining from him reliable versions of Rabbi Isaac Hallevi's position on this question, and they also wanted Rashi to issue a definitive ruling in the dispute.

Rashi reported diplomatically that even though Rabbi Jacob did not institute the recitation of the New Moon texts in the service, this should not be interpreted as a fundamental disagreement with Rabbi Isaac or the Talmud. Rashi was reluctant to accept the prospect that his revered teachers were actually involved in an overt dispute. He recalled that Rabbi Jacob was a humble soul who treated himself as "a doormat to be trodden upon," and hence it would have been out of character for him to take a confrontational stand on the matter. Therefore Rabbi Jacob's silence on the matter should not be perceived as open opposition to Rabbi Isaac's practice.

After all, the talmudic discussion had not been concerned with the recitation of biblical passages, but only with the wording of the blessings in the Musaf service. During his student days, Rashi himself had never thought to ask his teacher Rabbi Isaac about reciting the scriptural verses, since he was completely unfamiliar with the existence of such a practice on any festival.

Before holiday prayer books became easily available, worshipers would usually have to rely on their own memories when reciting their prayers; under those circumstances, Rashi explained, while it might be reasonable to expect people to memorize the appropriate texts for Sabbath and New Moon, which occur quite frequently, it would impose excessive demands on their memories to also learn the texts related to the once-a-year festivals. Hence those passages had never been incorporated into the original liturgy.

It was only later, after he was persuaded by the venerable cantor Rabbi Meir bar Isaac of Worms that it was advisable to enumerate the relevant biblical passages as part of the Musaf prayers, that Rashi decided to adopt that practice himself, even with respect to the New Moon passages, in accordance with the custom of Rabbi Isaac Hallevi.

Rashi suggested that when post-talmudic communities first instituted the recitation of the festival verses, they mistakenly excluded the New Moon passage because they had misunderstood the context of the Talmud's exchange on the topic.

He also dismissed the argument about the ruinous consequences that might result from miscalculating the dates of the festivals. If that was a real concern, then the sages of the Talmud would have raised it explicitly in their examination of the question.

At any rate, in spite of Rashi's plausible and elegant arguments, his preferred solution did not take root in the French or German Jewish communities. What emerged as the characteristic Ashkenazic practice was precisely the hybrid position that Rashi had rejected: the biblical texts about the sacrifices are included in in the Musaf service, but the New Moon is excluded other than through indirect allusions.

This contrarian position was defended by Rashi's grandson Rabbi Jacob Tam. Rabbenu Tam's insistence on full recitation of the sacrifice texts stemmed from his conviction that the essence of the Musaf prayer service is as a verbal substitute for the sacrificial services. Nonetheless, he felt that there was no need to include the separate paragraph about the New Moon sacrifices, seeing that they are mentioned obliquely when the cited Torah text states that the Rosh Hashanah offerings should be brought "beside the burnt offering of the month" (Numbers 29:6). However, some authorities, including the "sages of Mainz," objected that even this was too explicit a recognition of the New Moon on Rosh Hashanah.

Assorted reasons were adduced for this attitude. Several commentators cited the talmudic interpretation of Psalms 81:4 that stressed the character of Rosh Ḥodesh as a day of "hiddenness." They explained that the expression referred not only to the obvious fact that the new moon is now reappearing from its celestial concealment, but it also implied that we should be striving as much as possible to "hide" the Rosh Ḥodesh from the words of the liturgy. Some writers grounded this peculiar attitude in the well-known talmudic legend about how the Almighty had punished the moon for trying to overextend its domain at the time of the creation. That association, they argued, was an inappropriate one to mention on the day of judgment when the world is begging for divine forgiveness.

Howsoever we might (or might not) choose to recall Rosh Ḥodesh in our prayers, the moon’s renewal is surely a fitting symbol for the spiritual renewal that we strive for at this momentous time of the year.

This article and many others are now included in the book

A Time for Every Purpose
A Time for Every Purpose

published by

Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is:

  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, September 23, 2011, pp. 21, 24.
  • For further reading:
    • Grossman, Avraham. The Early Sages of Ashkenaz: Their Lives, Leadership and Works (900-1096). Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1981.
    • ________. Early Sages of France. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1995.
    • Jacobson, B. S. Netiv Binah. Tel-Aviv: Sinai, 1973.
    • Ta-Shma, Israel M. Early Franco-German Ritual and Custom. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1992.