Shiur #19: Kiddush Ha-Chodesh and Birkat Ha-Chodesh

  • Rav Shlomo Levy
Based on a shiur by Rav Shlomo Levy* 

             An essential element of the Jewish calendar is the determination of Rosh Chodesh, the day when each month begins.  Since our months, by biblical law, begin with the sighting of the new moon (molad), which can occur on either the thirtieth or thirty-first night of a given month, we need to determine which of these is Rosh Chodesh.  In ancient times, this was done through eyewitnesses, who would testify before the High Court in Jerusalem that they had seen the new moon the previous evening; once they had been cross-examined and judged to be trustworthy, the court would declare the day to be sanctified (Mekudash) as Rosh Chodesh.  This process is known as Kiddush Ha-chodesh (sanctification of the month).  Nowadays, we have a fixed calendar, and we observe either one day of Rosh Chodesh (if the thirtieth day becomes the first of the new month) or two (the thirtieth and the thirty-first, the latter becoming the first day of the new month).  Nevertheless, on the Shabbat preceding Rosh Chodesh (for all months but Tishrei), we make a formal announcement in the synagogue about it, amid prayers for peace and prosperity in the coming month, which we call Birkat Ha-chodesh (blessing of the month).  What is the relationship between them?  The Magen Avraham writes (OC 417:1):


The customary practice is to stand while proclaiming that Rosh Chodesh will be on such-and-such a day, similar to Kiddush Ha-chodesh, which was performed standing.


            Rav Akiva Eger raises an objection (Hagahot, ad loc.):


I am ignorant and do not know where we find that Kiddush Ha-chodesh was performed standing.  On the contrary, [what is stated] at the beginning of Rosh Ha-shana implies that it was performed seated.


            Rav Akiva Eger appears to be referring to the first mishna in the third chapter of Tractate Rosh Ha-shana:


If three people saw [the molad], and they are the court – two should stand up, seat [two] of their colleagues next to the third, and testify before them, and they say: "Mekudash!  Mekudash!"


            Even without this proof from Rosh Ha-shana, it seems to be clear that the court must be seated when it sanctifies the month, for all judicial actions require that the judges be seated, and Kiddush Ha-chodesh is a judicial action!


            The Iggerot Moshe (OC I, no. 142) and other Acharonim answer that a distinction must be made between the presiding justice's declaration and the people's response that the day is sanctified as Rosh Chodesh.  The presiding justice who rules that the month is sanctified must sit, but the people who respond "Mekudash!" (as is brought in Rosh Ha-shana 2:7) would stand.  Accordingly, we too must stand when we sanctify the month, as the people did in ancient times.  The Iggerot Moshe adds that it would appear that when the people said, "Mekudash!" the presiding justice would also stand, and this apparently is what the Magen Avraham refers to.


            We see then that in addition to the court's ruling about the sanctification of the month, the people must also attest to that ruling.  In this shiur, we will examine the meaning of this declaration during the era Kiddush Ha-chodesh was based on the sighting of the new moon.  Is that declaration an integral part of the court's action, and is there any foundation to compare that to the Birkat Ha-chodesh recited today?




            In the Rambam's Sefer Ha-mitzvot (Positive 153) we find a famous disagreement between him and the Ramban regarding Kiddush Ha-chodesh in our time.  According to the Rambam, sanctifying the month on the basis of our calculations works because the High Court in Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, already sanctified all of the months.  The Rambam adds:


Were we to assume, for example, that the inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael would disappear from Eretz Yisrael — God forbid, for He has promised that He would never totally wipe out the nation… our calculations would not help us in any way!


            That is to say, even after Hillel II (who headed the High Court, 320-365 C.E.) instituted that the months be sanctified on the basis of calculations, the validity of that sanctification is conditioned on the fact that there are Jews living in Eretz Yisrael.  The Ramban, in his Hassagot, disagrees: Hillel and his court already sanctified the months in advance, and thus the sanctification is valid unconditionally!


            The Rambam's position requires explanation, for he too seems to agree that Hillel already sanctified the months.  Furthermore, there is no High Court today, nor even a court whose judges have received authentic semikha (ordination in a direct chain from Sinai).  How then is it possible to sanctify the month today?  The Acharonim discuss the Rambam's position at length, along with the difficulties which arise from it.  Without entering into the complexity of the matter, it is clear that according to the Rambam, the Jews living in Eretz Yisrael play a role in the act of Kiddush Ha-chodesh.  The Maharalbach in his Kunteres Ha-semikha connects what the Rambam says here to his position regarding the renewal of semikha.  According to the Rambam, it is possible even today to renew semikha, provided that all the sages of Eretz Yisrael agree to it.  In light of this, the Maharalbach understands that the small number of Jews living in Eretz Yisrael enjoy the status of the High Court for the purpose of Kiddush Ha-chodesh.


            To summarize what we have said thus far, we have seen that, according to the Ramban, Hillel II sanctified the months for the future as well.  According to the Rambam, on the other hand, Hillel merely calculated the months, but it is the Jews living in Eretz Yisrael who perform the actual sanctification.




            The Gemara in Berakhot (30b) says:


Rav Anan said in the name of Rav: "If a person errs and fails to mention Rosh Chodesh in the evening prayer (by omitting the Ya'aleh Ve-yavo prayer), he does not have to go back, because the court only sanctifies the month during the day."


            The source for the rule that the months can only be sanctified during the say is found in Sanhedrin (11a):


Our Rabbis taught…  "Months are only sanctified during the day…"

Rabbi Abba said: "What is the verse?  …it is written: [Blow the shofar on the new moon…] For this is a statute for Israel, a judgment' (Tehillim 81:4-5) – just as judgment is by day, so too Kiddush Ha-chodesh is by day."


            Tosafot in Berakhot note (s.v. Le-fi):


Some explain that only on the first night [of Rosh Chodesh] does he not have to go back, because we do not sanctify the month at night; but on the second night he must go back, for it is already sanctified from the previous day.  It seems, however, that such a distinction should not be made. 


            According to the first view cited by the Tosafot, since the second day of Rosh Chodesh does not have to be sanctified by the court, inasmuch as it is already sanctified (by God's court in heaven), the reason given to exempt a person who forgets to include Ya'aleh Ve-yavo in his evening service – the fact that we do not sanctify the month at night – does not apply to the second night of Rosh Chodesh, and therefore a person who forgets Ya'aleh Ve-yavo on the second night must indeed go back.  Why, then, does Tosafot say that such a distinction should not be made?  Surely on the second day of Rosh Chodesh, the month is already sanctified, and there is no need for us to sanctify it now!  The answer to this question may be found in Tosafot, Sanhedrin 10b (s.v. She-kevar):


Some explain that the heavenly court always sanctifies it at the time of the molad.  What seems correct, though, is Rashi's explanation in the second chapter of Rosh Ha-shana, that on the thirtieth day, the heavenly court waits for the earthly court, for perhaps they will add a day.  However, on the thirty-first day, when they cannot but sanctify the day (even if witnesses never arrive), it is sanctified in heaven from the morning.


            The words of Tosafot require explanation: why is the heavenly Kiddush Ha-chodesh performed in the morning?  We saw above that Kiddush Ha-chodesh must be performed by day because it is regarded as "judgment."  It would seem, however, that this is only relevant to Kiddush Ha-chodesh performed by the earthly court, but as for heavenly sanctification, this should take place at the very beginning of the halakhic day, i.e., already at nightfall![1]  It would seem that, according to Tosafot, Rosh Chodesh has a certain holiness that does not apply automatically because of the fact that a given day is the first day of the month, but rather a special holiness that takes effect only in the morning!  We must now clarify: what exactly is this holiness of the day that is different than the holiness of the night?




            The Gemara in Shabbat (24b) states:


Rabbi Oshaya taught: "On days that have a Musaf (additional) offering, e.g., Rosh Chodesh and Chol Ha-mo'ed, a person recites the Shemoneh Esreh of evening, morning and afternoon, and he mentions the event in the avoda blessing; if he does not say it, he must go back… On days that do not have a Musaf offering… he mentions the event in the Shome'a Tefilla blessing; if he does not say it, he does not go back."


            According to the Gemara, there are two types of "mentioning the event."  There are days that have special holiness, and therefore if a person fails to mention the event in his prayer, he has not fulfilled his obligation of prayer.  On the other hand, there are days, such as public fasts, that do not have special holiness in and of themselves – the event of that day does not obligate a Musaf offering – but rather that day commemorates a certain event without that impacting on the basic holiness of the day.  The Gemara teaches us that on such a day mentioning the event is not an essential part of Shemoneh Esreh, but rather Shemoneh Esreh is the framework that we exploit in order to mention the event.  Therefore, if a person fails to mention the event in his prayer, he does not have to go back and repeat the prayer.


            It is possible that despite the fact that the "event" of Rosh Chodesh starts already at night, the holiness of Rosh Chodesh itself applies only to the day and begins in the morning.  The holiness of the night of Rosh Chodesh is a holiness that is created in the wake of the event of Kiddush Ha-chodesh, whereas the holiness of the day of Rosh Chodesh is a holiness that is intrinsic to the day.




            It is possible that the issues discussed above also depend on how we understand a fundamental aspect of Kiddush Ha-chodesh.  The Torah establishes that the calendar is not "fixed," but rather dependent upon action of the court; but what exactly is the role of the court in Kiddush Ha-chodesh?


We may understand that the court's role is limited to determining the day that is to be sanctified, and that the holiness of Rosh Chodesh is a direct and necessary consequence of the court's determination of the day.  According to this understanding, without the court's action, the day of Rosh Chodesh is not determined, and thus there is no holiness of Rosh Chodesh.  According to another possible understanding, the court sanctifies the day of Rosh Chodesh itself.  According to this understanding, the day to be sanctified can be determined through calculation, but in order that the holiness of Rosh Chodesh should take effect and obligate a Musaf offering and the like, an act of sanctification on the part of the court is required.


These differing views may explain the disagreement found in the aforementioned comment of Tosafot: the first position of Tosafot maintains that the holiness depends solely on the determination of the day of Rosh Chodesh.  Thus, there is a difference between the first and the second day of Rosh Chodesh.  On the other hand, according to the second position of Tosafot, even if the day is known, we still require the sanctification of the court, and this sanctification takes place only in the morning, even when it is done by heaven.  Therefore, there is no difference between the morning of the first day of Rosh Chodesh and the morning of the second day.


It also seems that, based on these two different understandings, we can explain the disagreement between the Rambam and the Ramban cited above.  Both understand that Hillel merely determined the days that were to be sanctified in advance, but he did not actually sanctify the new months.  According to the Ramban, this determination suffices to bring holiness to the day, since the role of the court ends with the determination of the day.  According to the Rambam, the court must bestow special holiness on the day, and the Jews living in Eretz Yisrael are the only ones who can cause this holiness to take effect.




            The Ramban concludes:


I say that sanctification of the month is not indispensable, and that the Sages only required the saying of "Mekudash! Mekudash!" as a mitzva, or for the sake of publicizing the matter.  However, as soon as the court decides that the [previous] month will be full (30 days) or defective (29 days), I apply to it (Vayikra 23:2), "which you shall proclaim."


            That is to say, according to the Ramban, Kiddush Ha-chodesh depends exclusively on the court's decision to declare a certain day Rosh Chodesh, but saying "Mekudash" is merely a mitzva.  In contrast, the Rambam in Hilkhot Kiddush ha-Chodesh (2:8) implies that saying "Mekudash!" is an essential element of the court's role, and it is possible that without it, the holiness of Rosh Chodesh does not take effect, even though we already know the date.  We see then that this disagreement as well corresponds to the two explanations brought above regarding the court's action: is the court's role to sanctify the new month, or simply to determine the date, after which the sanctification takes effect by itself?


            Let us return to our modern Birkat Ha-chodesh.  According to the Ramban, who says that saying "Mekudash!" is a mere mitzva or publicizing of the matter, it is less important to recite Birkat Ha-chodesh in our day, as the day of Rosh Chodesh is already known in advance by way of calculation, and there is no presiding justice to proclaim the sanctification.  According to this understanding, it is possible that even in ancient times the declaration of "Mekudash!" was performed while standing, and perhaps even the presiding justice stood, for it is merely a ceremonial utterance that is not indispensable to the process.  According to the Rambam, on the other hand, this declaration is of great importance, and therefore it stands to reason that it cannot be compared to the Birkat Ha-chodesh that we say today, for that merely determines the day of Rosh Chodesh.  Therefore, there is room to say that while in ancient times the declaration of "Mekudash!" had to be made while sitting, today we can stand for Birkat Ha-chodesh.  However, since we saw that, according to the Rambam, the Jews of Eretz Yisrael have the status of a court for this purpose, we may say that, on the contrary, our proclamation of the day might be necessary in order to give expression to the consent of all the sages in Eretz Yisrael to fix the month on this date.  Hence, Birkat Ha-chodesh should be recited while sitting, like any other court action.


            It should be noted that in ancient times the declaration was made on Rosh Chodesh itself, whereas in our day it has been moved up to the previous Shabbat, apparently because that is the time that most people are found in synagogue.  Accordingly, the Birkat Ha-chodesh that we recite does not parallel the ancient Kiddush Ha-chodesh.



(Translated by David Strauss)


* This shiur is based on an article that appeared first in Daf Kesher, no. 381.  It was edited by Shaul Bart, but it was not reviewed by Rav Levi. 

[1] So indeed writes Rashi, ad loc.: "Heaven already sanctified it yesterday."