Palestinian Rabbanites, Karaites and Moon Sightings

The gift that keeps on giving.

The gift that keeps on giving.

The new moon was sighted in Israel on May 11, 2013 – two days after the calculated Rabbinical calendar sets rosh chodesh (i.e., the start of the new month). As a result, most observant Karaites celebrated rosh chodesh on a different day from observant Rabbanites.

1100 years ago, though, (at least some) Palestinian Rabbanites set their calendar by the actual sighting of the new moon – and even observed “Rosh Hashanah” on a different day from the Babylonian Rabbanites.

This came as a bit of a surprise to me. I’d always been taught (by Rabbanites) that after Calendar of Hillel II was set in the fourth century, Rabbanites were bound by that fixed calendar.

But according to Dr. Marina Rustow, there was a calendar tussle in the early part of the tenth century between Babylonian Rabbanites and their Palestinian counterparts. (Dr. Rustow, Heresy and the Politics of Community, pp. 15-20.) Dr. Rustow adds that certain contemporaneous Karaite sources asserted that some Palestinian Rabbanites still sighted the new moon into the 11th century.

Over time, the Babylonian Rabbanites, their Talmud and their insistence on a calculated calendar generally won the day in the Rabbinic community.

But if some Palestinian Rabbanites could insist on the observance of the new moon a millenium ago – even if it meant celebrating “Rosh Hashanah” on a different day – maybe some Rabbanites today would be interested in doing the same – even if only on months that do not contain major Jewish holidays.

So, if you’re a Karaite, a Palestinian Rabbanite, or just a Rabbanite that comes in the spirit of the Palestinian Rabbanites on this issue, drop me a line ( and I’ll put you in touch with some new moon observers.

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Today is the 2nd day of the 7th week of seven weeks. Today is the 44th day of the counting of fifty days from the day of the waving of the Omer on the morrow after the Sabbath.


Filed under Books, Dr. Rustow, New Moon, Rosh Chodesh

20 Responses to Palestinian Rabbanites, Karaites and Moon Sightings

  1. Zvi

    The changes wrought by the Crusades were the main force that ushered an end to the vestiges of the partial religious independence of Eres Yisra’el’s Jews from the Babylonian hegemony. Some other practices whose demise was hastened by the Crusades were the Palestinian Rabbanite prayer rite (which included Kol Nidrei and Qadish in Hebrew, and fortunately was found almost intact in the Cairo Geniza) and celebrating “Rosh haShana” one day.

  2. serge

    Shawn, there’s a group in Israel that’s trying to re-establish the relevance, primacy of Talmud Yerushalmi, so in principal these would be the Palestinian Rabbinates in contradistiniction to the other Orthodox movements which accept the primacy of Talmud Bavli. Here’s their website:
    Here’s a wikipedia entry about their founder:

  3. Mona

    I have been following the sighting of the new moon for 10 years now and I have enjoyed doing so as it means I am celebrating the Feasts at their designated time…

  4. Tomer

    I think the major “calendar tussle” you mention is probably the one between Aharon Ben Meir and Saadia Gaon (see: I don’t know much about it but I don’t think this struggle was about whether to use actual moon sightings vs calculations. Both Ben Meir and Saadia Gaon advocated calculations but of different types. Thus Ben Meir and the Palestinian Rabbanites who observed the new moon are two separate phenomenons.

    • Hi Tomer, thank you for the note. You are correct about the background here. The incident I was mentioning is actually part and parcel of the same controversy. “In one particularly memorable episode from the conflict, the Jews of Fustat waited for the appearance of the new moon, which obliged the Palestinians by appearing on the day on which they had predicted it, one day earlier than it should have been by the Babylonian reckoning. Some Jewish communities celebrated the New Year in the fall of 922 according to the Palestinian system.” (p. 19.)

      Her thesis/goal was to show (a) that Rabbanites used to observe the sighting, despite the Rabbinical decree setting the calendar and (b) this trend of sighting the moon continued for many years after people thought the dispute was resolved.

      • Tomer

        Interesting. So would Ben Meir have used calculations but given preference to sightings (as the Karaites do) or would he have preferred calculations to actual sightings? And did he design his calendar to better match actual sightings or was it juts a happy coincidence for him that in some cases his calendar better predicted the sightings?

        In any case, the fact that the Jews of Fustat were waiting for the moon seems to show that Rabbanites outside Palestine also observed the new moon.

        • A lot of good questions about Ben Meir, to which I don’t have the answer. It appears from the discussion in her book that the Palestinian Rabbanites were predicting the new moon conjunction, but were also observing the moon, and that the Babylonian Rabbanites would adjust their calendar based on empirical sightings in Palestine.

          The author uses the term “Palestinian Rabbanites” to suggest adherence to the Palestinian/Jerusalem Talmud/Yeshiva – not just geographic location.

          Her fundamental theory seems to be that there once lived Babylonian Rabbanites (adherents of the Babylonian Talmud and Yeshivot), Palestinian Rabbanites, and Qaraites in the region.

          • Tomer

            Wow. I’m surprsied Babylonian Rabbanites would adjust their calendar based on moon sightings. I thought they believed they were bound by Hillel hakatan’s calendar set sometime in the 4th century. I will look into this.

          • I thought so too; but the book is pretty clear on this: “In 835-836, an Iraqi exilarch announced that according to his calculation, Passover 836 should fall on a different date from the one decreed by the Palestinian ga’on, but that he would defer to the Palestinian decree ‘lest Israel be split into factions.'” (P.18.)

          • I note that this is not based on “empirical” (as in actual sightings) but based on Palestinian predictions as to the new moon.

  5. Pingback: Will the Calendar Kill the Karaites (Again)? | A Blue Thread

  6. Although Ben Meir and his Eretz Yisrael Yeshibha were decidedly less hostile to Karaites than their Babylonian counterparts, and although the Eretz Yisrael Yeshibha were even led at an earlier period by ‘neo-Karaites’ (descendants of Anan b. David!), Ben Meir was not a friend of the Karaites. In fact during his travels to Babylonia, he cooperated fully with the local Yeshibha in their struggle against the Karaite community.

  7. Also, it should be pointed out that the controversy over the primacy over the Rabbanite calendar did not die with Ben Meir. His descant still maintained that view and quite zealously so. Rabbi Evyatar ben Eliyahu (1042-1112) wrote in no uncertain terms in his autobiographical Scroll of Evyatar:
    ארץ ישראל אינה קרואה גולה שיהא ראש גולה נסמך בה, ועוד שאין עוקרין נשיא שבארץ ישראל, שעל פיו מעברין את השנה וקובעין את המועדות הסדורים לפני הקב”ה קודם יצירת העולם, דהכי גמרי בסוד העיבור

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