New Moon, Full Moon, Karaite Moon, Local Moon (?!?)

Crescent new moon in the Land of Israel.

Crescent new moon in the Land of Israel.

We hear a lot these days of “identity politics.” Today, I explore “identity halacha” and realize that my religious Karaite identity is slowly getting turned on its head. And I’m fine with that.

For approximately 15 years, I have been a zealous advocate of using the moon in the Land of Israel to determine when to observe our holidays in the Diaspora. I set this forth in a book. I stated this in a Karaite Fact Card. And I couldn’t count how many times I stated this at the Karaite synagogue.

But over the last year, I’ve come to realize that I might have been wrong.

Some of my hesitancy is admitting that I was in fact wrong is because so much of my identity has been wrapped up in this.

When I was in fourth grade (iirc), I showed up to school on the Rabbanite Yom Kippur with a handwritten note from my mom explaining that I would be absent the following day for my religious observance. In that year, the new moon was seen in Israel one day after the Rabbinic calendar set the new month. And that year was the last year the Karaite Jews of America set their holidays in accordance to the new moon sightings in Israel.

In law school, I eagerly awaited news of new moon sightings from the Land of Israel (as disseminated by the Karaite Korner, and others) and often fasted for Yom Kippur or observed Passover (Hag Hamatzot) on different days from my Rabbinic brethren – and even from my Karaite brethren in the U.S. who were observing most holidays in accordance with the Rabbinic calendar.

So, it has been very difficult for me even to consider that maybe it is the local moon that matters. Maybe the Jerusalem (or Israel) moon matters for those living in the Land of Israel, but the local moon matters for us living in the Diaspora.

I was speaking to the Chief Hakham of the Karaite community about this almost exactly a year ago. He lives in Israel, advocates for the Jewish return to the Land of Israel, and he believes that our final redemption has been sped up by the return to the Land. He also believes that the local moon is the one we should be observing.

According to everyone I’ve spoken to, the adherence to the local moon also seems to have been the majority position of the Karaite sages of the Middle Ages. And my guess is that Daniel al-Kumisi – the most Jerusalem-centric Karaite of them all – also believed that the local new moon is what mattered. Check out my correspondence with a professor about this point. [1]

As to why the local moon might be the one that matters, I have to ask myself what the Israelites did in Egypt before the Exodus; what the Israelites did in the desert before entering the Land; what the Israelites did in the Babylonian exile. In all these cases, both before and after the revelation, the Israelites were almost assuredly looking at the local new moon. I also note that the sun, which determines our days, is a local sign – and I can think of no principled reason why the moon, which determines our months, would also not be a local sign. The Karaite Jews of America has a thorough discussion of the new moon here.

Now, don’t get me wrong, as I read the Tanakh, it is clear that the preference is for us to be living in the Land of Israel. Living in the Land of Israel – like Daniel al Kumisi was – means that your local moon is the Israel moon. On that basis, perhaps, all of us in the Diaspora are living some imperfect life.

But the question is how to deal with that imperfection. I am coming to the conclusion that the second best way to deal with it is to use the local new moon. And if one finds that odious, then I offer the best way to deal with that imperfection: make aliyah. [2]

As for me, I am okay with my religious identity changing – as long as it results from an honest search of the Scripture. I am humble enough to admit that I may have been wrong about the Israel-based moon. I’m okay with that. And I am also humble enough to admit that I may now be wrong about my growing belief that the new moon matters. And I’m okay with that too.

*   *   *

 [1] If you are an expert on Kumisi or the views and reasoning of the historical Karaite sages on this point, please chime in or shoot me a note. And, more importantly, if you know of a biblical verse that addresses the issue of which moon we should be looking at, please let me know.

[2] To be clear, I am not suggesting that the local moon is an imperfect accommodation for those who are not in Israel. I am suggesting that it might actually be the correct halakha to base your observance on the local moon.  For example, if you live in Israel but are traveling for an extended period of time, under the theory proposed here, you would observe your holidays in accordance with the moon at the place of your travels.


Filed under Calendar, Daniel al-Kumisi, Karaite Fact Cards, Moshe Firrouz, New Moon

17 Responses to New Moon, Full Moon, Karaite Moon, Local Moon (?!?)

  1. Gabriel Moskovitz

    I think the Halacha to make the moon sighting Israel-centric stems from historical precedents and the recognition that standardization of our Festivals is important. The standardization gives us a sense of Klal Yisrael, the unity of Jewish people, in that we are all one people and not a collection of local adherents celebrating the same Festival on different days.
    During the First Temple Period we all lived in Israel and all celebrated Festivals based upon the local moon observance. We do not know what was done during the Babylonian Exile but it is not a stretch to speculate that appointed observers were established whose role it was to witness the moon’s rebirth in Israel and report back.
    Upon the return to Zion for the 2nd Temple Period, the Court was re-established in Israel and it is safe to assume that it established the lunar sightings and promulgated such to the Diaspora. Time of travel would/could delay word of the exact date and thus was born the practice in the Diaspora of observing two days of the Festival out of doubt.
    The Rabbis or Rabbinites had the choice of maintaining Israel-centric moon sightings and having the Diaspora celebrate 2 Festival days out of doubt, or, relegate, that is, “farm out” the Festival dates based upon local geographical sightings. They wisely chose the former, I believe, out of a combination of precedent and for the desirability to have all Klal Yisrael celebrate Festivals on the same day even if this resulted in the Diaspora celebrating an additional day. Of paramount importance was that the Calendar was identical for all Jews everywhere and it was based upon the lunar sighting in Israel even if the doubt of which day that occurred resulted in the Diaspora hedging by celebrating two Festival days out of doubt. At least one of the 2 days was celebrated by all of Israel wherever they resided.
    During the 4th Century CE the Rabbinical Court based in Jerusalem recognized that their sole dominance in lunar observation and the resultant setting of the Calendar was coming to an end because of political pressures from the outside. The Rabbinical Court had a decision to make; allow all Jewish communities to set the Calendar based upon local lunar observation, or, depart from previous precedent and Halacha and establish a Calendar for all time based upon astronomical calculation and prediction.
    One would have guessed that lunar observation would have been more important and certainly more correct Halachically. However, they chose to abandon the more than 1500 year lunar observation practice and Halacha and select a Calendar establishment based on calculation. A very radical departure indeed! It is clear that they chose the fixed calendar in spite of its radical implications because they believed standardization for all Israel was paramount.
    Karaites do not follow this astronomically based calculation of the Calendar but prefer to continue to establish their Calendar based upon the age old practice of lunar observation in the Land of Israel. This Karaite practice is contrary to the vast number of Jews who follow the Rabbinite practice, however, Karaites can argue convincingly that their practice of lunar observation is certainly much older and more Halachically correct. However, to depart from this practice and relegate the Calendar to local geographical observation will take an already miniscule sized community and further marginalize it. Take Scripture to heart and “do not stray from it right or left”.

    • Don W.

      Thanks for your cogent comments, Gabriel. You make a good bit more sense than the blogger–whose name I’m having trouble finding on his website. I’m always a little skeptical when someone trumpets “I’m humble enough to admit…”

  2. I’ve come to this conclusion as well. If you’re keeping Rosh Chodesh and other dates only according to the moon in Israel, are you also doing the same with the sunset for Shabbat? Probably not. Thanks for sharing.

    • Ziva

      That is so right! sunset Shabbat is local.

    • Zvi

      But you do not begin your Rosh Ḥodesh the second it starts in Israel on the same date, unless your local time is the same as Israel’s; you wait several hours after seeing the news from Israel that the crescent moon has been sighted until the sun has set or the night has begun where you live in the US. The exact same holds for Shabbatot. How could it be any different?

    • Gabriel Moskovitz

      Hi Ken,
      There is a fundamental difference between Shabbat and Festivals. The Torah mandates Festivals per the Calendar which is Lunar based and subject to precedent and Halacha as observation in Israel.
      Shabbat, on the other hand, is not Calendar based but falls on the 7th day regardless of the month. There is no precedent or history anywhere that the onset of Shabbat was based on anything but geographically local nightfall.
      Understanding the precise meaning of Scripture is, at times, difficult. There is always the tendency to try and interpret on our own but that results in, each man acting by what is pleasing in his own eyes, a practice that is often mentioned in Prophets as a recipe for disaster. What I am saying is that abandoning a practice or ritual that has been with us for ages should be avoided if at all possible.

      • Zvi

        Well, (and with no intention to issue barbs) until the Ge’ulah (Redemption) finally arrives I would rather that Qaraite Jews and their fellow travelers living outside of Israel bring upon themselves the “disaster” of observing the Mo`adim on different dates and suffer the resulting consequences than being stricken by the calamity of crossing over to a form of Rabbinic observance, or secularism, or outright assimilation Ḥas w’Ḥalilah. Interpreting on one’s own that results in each man acting by what is pleasing in his own eyes is pretty much what occurs in the Rabbinic system anyway — even within Orthodoxy itself.

  3. Ziva

    I had been wondering about this. When I write the date I wonder which one to use and I have thought about it a lot. I noticed that that the Karaite Jews of America had been using the Rabbinic calendar. I did not know what to make of it. So is the year AM 5774 (almost AM 5775)? Who uses the 6016? I also some someone write the year as 68 or something….Where does that come from? Any help with the year calculations would be great for me as I am about to teach the calendar for real and i need all the input I can get.

    I must admit, I have been relieved that the two have been coinciding on the Karaite Korner website. Love reading your thoughts. They are always very helpful and insightful. 😉

  4. TrueBlue

    I’ve always noted the time from Israel and then used that local time where I happen to be. If the new moon is at 7:19 in Israel then I use 7:19 local time for saying Rosh Chodesh prayers….assuming I’m able to at that exact time. It seems a little odd for me to observe at 1:19 PM given the 6 hour difference between here and Israel and I can only imagine how it works on the west coast.

    For daily prayers, it’s a bit more complicated. Sunset here can vary anywhere between 4 PM and after 10:00 PM and sometimes I just use a convenient time like 6:30 or 7:30 if I can’t stay up until sunset in summer or if I don’t get home from work in winter until after the sun sets in the Winter I go to work in the dark and come home in the dark and vice versa in the summer, it was a real problem when I lived in the North and the sun barely set at all in midsummer so it never really got dark and we only got a few hours of sunlight in winter. Usually I just pick the best time, even for Shabbat and go with that, assuming YHWH knows my intention, after all, He set the moon and the sun in the firmament for us so I sort of expect He foresaw the difficulties we were going to have once we moved out of the Holy Land.

  5. Shahriar

    Shabbats and new moon days should be according to local sunsets and local new moon days. But Yehovah’s festival times must be reckoned according to where His tabernacle stands.

    Because the temple does not exist and until we rebuild the third one, we cannot truly celebrate the feasts of Yehovah. What we’ve been doing for the past ~2000 years is just rehearsals of these feasts so that we don’t forget about them and so that we are ready for doing them when we rebuild the temple. However, for the past ~2000 years, we’ve not had a true feast according to the Torah, which requires we do the celebrations in front of Yehovah at His altar. If one is traveling on Passover, Yehovah said that he must then do the Passover lamb sacrifice and thus the subsequent feast of unleavened bread celebration in the following month, but he has to do all these activities in Jerusalem (the place of his tabernacle) at the holy altar.

    Thus, which calendar is biblical to use for doing the rehearsals is a moot argument.

  6. Alina

    I enjoyed very much when reading this post about moon and Jewish calendar. Not being an observant Jewish woman, I learn with your words. And I think that maybe G-d only Wants to Be respected, no matter what kind of moon we are considering. But what you are saying makes much sense to me.
    Kind regards, and forgive my English, wich is not my language.

  7. Pingback: What I Learned on the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah | A Blue Thread

  8. As a family who has made a long, winding journey, with course corrections as a focus, we very much appreciate this post.
    We all walk learning.
    May Existence be merciful in His Instruction and corrections.

  9. Wilson

    Reference Psalm 81:3, seems the scripture refers to the New Moon as the full moon. Do verify or refute, especially with scriptures.

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