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1 Samuel 20:24-27

So David hid himself in the field: and when the new moon was come, the king sat him down to eat meat. 25And the king sat upon his seat, as at other times, even upon a seat by the wall: and Jonathan arose, and Abner sat by Saul's side, and David's place was empty. 26Nevertheless Saul spake not any thing that day: for he thought, Something hath befallen him, he is not clean; surely he is not clean. 27And it came to pass on the morrow, which was the second day of the month, that David's place was empty: and Saul said unto Jonathan his son, Wherefore cometh not the son of Jesse to meat, neither yesterday, nor to day?

It seems that in Ancient Israel they celebrated the New Moon festival for two days: the day of the New Moon and the following day. But why did they celebrate the second day of the month? The text in Numbers 28:11 doesn't at all indicate that the New moon is to be celebrated for two days, and there is no reason to suspect that the new moon is different than all the other biblical festivals which don't last for two days either (with the exception of Passover and Succoth).

Was the occurrence in Samuel an out of the ordinary thing (if so I would like to know what the reason was), or perhaps an indication that the New Moon festival was celebrated differently in Ancient Israel?


The text in Samuel itself suggests that the New Moon festival was not yet over by the second day. This can be gleaned from the awkward phrase ממחרת החדש השני which very much sounds like, "the second day of the New Moon festival" (not an exact translation). However most translations have them as two separate clauses, that is, "the day after the new moon" (ממחרת החדש), and "the second day of the month" (השני), an interpretation which doesn't sit so well with me. This perhaps should be asked as a wholly separate question; namely, how ought we interpret these words?

I would appreciate any insight on the hermeneutical and exegetical implications of this verse as well.

  • Supposing the new moon occurred a day prior to the Sabbath could they not have been celebrating two different events. (Not sure why having meals together is directly connected to the new moon. They had meals separately on non new moon days?) – Nihil Sine Deo Feb 16 '19 at 12:46
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The Hebrew New Moon
חֹ֙דֶשׁ֙ means month, monthly, moon, or new moon. Biblically, there are two types of New Moon observations, one in the seventh month and all others:

Unlike the new moon of the seventh month, which was...celebrated with a great festival, the regular monthly new moons were subordinate feast days celebrated with additional burnt offerings (Num 28:11-15), the blowing of trumpets (Num 10:10; Ps 81:3), family feasts (I Sam 20:5), spiritual edification (II Kgs 4:23), and family Sacrifices (I Sam 20:6).1

The Hebrew New Moon is not the time during which the moon is not visible; it is the day of the first sighting of the waxing crescent which appears shortly after sunset. Its main significance was to set the first day of the month in order to observe the annual festivals on the proscribed day:

The moon occupied an important place in the life of the Hebrews, since it was the guide to their calendar based on the lunar month or period of the moon's circuit. Because of this, and the importance of the uniform celebration of the various periodic religious festivals by Jews everywhere, it was extremely important to determine the exact time of the appearance of the new moon. Thus the appearance of the smallest crescent signified the beginning of the new month and was announced with the blowing of the shofar or ram's horn.2

Identifying the time (the Hebrew day begins at sunset) by observation is an inexact process:

Various factors such as atmospheric pressure, temperature, humidity along the light path, altitude, latitude and longitude, fog, cloud/dust cover, glare etc. can all affect a first sighting. No one can infallibly predict the moment when the new moon will become visible to the naked eye.3

In the Second Temple period, the certainty of the correct day was set by the Sanhedrin:

Of the greatest significance, however, was the proclamation of New Moon ("Ḳiddush ha-Ḥodesh") by the president of the Sanhedrin (R. H. ii. 7) —originally, of course, by the high priest—just as in Rome the Pontifex Maximus fixed New Moon by proclamation (whence the name Calendar). The Sanhedrin was assembled in the courtyard ("bet ya'azek") of Jerusalem on the 30th of each month from morning to evening, waiting for the reports of those appointed to observe the new moon; and after the examination of these reports the president of the Sanhedrin, in the presence of at least three members, called out: "The New Moon is consecrated"; whereupon the whole assembly of people twice repeated the words: "It is consecrated" (R. H. ii. 5-7; Sanh. 102).4

Perhaps owing to its secondary nature, there is little written about a "regular" New Moon festival. Outside of the passage in Samuel, there is a reference in Judith of two days of celebration:

And she fasted all the days of her widowhood, save the eves of the sabbaths, and the sabbaths, and the eves of the new moons, and the new moons and the feasts and solemn days of the house of Israel. (Judith 8:6)

Breaking her fast and rejoicing (some translations) for two consecutive days at the time of the New Moon parallels the episode in Samuel, although they are occur on different days. Here the first day is called the eve of the new moon and the second is νεομηνία, specifically the New Moon.

Two Full Days/On the Third Day
In his translation with commentary Robert Alter says David and Jonathan plan (v.5 and 19) to meet again on the third day after 2-days of celebration:

And David said to Jonathan, “Look, it is the new moon tomorrow, and I am supposed to sit with the king to eat. Let me go and I shall hide in the field till the evening of the day after tomorrow.
(1 Samuel 20:5)

the new moon. In early biblical times, this was an important festival. Sacrifices were offered, ceremonial feasts were held, and ordinary business was not transacted.

the day after tomorrow. The Masoretic Text has "the third evening," treating hashelishit as an adjective modifying "evening," though it has the wrong gender suffix. It is more likely a noun meaning the day after tomorrow (the day on which one speaks being day one in the sequence of three). One should then read 'erev hashelishit instead of the Masoretic ha'erev haselishit. In any case, the number three will play an important role as the episode develops.5

The day after tomorrow you will go all the way down and come to the place where you hid on the day of the deed and stay by the Ezel stone. (1 Samuel 20:19)

Verse 19: The day after tomorrow. The Masoretic vocalization weshilashta treats this as a verb (to do something a third time or in a third instance), but it is more plausible to vocalize it as a noun, ushelishit, "and on the third day."6

Samuel offers no details as to how the New Moon was signaled. Presumably this was done by Ahimelech, the High Priest in Nob (not too far from Gibeath where the meals take place). Regardless of how, the passage shows David and Johnathan's plans were made before the New Moon was signaled and with the foreknowledge there would be two consecutive days of celebration.

The first meal takes place after the sighting and so it is at night:

So David hid himself in the field. And when the new moon came, the king sat down to eat food. (20:24) [ESV]

The "new moon came" and the king "sat down to eat." The first meal did not began until after the sighting of the crescent: this meal celebrated the actual sighting. That the first meal took place on the night of the sighting is reinforced by stating the next meal was after the new moon:

But on the second day, the day after the new moon, David's place was empty...(20:27)

The description of the events raise two issues:

  1. How did David and Jonathan know there would be a New Moon before the actual sighting?
  2. Why was there a second meal the day after the sighting?

Lunar Phases
Today a "new" moon means the phase in which there is no visible light. So the Hebrew New Moon comes the night after what is now called a new moon. No one planning to celebrate the sighting had to wait for the shofar: they could use knowledge of the lunar cycle. David and Jonathan knew the first meal was scheduled for that night because there had been no visible light the night before.

The night of first sighting naturally follows a night of darkness. No visible light is the signal to "get ready" for the Hebrew New Moon. However, occasionally there are months where the moon is not visible for two consecutive nights. For example, in 2018, February 15 and 16, September 9 and 10, and November 7 and 8, were days on which the visible illumination from the moon was 0%. In those months the first sighting will occur on the third night. This is a normal yet variable phenomenon since it occurs in different months each year. In 2019 it happens in February, March, July, and November. Therefore, the signal to "get ready" will mistake the night of an actual sighting approximately 30% of the time (7 of 24 calendar months).7

In months of no visible light for two consecutive nights, there will not be a sighting on the first night: what was reasonably anticipated to happen (70%) will not occur. But the sighting would be certain to occur on the second night of the Festival. This means that festivals scheduled in advance in honor of the New Moon celebration (i.e. immediately after the "no light" signal) must always be planned for 2-days, because of the unpredictability of the lunar phase and of constant fear that the crescent may not be seen on the first night: enter image description here The plans David and Jonathan made show the practice in Saul's kingdom was to prepare for the New Moon Festival before the actual sighting. Since the sighting did happen on the first night, there was no need for the second day; yet the meal of the second night went forward as planned.

Conclusion
A New Moon sighting on the first night and immediately celebrated with a meal makes a second meal the following night unnecessary. Yet the meal on the second night went forward as David and Jonathan expected. The expectation of the second meal, despite of the uncertainty that it would be necessary, can only mean a 2-day observance was the practice, at least at that point in time.


In most months the only significance of the Hebrew New Moon is to celebrate the first sighting of the waxing crescent. Other than additional sacrifices (Numbers 28:11-15) there were no proscribed meal(s) or ritual(s) to observe or celebrate the New Moon. Neither a 1-day or a 2-day Festival is mandated. Perhaps the events in Samuel reflect a practice necessary before establishing Jerusalem as the only place from which the sighting could be proclaimed or, more likely, a practical concession to the difficulty in communicating an official sighting throughout the nation. It is important to remember the New Moon is "common knowledge" which is predictable and happens whether it is officially seen and reported or if/when that report is received.

A 2-day Festival which is scheduled because the moon was not visible (an event seen by all), ensures a celebratory meal will take place on the night of the sighting. The passage in Judith not only describes two days of eating, "House of Israel" suggests a Northern Kingdom practice. That is, the primary significance of the Sanhedrin declaration in Jerusalem was ensuring the calendar was correct and making additional sacrifices, where the practice in the Northern Kingdom, or anywhere outside of Jerusalem, was to simply celebrate the event (knowing the "official" first day of the month would be communicated later and in time to observe either the Passover or the fast for the Day of Atonement).


Notes:
1. Hobart E. Freeman, Wycliffe Bible Dictionary, Hendrickson Publishes, 2009, p. 601
2. Ibid.
3. Hebrew Roots/New Moon
4. Kaufmann Kohler, The Jewish Encyclopedia
5. Robert Alter, The David Story, W.W. Norton Company, Inc., 1999, p. 124
6. Ibid., p. 126
7. The Hebrew annual calendar was based on lunar cycles which requires occasionally intercalating a 13th month.

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  • Revelation I see you have edited and changed your response. Are you saying that the Israelites celebrated the day before the sighting and the day of the sighting? Why is that? – Bach Feb 21 '19 at 14:59
  • I also think that the two days of 0 percent illumination is distracting and confusing, and you may as well skip that part. All that is necessary to say is that they prepared a meal the night before the actual sighting (though I am still unclear why they did it). How they anticipated it is irrelevant and confusing to the reader. Just a suggestion. – Bach Feb 21 '19 at 15:03
  • @Bach I believe the 2-days of no illumination is the underlying requirement for a 2-day observance and modified my answer to better explain why that is so. – Revelation Lad Feb 25 '19 at 17:42
  • Revelation thanks for your edit. It is much clearer now and I love it! Just one more thing: How do you know that the moon was seen on the fist night in Sam. 20? Maybe it was one of those rare months where the moon was hidden on first day and only visible on second, yet they still celebrated first day as they already prepared for it (just like they would celebrate on second day even when it was already seen on first day)! – Bach Feb 25 '19 at 19:10
  • I edited your post extensively. Feel free to roll back to original. – Bach Feb 25 '19 at 19:25
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The annual feast day on the new moon was Yom Teruah, the Day of Trumpets (Lev. 23:24). Since the destruction of the temple in AD 70, the rabbis began calling it Rosh Hashana, the New Year. The new moon had to be witnessed and declared.

But, because the feast day of Yom Teruah had to wait for the confirmation of the two witnesses, and the declaration of the new moon from the high priest, the feast was always held for two days. The preparations were made ahead of time as much as possible, but they could not always have the declaration on the same day as the new moon. Therefore the feast day was carried over to the second day of the new moon.

"Yom Teruah is always celebrated for two days, even in Israel. These two days are celebrated as though it is just one long day of forty-nine hours.[26]

These days of Yom Teruah are called “yoma arichta” (one long day) to indicate that the sanctity of both is not a doubtful sanctity, but a definite one. See also KNOWDAY.

The reason that we celebrate for two days is because if we waited to start our celebration until after the new moon had been sanctified, we would have missed half the celebration because the new moon can only be sanctified during daylight hours. The new moon is also very difficult to see on the first day because it can be seen only about sunset, close to the sun, when the sun is traveling north. So, looking for a very slim faint crescent moon, which is very close to the sun, is a very difficult thing to do." Source: here

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  • Gina I am aware of these Jewish traditions and interpretations of these verses, I was hoping to get a fresh perspective, that is from an historical (biblical) point of view. – Bach Nov 2 '18 at 16:24
  • I wonder why some do not consider the Bible to be historical. The "Torah" is not just "Jewish" traditions. It is the record of the Holy Spirit. That makes it very reliable. – Gina Nov 2 '18 at 20:47
  • Gina you didn't understand what I said. I said I was looking for an historical bible-based explanation, not one that depends on Jewish traditions, and presumes them to have the answer to all biblical anomalies. – Bach Nov 4 '18 at 18:30
  • @Bach, I think I presumed that the proof you were looking for was the evidence of the scripture text you used for the question. That Saul celebrated the feast meal the 2nd day in 1 Sam. 20:26-27 is not proof enough? – Gina Nov 4 '18 at 23:46
  • Gina these verses prove that they celebratedthe new moon for 2 days. The question is why? Your answer is that it was Rosh Hashana (and that they celebrated this festival 2 days back than), a claim which is highly speculative and virtually unsupported. The more accepted Jewish traditional explanation is that it was a regular Rosh Chodesh and that the Israelites celebrated them for 2 days just like they did in the times of the second temple when the chodesh was 'malei' or full, see this jewishvirtuallibrary.org/rosh-chodesh... – Bach Nov 5 '18 at 19:09

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