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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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."
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:
- How did David and Jonathan know there would be a New Moon before the actual sighting?
- Why was there a second meal the day after the sighting?
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).
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:
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.
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).
1. Hobart E. Freeman, Wycliffe Bible Dictionary, Hendrickson Publishes, 2009, p. 601
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.