Machar Chodesh: What’s Hiding in the Haftarah

The reading from the prophet Samuel 1 (20:18-42) that is read in synagogue on shabbat when the following day is Rosh Chodesh (such as this shabbat), commonly referred to as “Machar Chodesh”, is one of my favorite haftarot.

It’s a great, very moving part of the adventures of David in his youth, and the incredible bond of self-sacrificing friendship between him and Jonathan, King Saul’s heir. It also includes archery! And it also includes mention of Rosh Chodesh being the following day, hence the practice of reading it on shabbat the day before Rosh Chodesh which comes from the Talmud (see b. Megilah 31a).

Now, here’s a simple quiz for those who have heard this haftarah read many times – usually on average once or twice per year – or for those who take a quick look at the quote a few lines below here: Whose idea was the plan between Jonathan and David?

If you just read the haftarah beginning in verse 18, as we do in synagogue, it seems that it was Jonathan’s idea – the first verses of the haftarah read:

  יחִ  וַיֹּאמֶר-לוֹ יְהוֹנָתָן, מָחָר חֹדֶשׁ; וְנִפְקַדְתָּ, כִּי יִפָּקֵד מוֹשָׁבֶךָ

יט  וְשִׁלַּשְׁתָּ, תֵּרֵד מְאֹד, וּבָאתָ אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר-נִסְתַּרְתָּ שָּׁם בְּיוֹם הַמַּעֲשֶׂה; וְיָשַׁבְתָּ, אֵצֶל הָאֶבֶן הָאָזֶל

כ  וַאֲנִי, שְׁלֹשֶׁת הַחִצִּים צִדָּה אוֹרֶה, לְשַׁלַּח-לִי, לְמַטָּרָה

18 And Jonathan said unto him: ‘Tomorrow is the new moon; and thou wilt be missed, thy seat will be empty.

19 And in the third day thou shalt hide thyself well, and come to the place where thou didst hide thyself in the day of work, and shalt remain by the stone Ezel.

20 And I will shoot three arrows to the sideward, as though I shot at a mark.

However, that is incorrect! The plan was actually first proposed by David several verses earlier!

ה.  וַיֹּאמֶר דָּוִד אֶל-יְהוֹנָתָן, הִנֵּה-חֹדֶשׁ מָחָר, וְאָנֹכִי יָשֹׁב-אֵשֵׁב עִם-הַמֶּלֶךְ, לֶאֱכוֹל; וְשִׁלַּחְתַּנִי וְנִסְתַּרְתִּי בַשָּׂדֶה, עַד הָעֶרֶב הַשְּׁלִשִׁית

ו  אִם-פָּקֹד יִפְקְדֵנִי, אָבִיךָ:  וְאָמַרְתָּ, נִשְׁאֹל נִשְׁאַל מִמֶּנִּי דָוִד לָרוּץ בֵּית-לֶחֶם עִירוֹ–כִּי זֶבַח הַיָּמִים שָׁם, לְכָל-הַמִּשְׁפָּחָה

ז  אִם-כֹּה יֹאמַר טוֹב, שָׁלוֹם לְעַבְדֶּךָ; וְאִם-חָרֹה יֶחֱרֶה, לוֹ–דַּע, כִּי-כָלְתָה הָרָעָה מֵעִמּוֹ

5 And David said unto Jonathan: ‘Behold, tomorrow is the new moon, when I should sit with the king to eat; so let me go, that I may hide myself in the field unto the third day at even.

6 If thy father miss me at all, then say: David earnestly asked leave of me that he might run to Bethlehem his city; for it is the yearly sacrifice there for all the family.

7 If he say thus: It is well; thy servant shall have peace; but if he be wroth, then know that evil is determined by him.

So why don’t we start the haftarah reading there? Or even earlier, at the beginning of their conversation? 

One might suggest that Chazal – the rabbis of the Talmud – wanted to begin with the words “Machar Chodesh” – “tomorrow is the new moon” – because the reading was for the day before Rosh Chodesh, perhaps to remind people that the next day was Rosh Chodesh. However, that answer is somewhat lacking; the words “Chodesh Machar” would serve just as well as “Machar Chodesh” if the reading were to begin in verse 5, where David is suggesting the plan. And we’d have a better idea of the whole story too!

Here is another suggested answer, introduced by another question: What does David say about their plan – or anything – in the haftarah the way we read it, excerpted from the whole story? The answer is a surprising “Nothing at all”! Shockingly, David does not have a single speaking line in the haftarah! The way Chazal “cut” the reading, the plan that was originally proposed by David and merely repeated by Jonathan now seems to be Jonathan’s plan not David’s because David is silent!

Furthermore, what does David actually do in the haftarah? Mostly, he hides! Towards the end, he gets up, bows and cries, but he still says nothing. David is almost entirely passive in this haftarah – as we read it in synagogue. But if we were to begin the reading earlier, then David would be the one who initiates the whole plan. So Chazal took an excerpt of the chapter that was chosen specifically to make David seem passive, doing almost nothing but hiding… Just like the Moon on the day before Rosh Chodesh!

Recall the phases of the Moon that it cycles through each (Jewish) month. As the Moon passes through its monthly cycle, we see it go from completely dark to completely illuminated and back again. Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the Jewish/lunar month occurs with a “new Moon” – which is approximately when the earliest sliver of the Moon becomes visible after the astronomical phase called “New Moon”. The Moon is always full at (or near) the middle of the month.

Phases of the Moon from
Phases of the Moon from

In fact, one half of the Moon is always illuminated by the Sun’s light. The angle of the Moon’s location in its orbit relative to the Earth and Sun determines how much of the illuminated side we are able to see from Earth, thus resulting in the different phases of the Moon. The diagram above shows how the positions of the Moon as it orbits Earth produce the corresponding Lunar Phases seen from Earth at the given times of the month.

Consider this homiletical idea, mentioned (among other places) by the Rema, R. Moshe Isserles, commenting on the Shulchan Aruch regarding the monthly blessing on seeing the Moon “renewed”:

שולחן ערוך · אורח חיים · סימן תכו דין ברכת הלבנה וזמנה

סעיף ב

… ואומר שלש פעמים “סימן טוב תהיה לכל ישראל ברוך יוצרך וכולי”

הגה:. ונוהגין לומר דוד מלך ישראל חי וקיים, שמלכותו נמשל ללבנה ועתיד להתחדש כמותה


Shulchan Aruch & Rema, Orach Chaim, 421, Laws of Blessing the Moon and its Time

  1. … and says three times “It should be a good sign for all of Israel”; “Blessed is your creator”; etc.

Rema: … It is customary to say “David King of Israel lives and endures”, since his kingdom is likened to the Moon, and in the future will be renewed like her

The Davidic dynasty is likened to the Moon!  In fact, Rashi, in a comment on a Talmudic story involving the declaration of a new month/Moon, even says that David is allegorically like the Moon:

מסכת ראש השנה דף כה,א גמרא

א”ל רבי לר’ חייא זיל לעין טב וקדשיה לירחא ושלח לי סימנא דוד מלך ישראל חי וקים

רש”י : דוד מלך ישראל – נמשל כלבנה, שנאמר בו (תהלים פט) כסאו כשמש נגדי כירח יכון עולם

b. Rosh Hashanah 25a:

Rabbi said to R. Hiyya, Go to En-Tov and sanctify the month, and send me the sign, ‘David king of Israel is alive and vigorous’.

Rashi: David king of Israel – is likened to the Moon, for it says (Psalms 89:36-37) his throne endure before me like the sun; it will be established forever like the moon”

So the connection between the haftarah and Rosh Chodesh is much more than a mere mention that “Machar chodesh” – “tomorrow is the New Moon”! In Chazal’s understanding, there’s a thematic connection between David and the Moon. And, just like the Moon is “hiding” the day before Rosh Chodesh – so David is hiding in the haftarah.

If we consider the rest of the story of David in the Book of Samuel 1 (and 2) consider that this story of him hiding is just before the beginning of David’s waxing stronger and stronger until ultimately he becomes King of all of Israel. David is further similar to the Moon, once it passes through its hidden phase, it also waxes until full.

With this in mind, we can discern a moving and powerful message of Chazal’s “hidden” in the excerpting of this haftarah. Just like the Moon, the Davidic Kingdom may be hidden, but will eventually wax again until it is once again fully revealed.


One Comment Add yours

  1. aytan kadden says:

    this is a great piece. you have given real understanding to this haftara. am def going to recommend this and pass it around!
    glad to have seen you in dc , catch up a bit and be zocheh to read this!

    Liked by 1 person

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