What Is Keseh in Psalm 81:4?

By Stein, Nathan | Jewish Bible Quarterly, January-March 2013 | Go to article overview

What Is Keseh in Psalm 81:4?


Stein, Nathan, Jewish Bible Quarterly


Psalm 81:4, Blow the shofar on the new moon, at the full moon [ba-keseh] for our feast days (JPS), is recited on Rosh Ha-Shanah before the evening Amidah, although it is not absolutely clear how this verse relates to the Jewish New Year.

The word keseh is a hapax legomenon, a word that occurs only once in the Bible, making its exact translation difficult. The earliest Jewish interpretation of this verse is found in [begin strikethrough]BT[end strikethrough] TB Rosh Ha-Shanah 8b, where keseh is understood to mean "covered", from the root k-s-h. There we are told that this verse refers to Rosh HaShanah, since on the New Year the moon is obscured (i.e., "covered"). Rosh HaShanah is the only Jewish holiday celebrated at the beginning of the month, when the moon is barely visible, so the mention of a "covered moon" is understood to refer to Rosh Ha-Shanah. This interpretation is adopted in many prayer books. For example, in the one translated by Rabbi Dr. Solomon Schonfeld of London we read, "Do ye sound the shofar blast at the new moon, when it is obscured at our festival day." The difficulty with this approach is that, in fact, the moon is not completely obscured on Rosh HaShanah. In order for a new month (and a new year) to be proclaimed, two witnesses must have been able to report the sighting of a crescent moon. The moon is only covered right before Rosh Ha-Shanah, not on Rosh HaShanah itself. (1)

The JPS translation understands keseh to mean "covered," but covered with light, meaning a full moon. Hence the translation: Blow the shofar on the new moon, at the full moon [ba-keseh] for our feast day. Passover and Sukkot occur at the full moon, but why should they be singled out for shofar blasts? Furthermore, the beginning of this verse poses a problem. There is no rule that the shofar is to be sounded at every new month. It is true that trumpets were sounded at the new month (Num. 10:10), but we do not find that the shofar was used as well. (2)

Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Radak understood keseh to mean "the appointed time", connecting the word keseh (spelled here with a he at the end) to the word keseh (spelled with an aleph at the end) in Proverbs 7:20. However, the two words are not only spelled differently, they are hapax legomena, and so it is not clear what the exact meaning of either word is. However, Metzudat Zion points out that sometimes the letters he and aleph are switched; moreover, Ibn Ezra and Meiri seem to have the word keseh in Psalms spelled with the letter aleph, as in Proverbs.

My view is that the key to understanding keseh is the link between this verse and the verse before it. In Psalms 81:3 we read, Take up the melody and sound the timbrel, the sweet harp with the lyre. …

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