Tuesday, May 17, 2016
Why Are the Holidays Never on Time? (And Other Quirks of the Jewish Calendar)
One of the most perplexing, and vexing, aspects of Jewish life, to newcomers and “natives” alike, is the question of the Jewish calendar. Indeed, a standard joke in some circles, after hearing so many comments that “the holidays are late this year,” or the “holidays are early,” is that the holidays are never on time! Of course they are; they are on the same date every year. But in a system that is very hard to understand.
The first thing to know, of course, is that the Jewish calendar wants to be a lunar calendar. It follows the months set by the moon: 12 months of either 29 or 30 days (depending on when the sliver of the new moon appears the following cycle), for a lunar year of 354 days.
Now, those words that the calendar “wants to be” lunar are important. The Muslim calendar, as an example, is, in fact, a pure lunar calendar. It is 354 days long. That means that it is 11 (or 12, in a leap year) days shorter than a solar calendar.
Let’s look at what this means in practical terms. The best known Muslim holiday is Ramadan. The holiday last for a month (and is the name of that month), but for now I am only interested in the date that it starts, in order to illustrate how this works. If Ramadan beings on January 1 on the solar calendar one year, it will begin on December 21 the following (Muslim) year. And then on December 10 the next year. And so on. It “floats” through the solar year. Given the fact that Ramadan is observed by not eating when the sun is up, and that amount of time varies depending on both geography and chronology, if I were a Muslim I would, perhaps, prefer to observe Ramadan when it fell in Reykjavík, in January, than, say, when it falls in Riyadh, in July. It’s just… a much shorter day!
But there is an immediate problem, here, from a Jewish point of view. A purely lunar calendar has the holidays float through the solar year, getting “earlier” each year. Which is fine, except for the fact that three of the Jewish holidays have agricultural roots! Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot may have become Pilgrimage Festivals, focusing on a journey to Jerusalem, with sacrifices and celebration there. But what is being celebrated are the crops; these are harvest holidays. The harvest depends, of course, on the season. And the season is defined… by the sun. We simply can’t have the Fall Harvest float into the Summer, and then the Spring, and so on. That won’t work at all!
And that is where things get so confusing. We have a lunar calendar, which needs solar adjustments. And so, very regularly, seven out of every 19 years, after the holidays have crept “too” early, we add an entire extra month! A leap year, for Jews, is not an extra day, but a 13-month year. And then, of course, the holidays feel “late” once again. On average, over time, I suppose they are… right on time.
So, then, that is why the holidays are when they are. But what about the also confusing question of how long they last? Why do some Jews, in some places, observe the major holidays (except Yom Kippur) for a day longer than do other Jews? To answer that, we move into the realms of eye-witness testimony, mathematics and astronomy, technology and communications, and the role of strained relations with our neighbors. (With Jews, very little is ever simple!)
Remember that I said that the lunar months were either 29 or 30 days long? Well, in the ancient world, at first, they didn’t know how long a month was going to be. They waited to see, and if, on the evening after the 29th day, a sliver of the moon was visible in the sky, they knew they had on their hands, last month, a “short” month. If not, then it was a “full” month of 30 days, and the “new” month would begin a day later.
Why on earth does the moon matter? Because knowing when the first of the month is… determines when the holidays occur! You can’t really plan your Rosh Hashanah dinner in advance, if it could be one of two possible days. (Actually, the seder would be a better example. Rosh HaShanah is extra complicated, as we will see in a moment.)
According to our tradition, then, the judges and sages of the Sanhedrin would wait in the courtyard of the Temple, until someone came in – two someones, actually, as it had to be a “confirmed” sighting – to report whether they had seen the sliver the night before. If it was a short month, word was sent forth, and the holidays could be set for the correct day. Plenty of time to get ready for Sukkot or Passover – they fall on the 14th days of the month. Cutting it a little close for Shavuot – it is on the 6th of Sivan.
But a problem arose here, too. There was no Internet. No texting. No IM. As Jewish communities sprang up, further from the “official” policy-setting center of Jewish life, in Jerusalem, it took more and more time to get the word out, that it had been a short month the month before, that this was, in fact, already the new month.
How to spread the word more quickly? Here, technology came to the rescue – until tension with our neighbors and general nastiness interfered. We would send a signal, visible from far away. We would light fires on the tops of designated hills.
Ah, but there were other groups who lived among us, and with whom our relations were not always so wonderful. The Samaritans were (and are) an offshoot of Judaism, composed of a mixture of the population left behind in the north after the exile of the ten tribes by the Assyrians, with those captured populations imported by the same enemies. They practiced a religion similar to ours – the Samaritans to this day have a version of the Torah and the book of Joshua but not the rest of the Hebrew Bible. Small in number though they may have been, they were rivals, and we did not get along well. The New Testament may have referred to a “Good” Samaritan, but to the Jewish reader and in our cultural context that would actually have been an exception, or a surprise!
So what role do they play here? It seems that, to throw off our ingenious new notification system, those pesky Samaritans would light fires on hilltops… whether the sliver of the moon had been seen early or not. Such pranksters! But it would mean your Aunt and Uncle would show up for seder on the wrong night! Intolerable!
We needed a system that did not depend on notification. We needed a reliable calendar. This is what I was taught: that this is the reason why we have the custom of communities inside of Israel, who could somehow get word quickly about when the first of the month really was, celebrating the holidays on the day it was supposed to be – and communities further away, outside the land, adding an “extra” day, to “cover” both possible days on which the holiday might fall. Thus, Sukkot is seven days in Israel (as the Torah commands), but eight in the Diaspora. Passover is seven days in Israel, and eight outside. Shavuot is one day in Israel, and two in Brooklyn. At least, that is what I was taught. There is a logical problem, that being one day off would add up over time and lead to an accrued error ratio, but never mind that.
Eventually, of course, mathematics and astronomy intervened – or at least, they should have. We learned that we did not actually need the eye-witnesses at all, that we could figure out the calendar (the fancy word for this is called “intercalating” the calendar) years in advance, that, in fact, it worked in 19-year cycles, and thus, in theory, there was no need, at all, for a runners and messages, testimony and a differential observance based on distance. But, tradition is tradition, and sometimes customs speak more loudly than logic. Observance of the “extra” day in the Diaspora continued and continues.
At least, that is, until the beginning of the Reform movement of Judaism, in the mid-19th century. The leaders of this new, “rational” approach to Jewish life asserted early on the Torah was clear on the length of the holidays, the calendar was now properly calculated, and thus we should return to their Biblically-mandated length of observance. Which led, of course, to the situation we have today: of Jews outside of Israel observing these days for different lengths of time, depending on what movement they belong to (or forgetting to observe them at all, in other cases).
Just two more wrinkles in this twisted tale. Both have to do with Rosh HaShanah.
Do you remember that we said that there was time to get the word out about most of the holidays, even Shavuot, because of when they fell during the month? There was one exception to that, of course. The holiday of Rosh HaShanah begins… on the first day of the month. So let’s imagine the picture. One witness arrives in the courtyard of the ancient Temple, let’s say around 10 AM, asserting that he had seen the new moon the previous night. Everyone gets anxious. They look around. They wait. Finally, huffing and puffing, at 11:50 AM, comes… a second witness, confirming the account. And then everyone looks at their watches, as it were, and realizes they have a problem. Because that means this day is the first of the month. And so it is Rosh HaShamah already. And they have all just missed services.
Thus, because it is the first day of the month, and only for that reason, Rosh HaShanah came to be observed for an extra day, to cover all bases, even in Israel itself. It is the only “extra” day observed in Israel.
And, as a result, for that reason (as well as the new presence in Reform congregations of so very many Jews who grew up in more traditional settings), many – not all, but many – Reform synagogues have added a Second Day of Rosh HaShanah as well. Don’t expect eight-days of Passover in Reform settings (although some Reform congregants observe that holiday for eight days, not seven). But a Second Day of Rosh HaShanah? That is becoming more common. In congregations where there are sequential services for the large attendance at High Holy Days, there is even a nice feeling of coming together, of intimacy, of being there by choice that lends a special flavor to the service on the Second Day.
A quick, funny/sad anecdote about Second Day of Rosh HaShanah. In one of the congregations where I introduced the observance of this extra day, I faced an angry protest from a “classical” Reform Jew. “Second Day of Rosh HaShamah? That’s Orthodox!! What’s next, rabbi? Separate seating for men and women?” I patiently tried to calm the woman down. “Look,” I said, “it’s optional, for those who want it. You don’t have to come.” “Rabbi,” the woman said, without missing a beat, “I don’t have to come First Day of Rosh HaShanah, either!” Well, unpacking that remark is a task for a different time!
For now, finally…
Those with a careful eye will notice a very strange public pronouncement that is made on the Evening of Rosh HaShanah. On this, the dawn of the New Year, we say, quoting the Torah: “U’va’chodsh HaShivi, b’echad la’chodesh… On the seventh month, on the first day of the month….”
What? What is going on? What kind of a new year begins on the first day of the seventh month of the year?
What we have here is a relic, a remnant, a memory of two different calendar systems, layered on top of one another. While the details matter, and are interesting, for now it is enough to say that there was an Egyptian calendar cycle, which began in the Spring (see Exodus 12:1 – “this month [in March or April] shall be for you the first of the months.”). And there was a Babylonian calendar, whose New Year fell in the early Fall. The Egyptian calendar gave us the numbers of the months. Many of the names of the months, and, more specifically, the observance of a new year, come from Babylonia/Mesopotamia. Which is why we begin our new year in such an odd way.
Hopefully, this long excursion has made clear some of the how, when, why and what behind the Jewish calendar. If you are still confused, you are not alone. But at least it makes more sense than it may seem, on first encounter. And some day, then, the holidays may feel “on time” to everyone.