THE (COMPLEX) JEWISH CALENDAR by Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah, SJN September/October
Rosh Ha-Shanah is early this year – although not as early as it could be. The sacred season begins with S’lichot, prayers of ‘Forgiveness’, on the night of Saturday/Sunday, 1st/2nd September. This is very early. According to the Ashkenazi custom, to ensure that S’lichot are recited for at least four days prior to Rosh Ha-Shanah, if Rosh Ha-Shanah falls on Monday or Tuesday – as it does this time round – S’lichot are held back a week. So, this year the autumn festivals will be all over by 3rd October.
Next year, by contrast, Rosh Ha-Shanah will be at the end of September (Erev: 29th). What’s the reason for this disparity? The Jewish calendar is rather complex. It is complex because it reconciles the solar year and the lunar year – the latter being eleven days shorter. The Jewish calendar does this so that the festivals fall in the right season. For example, Pesach is a spring festival, which according to the Torah takes place in the month of Aviv, ‘spring’ (Bo, Exodus 12:1ff.). In the 4th century, Rabbi Hillel II established a fixed calendar, which standardised the length of months – 29 or 30 days – and followed a 19-year cycle, in which an additional month is added seven times – in the 3rd, 6th, 8th, 11th, 14th, 17th and 19th years of the cycle. To ensure that Purim on 14th Adar and Pesach, which begins on 15th Nisan, remain one month apart, this additional month became Adar 1, Adar Rishon, ‘first Adar’, with Purim taking place in Adar 11, Adar Sheini, ‘second Adar’. The 19-year cycle also includes adjustments to ensure that neither Yom Kippur nor Hoshanah Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot, fall adjacent to Shabbat. To avoid this problem, a day is added to the month of Cheshvan or subtracted from the month of Kislev in the previous year.
5779 will be a 13-month year, known as shanah m’uberet, a ‘pregnant year’ – hence, Rosh Ha-Shanah 5780 will be late. It isn’t necessary to know the technical details of the calendar in order to experience the flow of the Jewish year. The Jewish year simply goes from Rosh Ha-Shanah to Rosh Ha-Shanah. Nevertheless, the importance of, both, the lunar and solar years to the Jewish calendar is critical to the experience of the flow of Jewish time. After all, Jews live not only from festival to festival, but also from moon/month to moon/month. I mentioned that the biblical name for the month in which Pesach falls is Aviv. According to the Torah, Aviv, is the beginning of the Jewish year for months (Bo, Exodus 12:2). In other words, Aviv, which after the Babylonian exile acquired the Babylonian name, Nisan, is the first month of the year.
It makes sense to begin a year in the springtime. It makes even more sense that the Exodus from Egypt, which defined our existence as a people, should begin in the spring. So, what do we make of the fact that the New Year falls on 1st Tishri, the seventh month of the year? Rosh Ha-Shanah means ‘the head of the year.’ Rosh Ha-Shanah is the highpoint of the Jewish year. Its significance is spiritual rather than material. On Rosh Ha-Shanah, we embark on a soul-searching journey that concludes at the end of Yom Kippur. During that ten-day odyssey, we effectively step out of the natural world in order to examine our deeds and repair our lives and our relationships. And then, the first thing we do afterwards is re-enter the seasonal cycle by building the sukkah. May we find the spiritual nourishment we need for our journeys. L’shanah tovah!