Calendar’s creative conundrums

Calendar’s creative conundrums

When 'right on schedule' is way too early

Jewish calendar from 1927, showing Adar II. Wikimedia Commons

The holidays are really early this year.

I know, I know. The holidays can’t be early. Everyone tells us so. The holidays come when they come, starting on the same day every year, the first of Tishrei, so whenever they come, it’s the right time.

It’s like being a little bit pregnant, we’re told. Not possible.

But the people who say that tend to be people who’ve never been pregnant.

Yes, it’s binary. Either you are going to have a baby or you’re not. You are or are not pregnant. That’s true. But when you are privately pregnant, when nothing shows, when the baby is just a floating embryo or a tiny fetus, when you and anyone you chose to tell knows but no one else in the world does, you’re just a little bit pregnant.

When you’re swollen with what looks like a watermelon with 18 legs, you’re a lot pregnant.

And the holidays are really early this year.

This should be the languorous end-of-summer time, when the days start noticeably later and end noticeably earlier, but they’re still long; when the sunset is ripe gold and everything is hot and still. Vacations will end, school and schedules and meetings and real life will resume, but not quite yet. Not until after Labor Day.

But no. Not this year. “After Labor Day” is synonymous with erev Rosh Hashanah. All of August is Elul. We cannot bask. We cannot luxuriate. We must plan and prepare and think ahead. We have to get to work.

Why is that?

According to Rabbi Nathan Bushwick, author of “Understanding the Jewish Calendar,” the vagaries of the Jewish calendar are a result of its need to put together naturally occurring cycles that do not naturally fit together.

“There are three natural periods of time – the day, the month, and the year,” he said. “The day is the time it takes for the earth to turn on its axis; the year is the time it takes to get back to the stars being in the same position, which is to say, to go from one equinox to the same equinox. The month is a cycle from the new moon to the next new moon.

“Those three periods don’t divide evenly into each other.”

Despite popular belief, he said, the Jewish calendar is not lunar. Instead, it is a result of the need to make these three elements work together. It is a lunar-solar calendar – with a twist.

“What’s really going on is that a month is a month of days, not of hours or minutes, so even though the average length of a month is 29 ½ days, a month can’t have half a day in it,” Bushwick said. “It has to be either 29 or 30 days.

“But a year – here is where the mistake comes in – a year in the Jewish calendar is a year of months, not a year of days.

“In other words, the secular calendar that we use – the Gregorian calendar – has a year of days. It has 365 days, sometimes 366. There is always a day when it begins.

The Jewish calendar is not a year of days. Instead, “The Jewish calendar begins with a month. It begins on the first day of the month because the month begins on a day. It’s counted from the month of Tishrei, so the first day of Tishrei becomes the first day of the year.

“We have a year of months.”

But wait. It gets more complicated.

“The actual year, as defined by the earth going around the sun, is about 365 days, but you can’t do that with months. You could have a year with 12 months” – months, remember, are defined by the lunar cycle – “but that would be 11 days short. Or you could have a year of 13 months – but that would be about 19 days too long.”

There is a solution to that. Just as the Gregorian calendar adds a leap day every four years, the Jewish calendar adds a month (and sometimes adds or subtracts days in the months of Cheshvan and Kislev), so that although most years have only 12 months some have 13, while some months may have 29 days one year and 30 the next. (There are six different lengths to a Jewish year – 353, 354, and 355 days in a non-leap year, and adding 30 days to each of those in a leap year. To further confuse, from a halachic standpoint, Adar I is the added month; Adar II is Adar in every non-leap year.)

Are you following this?

“Now the only thing that’s left is to decide when to push the year ahead,” Bushwick said.

It is easy to tell when a month starts, at least if you are a trained and careful observer. It is signaled by the new moon; of course, the beginning of a new day is heralded by daybreak. There is no such obvious physical sign for the start of a new year.

What to do?

Have it be the spring equinox, which is visible. “Pesach has to be after the spring equinox, because it is also called Chodesh Ha’Aviv – the month of spring. So Nisan,” the month during which Pesach falls – “has to be mostly in the spring.

“So let’s take the implication of everything we have,” Bushwick continued. We have to throw in an extra month, and we do it “every time that Pesach otherwise would be too early.” That’s when we get an extra Adar.

Last year, Pesach just squeaked in; had we not added the leap month this year, it would have become a winter festival. Fun, maybe, but symbolically all wrong.

Why did we come up with such a calendar?

For one thing, Bushwick said, we were not alone. The ancient Greeks and the Chinese had remarkably similar systems. The Christian and Muslim worlds, though, went in different directions. The Christian calendar’s months “are a legal entity, not connected with any natural phenomena.” It is based entirely on the naturally occurring year. The Muslim calendar, on the other hand, has “12 months. They take the 12 months and call it a year, but that year is a legal entity.” We, on the other hand, try to tie everything together.

And, Bushwick said, it’s not really that complicated, despite how formidable a problem it seems to pose. “The Rambam says that it’s easy enough for a 12-year-old to understand,” he said. “The hard part is making sure that holidays don’t fall on inconvenient days.”

Rambam did not originate the calendar, but he writes a good deal about it, he added. Much of it is straightforward, at least in the beginning, “but after that you get into really a lot of trigonometry.”

The most fascinating part of the calendar, though, Bushwick said, is the radical change that it implied.

“In ancient times, they didn’t use the mathematical system,” he said. “They declared the extra new month based on how things looked at the time. They didn’t have to do the calculations.

“It was all ad hoc.”

The calendar was not fixed until about the time the Gemara was written (it was credited – without much evidence, scholars say – to the fourth century president of the Sanhedrin, Hillel II), at the beginning of the rise of Christianity. According to the most prevalent but not universally accepted theory, the calendar was the result of Christian persecution of the Jews, which made it more difficult to ensure that it could be maintained properly. There also were problems in letting the ever-spreading Jewish world know what decisions had been made. “They saw that the system was in great danger, so they said that they would make a fixed calendar. ‘Then no matter what happens, we’ll be okay,’ they said.

“What is really amazing was that a group of leaders of the Jewish people made such a radical change,” Bushwick said. “They were able to take hold of the problem and say we have to change things entirely. We cannot keep doing things as we have been doing them.

“And it worked. It really changed things.”

So when we complain about cutting short vacations, running out of preparation time, roasting in shul, not wanting to wear summer clothes anymore but not wanting to commit to scratchy layers of warmer ones, we should realize that this calendar is a sign of our great flexibility and resilience and creativity as a people.

Still, the holidays are just a bit too early this year…

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