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Of Calendars and Controversy

It's the month of Adar, and in Jewish tradition, the beginning of Adar always means an "increase in joy."  After all, the festive holiday of Purim, on Adar 15, is just two weeks away—or would be in a normal year. But though Adar started on February 4, Haman must have seen his shadow, for there are not two but six weeks to go until Purim.

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Blessed Events  Philologos, Forward. “Pregnant years” and “pregnant months”: the Jewish calendar has more than its share.
Your Jewish Calendar  Hebcal. A free online service offering calendars for all years from 0001 to 9999, complete with holidays, Torah readings, candle-lighting times, and a converter between Hebrew and Gregorian dates.

The reason is simple—there's a leap month this year. As to why there is an extra month, that's a bit more complicated.

Everywhere in the world, months are the unit of time based on the cycles of the moon.  But if you create a year out of twelve lunar months, as do the Jews and the Muslims, you will fall about eleven days short of a full solar year as measured (say) from one vernal equinox to the next.  That is why, for Muslims, the fasting month of Ramadan slides around the year from summer to spring to winter and eventually back around again.

The reason this does not happen in the Jewish year is that the Jewish holidays are not only historical but also agricultural. Passover must occur "at its set time from year to year" (Exodus 13:10)—that is, in the spring—and Sukkot can take place only in the fall, "when you have gathered in the yield of your land" (Leviticus 23:39). How to achieve the requisite regularity? Give thanks to what is known as the Metonic cycle: i.e., the fact that nineteen solar years are almost precisely seven months longer than nineteen lunar years.  By adding an extra month to seven out of your nineteen lunar years, you will be close enough to the solar year during most of the cycle and right on target at the end of it. 

That is exactly what the Jewish calendar does.  According to an algorithm that began to be developed as early as the 4th century C.E., leap months are to be added to the third, sixth, eighth, eleventh, fourteenth, seventeenth, and nineteenth years of each cycle. This year, 5771, happens to be one of them. 

It sounds complicated, but even our 365-day calendar falls a bit short of a solar year, which is why it must be adjusted by adding an extra day once every four years.  In our clever "Gregorian" system, we add the extra day every time the year is divisible by four, unless it is also divisible by 100.  So century years do not get the leap day unless (like 2000) they are also divisible by 400.  If my figuring is correct, that amounts to a total of 97 extra days every 400 years.  By comparison, the Jewish system of seven extra months in every nineteen years seems simple.

One rarely noticed peculiarity of the Jewish system is that—unlike with February 29, the extra day tacked on at the end of the second month of the secular year—the leap month comes before the "regular" month. A Jewish leap year has Adar 1 and Adar 2, and the "extra month" is Adar 1, not Adar 2.  How do I know?  For one thing, if you are marking the anniversary of a death that took place in Adar of a non-leap year, you do so during the second Adar, not the first.  Of more general importance is that Purim, too, is delayed till Adar 2, so that Passover can fall in its normal place a month later.  (There is a "Little Purim" on the appropriate date in Adar 1, but don't expect to see any little Esthers and Mordecais running around, or to be receiving any gifts of hamentaschen.)

All this systematization is a good thing, since disagreements about the calendar are not unknown in Jewish history, and they are not inconsequential. Some think the solar calendar was the original religious calendar of the Jews, replaced, after the return from exile in Babylonia, by the calendar used there.  (Everyone agrees that the current names for the months are Babylonian.) It's certain that by late Second Temple times, a dispute over the calendar split the Jewish people into sects.

We know about this from two books of the Pseudepigrapha, works from the last couple of centuries before the Common Era that sound biblical but did not actually find their way into the canon.  In two of these, 1 Enoch and Jubilees, we find detailed descriptions of a 52-week, 364-day year that falls precisely into four quarters, closely mimicking the solar year.  The advantage of such a calendar is that the festivals fall on exactly the same day of the week every year.  The disadvantage (besides the need to adjust slightly for the day-and-a-quarter annual discrepancy that still remains) is that other Jews were declaring months according to the moon and celebrating the festivals on different days. 

A work found among the Dead Sea Scrolls interprets a verse from the book of the prophet Habakkuk ("Woe betide the man who makes his companions drink the outpouring of God's wrath . . .")  as follows:

[T]he Wicked Priest . . . pursued the Teacher of Righteousness to consume him with the heat of his anger in the place of his banishment.  In festival time, during the rest of the Day of Atonement, he appeared to them, to consume them and make them fall on the day of fasting, the sabbath of their rest.

It seems that this Wicked Priest, who is thought to have been the official High Priest in Jerusalem, tried to make the leader of the Qumran sect violate the day that the latter thought was Yom Kippur.  As in a later imbroglio recorded in the Mishnah, this would have meant acknowledging that one man's calendar was right and the other's was wrong.  Even had there been no pre-existing power struggle between these two Jewish groups, observing the festivals on different days would have pushed them apart in any case.

There are calendar distinctions among Jews today as well.  Certain "deviants" from the standard calendar—that is, the calendar given out by synagogues and funeral homes—celebrate only one day for festivals instead of two.  If, according to one calendar but not the other, the festival includes a Sabbath, the two groups will even find themselves reading different Torah portions on the same day.

Fortunately, today's difference does not pose the same risk of a fractious split in the Jewish people as did the lunar-solar dispute of Second Temple times. The "deviants" in today's case are the Jews who live in the land of Israel and follow the biblical schedule of festivals as they have always done, plus some Diaspora communities that have adopted the same system.  After a few weeks, the two calendars always jiggle themselves back into place and the Jews of the world all find themselves back on the same page.

It's Adar, and sooner or later Purim will arrive. Let the joy increase.

Michael Carasik is the creator of The Commentators' Bible.  He teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. 

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micha on February 10, 2011 at 9:49 am (Reply)
Actually, Purim is in the 2nd Adar not because it's more real, but because it better sets the stage for Passover that way. Creates a "Redemption Season." (Megillah 6b)

And in fact, what to do for yahrzeit is a 3 way dispute, some observing in the first Adar (Rama OC 568:7), some in the second (Shulchan Arukh ad loc), and others telling you to observe both (Vilna Gaon in his commentary ad loc). And the first yahrzeit, which is more about the end of the mourning period -- and is thus the anniversary of burial, not death -- is more tied to 12 months than the calendar year, so it might be different.

WRT contact law, the talmud says the meaning depend on whatever the parties understood (Bava Metzi'ah 102a-b). Bar Mitzvah, second Adar, but the reasons given are developmental.

The point I'm trying to make is that both Adars are equally "the real Adar". And which we choose for each law depends on the law, not on which Adar is the added one.

A point of concern: I encountered these ideas, albeit not in this depth, when I first learned Tractate Megillah, in an Orthodox Yeshiva Day School in 6th grade. The fact that a noted Reconstructionist Rabbi, the author of a well-used edition of the bible can write on this matter incorrectly without knowing there is an issue or even checking with "Google" first is frightening to me. It shows a lack of concern for accuracy in teaching Torah that in my mileu would be taken for granted.

Michael Carasik on February 10, 2011 at 10:33 am (Reply)
I am neither a Reconstructionist nor any kind of rabbi, and was therefore not poskening.
Michael Carasik on February 10, 2011 at 11:08 am (Reply)
I would add that:

(1) You are of course correct that Purim must be in Adar to set the stage for Passover; this was one of my points. For the purposes of this article, it was simply an aside. It certainly deserves further discussion — but not until Adar 2!

(2) The "milieu" in which the article was written and published is one of ideas, not of halakhah. From an experiential viewpoint, it is Adar 1 that is the leap month. Perhaps "Micha" disagrees that such matters can be discussed outside the framework of halakhic analysis.
Ron Broxted on February 10, 2011 at 11:23 am (Reply)
Surely even by calling it "C.E" you are making a Eurocentric judgement? A.D/B.C worked for me this last half century and I am not going to change. I don't force Muslims to abandon B.H or A.H.
micha on February 10, 2011 at 11:31 am (Reply)
Actually, most of the ideas transmitted by our tradition are encapsulated in halakhah. We know from the legal debate what people's ideas about Adar are.

But in particular, the article here makes a legal claim, "How do I know? For one thing, if you are marking the anniversary of a death that took place in Adar of a non-leap year, you do so during the second Adar, not the first." This isn't Ashkenazi practice, though -- Ashkenazim tend to follow the Rama over the Shulchan Arukh. (Providing Ashkenazic tradition is the entire role of the Rama's gloss to the Shulchan Arukh).

My criticism wasn't of the author. Rather, it was of Reconstructionism as a whole. There is much written about which Adar is the normal one, and which is the one inserted. Googling "yahrzeit adar" would bring up articles that discuss the sources I did, and then some. But this isn't what the Reconstructionist reader expects. Rather, which Adar is the real one is considered more a subject of gut instinct than of research of our common tradition.

And it's that difference in "milieu" that I was critiquing.

Side note: I believe the Chinese calendar also uses the 19 year Metonic Cycle, but they begin the cycle in a different place, so their leap years do not always coincide with ours.

(Rabbi Micha Berger)
micha on February 10, 2011 at 11:52 am (Reply)
Ron: FWIW, the ANSI (American National Standards Institute) standard for SQL (Standard Query Language -- used in database work, officially specifies BCE/CE in the preferred fullest date format, with BC/AD also allowed. The reason, as legend goes, was to avoid threats of church-and-state litigation amongst defense contractors. (Defense contractors much stick strictly to ANSI standards and not use even popular variants).

Harold on February 10, 2011 at 2:18 pm (Reply)
Micha, Thanks for the information about the ANSI SQL standards!
Ron Broxted on February 10, 2011 at 2:25 pm (Reply)
Micha, a shaynem danke!
Ben Plonie on February 11, 2011 at 9:31 am (Reply)
Back in the milieu of ideas, the years within the 19 year Metonic cycle to which the 13th month are added fall on the intervals of a major musical scale (Dorian mode) when mapped onto a 19 tone octave instead of a the familiar 12 tone tempered scale. (The scale is more accurate in 19 tones; 12 tones was chosen because it makes transposition of keys easier.) Hat tip to Rabbi Matityahu Glazerson.
micha on February 11, 2011 at 11:19 am (Reply)
Ben Ploni -- thanks for sharing!

Weird, though, since the Major / Dorian mode isn't native to Jewish music, nor Middle Eastern music in general...

The Metonic cycle is called that because Meton's is the oldest written record. It was used in Attica, Chaldea and Babylonia, in addition to the current use in Jewish and Chinese calendars, and in Christian computation of Easter. (And the Runic calendar, starting from the 13th cent CE.)

Interestingly, the use of the Metonic cycle in all cases dates to roughly the 4th cent CE. So, while it seems to have originated in Babylonia, it did so at a time when the Jews were in exile there, and our prophets were drafted into service in the royal court.
Ben Plonie on February 11, 2011 at 2:13 pm (Reply)
The Dorian mode is a minor mode which is common in Jewish music but I don't know enough about it to take a scholarly position.

Chaldea (Ur) was in the region of Shinar, the vicinity of Eden, the first settlement of humanity. Babaylonia is Shinar, far in the future. However you feel about the Bible as history, it has independently been shown to be the most scientifically and astronomically (and astrologically) advanced civilization of its day.

Abraham was a native of Chaldea circa 3823 BC, and presumably educated in its culture and sciences. Abraham's native language was the Chaldean language Aramaic, not Hebrew, and Aramaic remained family Yiddish for at least the next two generations in which the wives were taken from the extended family. (Just to connect the dots, Aramaic became the regional language following the Babylonian conquest through Roman times; the early Christians spoke Aramaic and pidgin Greek at best, certainly not Latin; Aramaic was the language of not only the Babylonian Talmud but the Jerusalem one.

Anyway, Babylonia was the inheritor of the Chaldean science and culture, and it is known that the Jewish calendar was constructed following apostate sabotage of the Jewish procedure of proclaiming the months by direct observation. The Jewish month names are actually Babylonian, even Tammuz which was the name of a false deity. I don't think that would fly today.

It is a staple of the Aish Hatorah Discovery presentation that the lunar month as specified in Jewish writings is the most accurate of all ancient measurements (Egyptian, Greek, Aztec, Mayan and whatnot) until NASA measured it by satellite somehow. And the Jewish writings say it was passed down by tradition, not observation.

The bottom line is that the Jewish calendar takes a lickin', and keeps on tickin'.
micha on February 11, 2011 at 2:52 pm (Reply)
The modes usually used in Jewish music until the 20th cent are (named for well-known tefillos where the traditional tunes in Ashkenazic nusach used that mode):

Ahava Rabba / Fraygish (modified Phrygian) or as Sepharadim would call it the Hijaz makam.

Mi Shebeirach / Av haRachamim, a variant on Dorian -- but one where the notes wouldn't match the Metonic cycle because the 4th degree is raised.

Hasham Moloch, a/k/a Mixolodian. And

Mogein Avos -- minor scale. (In most to least often used order.)

What is interesting about the molad, the average lunar month is not its uniqueness, as that too we shared with the Babylonians. It's that it was very precise in the 4th cent CE. The moon slows down over time, so that a month today is longer than it was back when the calendar was made. The molad was a number we knew at least since the Babylonian Exile, although I believe it was given at Sinai. However, it was accurate to the nearest daqa (our smallest unit of time) during the life of Rabbi Hillel II, the late amora (not the famous Hillel) whose court is credited with setting up the calendar. Not 800 years earlier, when it was first discussed -- but when we actually needed to rely on a number. (Did I mention my belief that the molad was propehtically revealed, not experimentally measured?)


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