Monday, December 3, 2007

When Hannukah Comes (Early) Right on Time

The other day, as I was struggling with my paper, I said to my husband, Bruce, "Am I dreaming or does Hannukah come early this year?"
As he began to answer, N. piped up with: "Hannukah comes right on time every single year."

And of course he's right. It comes exactly when it is supposed to come according to the Jewish calendar.

Hannukah starts at sunset Tuesday (tomorrow!) night, because that is the beginning of the 4th day of the week, and the 25th day of the month of Kislev.
That the 25th day of Kislev happens to be 11 days earlier on the solar calendar this year than last is not a problem for the Jewish calendar. It is a problem for those of us who live both the Jewish and the secular calendars.

The Jewish calendar has evolved to be a lunisolar calendar--or a lunar calendar that is intercalated with the solar year. This has to do with the origins of the Jewish people. As we say every year at Passover time, "My father (Abraham) was a wandering Aramean..." As a desert people, a lunar calendar made sense. You can see the moon wax and wane, and the length of time of a quarter is about 7 days. (It's actually a bit more, but it works well enough). Thus the seven day week, as well as the concept of Shabbat--one day in seven to rest--is brought to you by the Jewish people.

But as our history changed, we began to need to count our days according to the solar year, the cycle of the earth around the sun. This is because our wandering shepherd people left the desert and the three black ones--shade, dates, and water--behind, coming into the land of Cana'an, met and married with settled people who lived in towns and farmed the land. A farmer has to know when to plant and when to harvest, and the lunar calendar cycles completely around the solar year over time, as the Islamic calendar still does today, over a period of about 33 years.

There are twelve months in the Jewish year, and each one is either 29 or 30 days long, depending on the actual time of the new moon. The current names for the months were borrowed from the Babylonians during the time of the Babylonian exile, and reflect the Babylonian Zodiac, which has also become the Hebew Zodiac. The picture to the right is of a mosaic on the floor of the 6th Century (CE) synagogue at Bet Alfa, Israel.

But there is a problem. The Shaloshim Regalim--the pilgrimage festivals, are all agricultural as well as religious, and the dates must fall during a certain phase of the moon as related to the solar year. For example, Passover falls on the first full moon following (but not on) the vernal equinox.
Prior to the Babylonian exile, the Hebrew year began with Aviv, the month of spring, and this is still the new year for counting months. And the word Aviv, now translated as "spring," originally meant "beginning the barley harvest." So the priesthood simply added a month whenever it was clear that the full moon that would be Pesach would be too early for beginning to harvest, and the roads would be too muddy for the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
After the Roman wars and the beginning of exile, this became unwieldy. So instead, a series of calculations were done by the Patriarch (Nasi) and the Sanhedrin, in order to set the Jewish year so that it would be uniform throughout the world. There was great complexity in these calculations, since the Hebrew year must intercalate with the solar year, and certain Holy Days must not fall on Friday or Sunday, and certain festivals must match the seasons. The rules of the calendar came into place throughout the Talmidic era, and all of the evidence shows that before the time of the 10th century CE (921) Saadia Gaon (Genius of the Talmudic Academy of Sura) they were all in place.

The rules of the calendar were codified by the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon), aka Maimonides in Greek (Just to make things more interesting, he had an Arabic name, too, since he was born in Cordova, Spain, during the age of Islamic rule) in 1178 CE. About the problem of the intercalary he wrote:

"By how much does the solar year exceed the lunar year? By approximately 11 days. Therefore, whenever this excess accumulates to about 30 days, or a little more or less, one month is added and the particular year is made to consist of 13 months, and this is the so-called embolismic (intercalated) year. For the year could not consist of twelve months plus so-and-so many days, since it is said: throughout the months of the year (Num. 28:14), which implies that we should count the year by months and not by days." (The Sanctification of the New Moon).
The picture is of a manuscript by the Rambam, written in Judeo-Arabic with Hebrew letters.

So now, the Jewish month begins approximately one day after the newborn moon, when the crescent can just be seen in the sky. This is because, although we calculate the months astronomically, in the old days it was declared by the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), and later by the Nasi of the Sanhedrin. And seven times during a cycle of 19 years, we add an extra month just before the month of Nisan (the Babylonian equivalent of Aviv), making a Jewish "leap month."

This year, 5768 is a leap year in the Jewish calendar, so next year the Holy Days will be "later."

And this is why Bruce, N. and I had a conversation about Hannukah, which feels early this year.
But of course, it starts right on time, at sunset tomorrow night, the beginning of the day of the 25th of Kislev, 5768. And it continues through Rosh Chodesh Tevet (the new moon that starts the month of Tevet) and continues until the 3rd day of Tevet, 5768, which is Wednesday, December 12, 2007 in the Western solar calendar.

And the conversation?
I said: "Am I dreaming or is Hannukah coming early this year?"
Bruce: "You're right."
N: "Hannukah comes right on time every single year!"
Bruce: You're right!"
N: "But you said she's right...and I'm right..."
Bruce: "You're both right!"

And, because we live on two calendars, so we are!


Susanna said...

today was my first time to read your blog. I saw a comment by you on another blog. I love your name, that's what I would have named my third son if he had been a girl:) My daughter is excited that Hannukah is earlier this year. I remember well that it was early in 1991 too but not so much every other year.
I don't have a blog, just use Live Journal instead at the moment.

Melora said...

Well, I know exactly what you mean. I sometimes get my holiday cards out on time for Hannuakah for my Jewish relatives, but this Isn't going to be one of those years. N.'s remark reminds me of Gandalf's "a wizard arrives precisely when he means to" in the first of the LOTR movies, but very apt regarding Hannukah. Best wishes for a very happy Hannukah to you and your family!

Maddy said...

Sounds like you need a math phd to figure all of that out!
Something peculiar has happened to blogger comments so just for now, this is my calling card "Whittereronautism"so we can find each other.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone.
Maddy is right, something weird is happening with comments right now, and I am not getting e-mails saying they are coming. But keep commenting. The do post to the site!

Maddy, I enjoy your blog very much, and lurk there often, though I don't comment very much.