The Calendar: Made Far Too Complicated
Learning the Jewish calendar can feel almost as complicated as learning ancient Hebrew. This is because people who love the history of calendars and astronomical phenomena are the ones doing the explaining!
So let’s keep this entirely too simple.
- The Jewish calendar as we know it came under the influence of the Babylonians
- The Jewish calendar is a combined solar and lunar calendar. For reference, the secular (Gregorian) calendar is solar, the Islamic calendar is lunar
- A new day begins at sunset
- A new week begins on Saturday night
- Because the lunar and solar calendar do not line up perfectly, you have holidays in the Gregorian calendar that are around the same time, but not always on the same date. Hanukkah is always in the winter, but it does not have a fixed Gregorian date
- To keep holidays from landing at the wrong times, there is a system of 19-year cycles, in which there are seven leap years, where we are given an extra month. No one ever remembers that part 🙂
- What should be one-day holidays are sometimes two days long. This is due to a fluke in Jewish history where it was uncertain what day it was, and therefore when holidays begun and ended. The practice of a just-in-case extra day became the custom. In modern times, some communities dropped the practice, then added it back. Some dropped it entirely
OK, you’re an expert now 🙂
The constant question is “when does __ holiday happen this year?” What people mean by that question is is “when in the secular calendar does __ happen?” Best way to know is the website HebCal.
Read the selections on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur from “Introduction To Judaism”
Don’t have the time? For a cut-and-dry reading, try My Jewish Learning.
Listen to (and try to sing along!) to a short collection of the High Holidays liturgy. Here are some samples.
An interesting side note: Rosh Hashanah has political overtones. The Babylonians had a ceremony of crowning the king every year. Jews crown God as king every year.That’s part of why the liturgy Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King) works on more than just a theological level. It’s blowing a raspberry at the Babylonian culture. Fun stuff!
High Holidays: Living (and Dying) to Ourselves
What I personally encounter in the High Holidays is a kind of rapid fire life-and-death.
- The expectation of new life coming into reality (the month of Elul)
- The moment of birth (Rosh Hashanah at candle lighting)
- The sweetness of life (the use of apples and honey, festive meals, cakes) during the two days of Rosh Hashanah
- The years gone by (the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) where we both experience and reflect back on life simultaneously
- The reminder of our mortality (Kol Nidre) but our stubborn refusal to admit it
- Awakening to mortality (Yom Kippur morning and afternoon prayer services)
- The moment before death and its sudden terror (Yizkor)
- The moment of release and entering into the proverbial “light” (Ne’ilah, the concluding service)
In the High Holidays, the old part of us dies to the new part of ourselves, and in that sense, the Days of Awe are like a taste of eternity.
While it sounds morbid, this should not be looked at as dreary but rather as life affirming. The Jewish high holidays come during a time in Israel where rain falls. For an agricultural society, rain means life.