Judi's Journal 09-16-2011

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The Jewish calendar and upcoming New Year

By Judi Siegal

It is 5772 (well, almost!) and in a few days, Jews all over the world will be ushering in a New Year. This year, the holidays come later (last year Rosh Hashanah was two days after Labor Day) and the first day of the New Year is actually in the seventh month of the year! How can this be? And how can this be 5772 when most calendars record the year as 2011? The answers to these questions lie in the calculation of the Jewish calendar and its fascinating history.
The Jewish calendar is a lunar one, that is, based on the observations and phases of the moon. It ancient days, when a new moon was sighted, the Sanhedrin (Jewish court) was notified, and the new month was declared. Bonfires were lit atop of high places to notify the people of the sighting. Because it took time for the Jewish community scattered throughout the Middle East to receive the news, an extra day was added to certain Biblical festivals like Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) and Shavuot (Festival of Weeks) to ensure the festivals were fully observed. This practice is still followed today in traditional Jewish circles. The secular calendar is based solar calculations. While the days of the secular calendar are 365, the lunar, Jewish one, are 354 and there lies the “discrepancy”. Just as Jan. 1 is the same date every year, so is Tishrei 1, the Jewish New Year the same date every year. It is because of the different calendar calculations, that is, when we compare the largely lunar-based Jewish one with the secular one, the differences become clear.
The Jewish calendar was set down in the 4th century by Hillel II in 359 C.E. The rabbis at the time calculated the beginning of the calendar to be based on the Biblical account of Creation. They added up all the ages of the people in the Biblical account and came up with 3760 B.C.E as the date of Creation. Even back then it was known the earth was far older than that date but it was the idea that the Jewish calendar had its origins based on Creation that was important. For Christians, the years preceding or after the coming of Jesus is their way of reckoning the beginning of their calendar. Thus we have B.C. before Christ, and A.D., anno domini (the year of our Lord). Jews and others use the term, B.C.E (before the Common Era) and C.E. (Common Era) for A.D.
It was Ezra, who in the 4th century B.C.E., led the Judean captives from Babylonia back to Palestine. He was instrumental in restoring Jewish law to the country. With a standardized calendar, all could properly observe the festivals and fast days. The names of the months were actually names of Babylonian deities: Nisan, Iyar, Sivan, Tammuz, Av, Elul, Tishrei, Cheshvan, Kislev, Tevet, Shevat, and Adar. Notice that Tishrei is actually the seventh month. This is because the counting of years actually starts with Nisan, the spring month and the month of the Exodus from Egypt, the beginnings of the Jewish nation. The reign of the kings was counted from Nisan I. Rosh Hashanah, which occurs on Tishrei I, is actually the liturgical New Year but has now been accepted at the official beginning of the year. The 15th day of Shevat was counted as the New Year of the Trees and Elul I was counted as the fixed time for tithing of cattle and if you count these dates, Jews actually have four New Years!
Of course, the Jewish calendar is not perfect and adjustments had to be made to fit in in with the solar year so that holidays do not come out of season. Leap years, which contain an extra month of Adar, were added. Thus in a 19 year cycle we have the 3rd, 6th, 8th, 11th, 14th, 17th and 19th years which contain an extra month of Adar. Non-leap year months have 353-55 days in a year, while leap year months have 383-85 for a yearly cycle. Also certain holidays were arranged so as not to fall on certain days that would have caused hardship in their preparation.
May the coming year of 5772, to be observed on September 29-30, be one of prosperity, respect, tolerance, love and peace. L’shanah Tovah! Happy New Year!
(source: The Concise Jewish Encyclopedia, edited by Cecil Roth New York: New American Library, 1980)