Lunar Calendars and Jewish Holidays

I was looking over the home calendar last night, not something I do with all that much frequency as anyone who knows me will attest. I figure since I spend about 20% of every workday managing my work calendar, I’m not going to do the same thing at home. Besides, my home life just isn’t all that interesting. It’s busy, but it’s not that interesting.

But at the moment I’m feeling like I’m a little busier than I’d like to be and now that the 4th is over, I’m in the “how long before it starts snowing” mode. By my calculations about 10 weeks.

Sorry for that Minnesota but I’m going go on record as saying we’ve had flurries in September more than once around here.


As I was glancing at September I noticed that the Jewish holidays are exceptionally early this year. Jewish dates are calculated on the “Hebrew” calendar which is a lunar calendar rather than a more accurate solar calendar. Mayans, Romans, Aztecs, Chinese.. they all figured it out. Ancient Hebrews… didn’t, which is why Jews never know when their holidays days are.

The good news is if you see new moon in the sky you always know it’s the first of something. Something being the name of a Hebrew month and in the American Jewish world if you were to poll 100 Jews randomly and ask them to name the 12 months in the Hebrew calendar I’m guessing you’d find about >5% or what ever the population of ultra-orthodox Jews are to the rest of American Jewry could answer you.

If you were do the same poll in the Liberal Jewish community… I bet the results would be “not enough correct answers for an accurate measurement.” You’d have a better shot at a Six Sigma assessment which would be 1/100000 of us answering correctly.

Name them in order? Infinitesimal.

I’ll take this one step further and suggest that those of us who can name a few, can do so thanks to growing up in homes where the local Jewish mortuary would sponsor the calendars which were passed out at the Synagogue every Rosh Hashanah. Every date on the Julian calendar had its Hebrew equivalent printed next to it in italics. Might have been the first time I was exposed to italics as well.

The problem with the lunar calendar is that dates shift forward, a lot. This becomes a problem when you have festivals that are based on the season, like the three festivals tied to harvests. When your beet harvest festival shifts to the point that you can’t bring your offering of borscht to the temple because you haven’t got the beets in the ground yet, people realize there’s an issue.

But until the Julian calendar came around there was nothing to compare it too.

It is so far off that every few years we have to add a leap MONTH to the calendar to make things line up again seasonally. It’s an odd deal.

BTW, Muslims also use a lunar calendar but they do NOT have the leap month which is why the holy month of Ramadan moves around the secular calendar. When you live on the Arabian Peninsula this isn’t a big deal as one month looks a lot like the next. But, when you’re Muslim living in Oslo… and since there is a requirement that you have to fast between sunrise and sunset, some years, when the month falls around June you’re not going to get much sleep when you have to wake up at 4:00am to eat and then wait for 11:00 for dinner. On the other hand in December you barely skip lunch.

I don’t know how many Muslims there are in Oslo but I’m sure they’ve figured this out.

Back the Jews, looking at the calendar this year I noticed that the Jewish Holidays, which is Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, #3 and #2 respectively on the Jewish Holiday importance ranking this year fall as early as they possibly can, the Rosh Hashanah starts the Wednesday after Labor Day. (#1 for you Jewish Trivia buffs is Shabbat, or every Saturday)

This is totally meshugha. (Yiddish for crazy, see what I did there?) There are two problems; Yom Kippur will fall the second week in September, it could still be quite hot around here the second week of September. When we lived in California it always felt like Yom Kippur would fall on one of the last big heat waves of the season. And since the old synagogue that we attended wasn’t air-conditioned… it was like G-d was providing extra punishment for the day, starving and schvitizing (sweating) at the same time, brutal. Uncomfy inside and out as I would say. We haven’t had that problem in Minnesota. Here, typically, Yom Kippur is the nicest day of the fall so you get to sit in the Shul and wish you were outside enjoying the weather. Which is almost as bad.

This early shift also means that we’re going to have to pull kids out of school the day after classes start. Except, we don’t have kids in school to worry about this anymore.

Yeah we have a daughter but she’s kinda quiet and stays in her room a lot so I don’t think about her in this context much.

For the college kids this works out OK, Auburn starts in the middle of August for some reason so if the lad wants to attend services he can, and probably not miss much. For the older kid at Technion..

And now the paradigm shift, this is where going to school in Israel is such a huge change… Living in a place where you’re in the majority, where the national pace is set by Jewish holidays. Well for someone who has lived their whole life in the minority it’s going to be a little different.

On Saturday’s, the country is pretty quiet. Public transportation doesn’t run and most stores are closed. On Yom Kippur however, the entire country shuts down cold, literally. No public transportation, no stores and restaurants are open, no entertainment venues are open, at one time even the television stations were off the air, streets are empty, and the colleges obviously don’t hold classes. Technion doesn’t start until October anyway. Most of the schools are out the entire week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, if they’re in session at all. Nate will spend the holiday on the Kibbutz where their will the family will carry blankets, rugs, BBQ’s and coolers of beverages out into the eucalyptus grove nearby and enjoy a picnic all afternoon. He’s going to like that, no boring sermons or long services for him, and since it’s in Israel it’s all sanctioned. Sort off?

Most Kibbutznicks are a beyond secular; I’d call them atheists for the most part. For them being Jewish is 100% about culture and identity rather than faith. Interestingly enough I’ll be curious to hear about Sukkot, the festival where we build the little booth in the backyard. I’m sure Nate will go to the Kibbutz for the day, as it’s one of their big fetes of the year. Since the holiday is tied to agriculture and the land, they really do it up; carnivals, food, party, fits right in with Zionist work the land philosophy they live by.

I’m sure Nate will get caught up in this.

After Yom Kippur comes some minor holidays then we get to Christmas. Hanukkah this year starts the day after Thanksgiving. Again crazy. That means we’ll enjoy about 3 weeks of Christmas music, lights and holiday madness knowing that we got nothing to look forward to ourselves to make winter seem shorter because our seasonally appropriate holiday has passed.

Long passed. But I’ll still enjoy lights and such.

Nate on the other hand.. I wonder if he’ll miss the season since it is impossible to live in this country and not get caught up, good or bad, on Christmas. For him there won’t be music, or lights. It’ll be a pretty low-key affair. Will he miss it?

Well see.


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