Four New Years Every Year?!

Happy New YearNew Year’s Day comes only once a year – doesn’t it?

In the Gregorian Calendar and most other calendars, that’s certainly true. But this is yet another way that the Jewish calendar is different. We celebrate FOUR New Year’s:

Rosh Hashanah is translated “the head of the year.” In the fall, on the first of Tishrei, we celebrate the most well-known New Year’s Day in Judaism. This is the day that the number of the year changes (5774 to 5775, etc.) It’s the day we remember the beginning of Jewish time (the Creation) and reflect on the end of Jewish time, as well. It is also the Biblical date for starting the sabbatical and jubilee (shemita) years. For American Jews, this is a day for synagogue and a festive meal.

Tu B’Shevat (the 15th of Shevat) is the New Year of the Trees which falls in midwinter. It began as an accounting device, a “fiscal year” for tithing produce from trees (olives, dates, figs, etc.) In the 16th century, the mystical rabbis of Safed were excited to be living in the land of Israel after their flight from Spain, and they began to observe the day with a seder and mystical symbolism. In the 19th century, Zionists celebrated the day as a celebration of the greening of the land of Israel, and in the 21st century, the day has come to be a day of ecological concern and action.

1st of Nisan in early spring is the first day of the first month of the Biblical year. According to Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1, the first of Nisan is “the new year for kings and for festivals.” The reigns of kings were calculated from this date, and the festival of Passover, which falls later in Nisan, is the festival which begins the history of the Jews as a nation.

1st of Elul in late summer was the beginning of the fiscal year for animal tithes in Israel. When the temple stood, people who raised animals were obligated to give a tithe from their flocks. Nowadays this is the date upon which we begin the process of preparation for the purification of the Days of Awe in the following month.

As a Jew living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I live in a place where we also celebrate the Gregorian New Year on Jan 1, the Chinese New Year in the spring, and the Islamic New Year which travels around the seasons, a feature of their lunar calendar!

Every New Year is a moment of hope in the stream of time, reminding us that our days are limited but that what lies ahead is as yet unwritten. As the great medieval Jewish philosopher Bachya Ibn Pekuda wrote,

“Our days are scrolls. Write in them what you wish to be remembered.”

Welcome to Tevet!

Tevet 5775 began last night at sundown, on the evening of December 21, 2014.

6chanukahWelcome to Tevet! It’s the month that begins in the middle of a holiday. We are celebrating Chanukah, and last night, when we lit six candles, the month of Tevet arrived to join us.

Despite its fancy beginning, Tevet is a quiet little month for Jews. The biggest things to happen in it are not Jewish days at all: Christmas and the Gregorian New Year (January 1) usually fall in the month of Tevet.

The only other official Jewish day of observance in this month is Asara b’Tevet [10th of Tevet] on which some Jews fast to remember the day in 588 BCE when the army of Nebuchadnezzar, emperor of Babylon, laid seige to Jerusalem. In the month of Av, a year and a half later, they would enter the city and destroy Solomon’s Temple, which we refer to as the First Temple.

One of the quirks of the Jewish calendar as we know it today is that it is in some ways a hand-me-down from ancient Babylon. Before the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians and the subsequent exile, we know that Jews followed a lunar calendar that began its months on the new moon and that had adjustments to keep the agricultural holidays in their proper seasons. We have a few month names from that calendar in the Torah, but most of the months seem to have been like modern Hebrew days. They went by number, “In the First Month” etc.

But the names of the months we use today came back from Babylon with our ancestors. Tevet in Babylon was Tebetu or something similar. If you are curious about the Babylonian calendar there are a few Internet sites that explore it, including this one.

Enjoy the last remaining nights of Chanukah and don’t forget to add the greeting, Chodesh Tov!  Happy New Month!

 

Weather and the Jewish Year

 

A map of the world, centered on Jerusalem, c. 1260 CE.
A map of the world, centered on Jerusalem, c. 1260 CE.

Queentimely wrote in response to a recent post:

I don’t know how many readers you have in the southern hemisphere, but it might interest those in the north to be reminded that it’s actually winter here — cold (in Melbourne terms), blowy and dark early.

Excellent point!

One of the quirks of living in California is that the climate and the seasons match that of Israel pretty closely. That’s very handy for us, because the Jewish calendar is rooted in the seasons of the Land of Israel. I am prone to forget that for most of the world, it isn’t so tidy.

For instance, Jews worldwide begin praying for rain on Shemini Atzeret, the day after the close of Sukkot. In both Israel and California, that day falls at about the earliest date one might reasonably expect some rain. Therefore the weather is perfect for eating and sleeping in the sukkah: not too hot, not too cold, and certainly not too wet. However, if one is celebrating in Minnesota or in Sweden, the sukkah is apt to be downright soggy and cold, because autumn had already arrived weeks before.

The same goes for Passover: it’s a spring holiday, hence the parsley and the egg on the seder plate. However, the 14th of Nisan may be a bit early for spring in some northern climes. In the southern hemisphere, Jews sit around the seder table in the fall.

So why not simply attune the holidays to the local climate? Long ago, when Jews were forced into Diaspora, outside the Land of Israel, we decided to keep our calendars aligned with that of our homeland. So Jews in Spain, Jews in South America, Jews in Australia, and Jews in Finland keep the same calendar, no matter what the weather is doing in their local neighborhoods. Just as we face towards Jerusalem for prayer, we align the Jewish year with that of the Land of Israel, because it is, and always has been, home.

So, readers: if your climate or seasons are radically different from that of Israel, how does it affect your observance of the calendar? If you have celebrated the Jewish Year in the far North or south of the equator, I hope to hear from you.

Sivan Tov!

Happy Rosh Chodesh Sivan!

If you are thinking “What’s Rosh Chodesh?” <– click the link

Sivan is the ninth month of the Jewish Year, counting from Rosh HaShanah in the fall. It’s pronounced “see – VAHN.” In the Bible, though, where the year is counted from the first of Nisan, it is referred to as “the third month” (Exodus 19:1.)

Sivan begins at sundown on May 29 in 2014.

Its name comes from the Akkadian simanu, meaning “season.”

Sivan is the month of Shavuot, the festival on which we celebrate the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai (6 Sivan).

What will you do with your month of Sivan?

Time and Torah

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Among the everlasting puzzles of the Torah are its expressions of time. The Book of Numbers is a case in point: it is explicitly not in chronological order.

The Eternal spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt. (Numbers 1:1)

Then, in chapter 9, we read:

The Eternal spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt (Numbers 9:1)

There are other instances where the chronology is not so clearly out of order, but where a careful reader will say, “What? Didn’t that already happen?” Genesis has two completely different Creation stories – was the world created twice?

For this reason, our sages concluded long ago that “there is no earlier or later in the Torah.” (Pesachim 6b). In other words, while we may certainly seek insight from the arrangement of events in the Torah, we should not assume that the only way to arrange them in the order in which they appear.

Genesis chapter 5 is full of ages that drive readers crazy. Adam supposedly lived to be 930 years of age. (Genesis 5:4-5) “Did he really live that long?” students ask, and I always reply, “What do you think?”

It does not make any sense that a human being was able to be alive for 930 years. It is somewhat more believable (but still a stretch) that Moses lived to be 120. I think it is more likely that these extreme ages have symbolic meanings, which may or may not be available to us today. Adam’s age is 130 when he sires Seth, the third son who was born after Cain killed Abel. Then Adam lives 800 more years. I am not aware of particular significance of either 130 or 800 — but what if the text is telling us that Adam felt 130 after one son murdered the other? But then the birth of a third child gave him hope, and he was fortunate to live to see that third child grow up and have children of his own?

If you follow up by reading Genesis 5, you’ll see that the chronology of the story of Noah doesn’t really work, since Noah was supposedly 500 when he sired Shem, Ham, and Japeth, and the Flood was 100 years later….!

But remember, “there is no earlier or later in Torah.” So perhaps it makes more sense to say, Adam lived to a good old age and saw his grandchildren. Noah was no spring chicken when he built the ark. Moses was a grown man when he spoke with the burning bush and an old man when he looked out from Mt. Nebo to see the Promised Land.

While we like to think in chronological patterns, life itself is not that simple. Have you ever met a child who was an “old soul?” Met someone in their 80’s with a young heart? Needed to know how a story ended, before you could take in its beginning? Whether Torah is a blueprint of the world, or a mirror of the world, “it is not in the heavens” (Deut. 30:12) but here in our hands, to interpret today.

Image: Gero, “Time,” Some rights reserved under Creative Commons license.

How To Count the Omer

Mizrach Omer Calender
Mizrach Omer Calender, by Moses H. Henry, Cincinnati, 1850.

Counting the Omer is a mitzvah (commandment) through which we count the days from Passover to Shavuot. It’s an ancient custom that takes us from the giddy joy of Passover to the serious business of receiving the Torah on Shavuot. It begins on the 2nd night of Passover and continues for 49 days until the Festival of Shavuot. (To learn more about the holiday and its history, click on the links. I’m sticking to “how to” in this article. To learn why we count the Omer, read Why Count the Omer.)

The procedure is simple. Every evening sometime between sundown and midnight we say a blessing:

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu al sefirat ha-Omer.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time and Space, who sanctifies us with Your commandments and has commanded us to count the Omer.

Then you do the actual count:

Today is the ____ day of the Omer.

After six days, you include the weeks as well:

Today is _____ days, which is _____ week and _____ days of the Omer.

For instance, on the 48th (next to last) day of the Omer, you would say: “Today is the 48th day of the Omer, which is 6 weeks and 6 days of the Omer.”

(If you have learned your Hebrew numbers, this is a GREAT opportunity to practice both your cardinal and ordinal numbers.)

 

The target is to count each day of the Omer in the time between sundown and midnight. Now, like any good game, there are penalties if you miss the target.

1. If I forget to count until after midnight (say, I wake up and realize, “Gosh, I forgot to count the Omer last night!”) I can still COUNT but you cannot say the blessing. On the next night, I go back to saying the blessing and counting as usual.

2. If I completely forget for 24 hours – that is, forgets to count until the next evening – then I am still obligated to count, but I don’t get to bless anymore.

The object is to get all the way through to Shavuot – to count the complete Omer! – without missing an evening count and blessing.

Some readers may find it a little scandalous that I frame this as a game, but I find it a useful way to think about counting the Omer when learning how to do it. There are many beautiful spiritual practices that are based on counting the Omer, but it is hard to do those effectively until you’ve got the basics. Llearning the basic practice works well as a game.

What’s the point? In a word, mindfulness. It took me years to get all the way through the Omer with the practice intact, every day, every blessing said on time. I’m a scattered, not-detail-oriented person, and I grew a lot of self-discipline from my repeated attempts. (I know, that sounds so boring: but seriously it paid off in my ability to focus and deliver on routines: for instance, posting nearly daily to a blog!) Counting is also the gateway to a number of spiritual practices such as meditations on the Sefirot, the different emanations of the Divine in Kabbalistic practice.)

Helps in Counting the Omer: There are some great smartphone apps and computer apps. Search  “omer” in the appropriate places for your operating system and hardware. You can also get “omer calendars” and “omer counters” from Jewish bookstores.

I encourage you to give this mitzvah a try. It’s joys seem very simple (and perhaps minimal, to a newcomer) but it is a gateway to all sorts of cool stuff. If you didn’t begin on the 2nd night of Passover, no worries – while you won’t be doing a complete count this year, you can still “jump on” for the ride and learn!

Image: Public Domain from Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

“Blood Moons” and the Meaning of Prophecy

Maybe you’ve heard something in the press about “blood moons” this year and next.  They sound scary, don’t they?

A “blood moon” is a vivid description of the full moon during a total lunar eclipse. I saw the one on December 11, 2011, and it was a sight to behold. The moon turned a dark coppery color for a while and gave us all a shot of amazement (or the creeps) and then gradually became its own silvery self again.  I said the blessing for seeing a wonder of nature and then went back to work at my desk.

The moon turns red because while the earth has blocked the light from the sun, the light from all the earth’s sunsets and sunrises still reaches the moon. That light seems blood-colored as it is reflected back to us. (Read this article for more about the science of this astronomical wonder.)

Lunar eclipses come in many varieties, but for our purposes, let’s just say they are “full” (like this one) and “partial.” (For the difference, read the science article.) Total ones are very dramatic; partial eclipses are less so. The next four lunar eclipses visible from North America represent the lunar equivalent of a high poker hand: we are about to see “four of a kind” total eclipses in a row. The fancy name for that is “tetrad.” For astronomers in North America, this is a great stroke of luck, because they can use this time to observe the moon and the sky in ways unavailable at other times.

This tetrad is remarkable in that it also lines up with the Jewish holidays of Passover and Sukkot, for two years running. We’ll have total eclipses on this Passover and the next, and for the next two Sukkots as well. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and rabbinic student David Markus have written a beautiful drash on the phenomenon which they published through Rabbi Barenblat’s blog, The Velveteen Rabbi. It’s a very Jewish take on the phenomenon of the tetrad.

This tetrad is getting attention from Christian writers as well: Pastor John Hagee of Texas has written a book about it. He sees these “signs in the heavens” as “foretold in Scripture” and specifically links them to disasters in Jewish history and, for this particular tetrad, to some sort of major event for the State of Israel.  This brings us to another interesting topic: the difference between Jewish understandings of the Prophets and Christian understandings of them.

For Jews, there was a specific time of the prophets, a historical period from the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1) to the time of the restoration of the Second Temple in 516 BCE.   Prophets guided the People of Israel and our leaders, and they were understood to be spokespersons for God. (Yes, there were women prophets.) Sometimes they heard God’s voice giving them personal instruction (Genesis 12:1), and sometimes they were messengers to a specific person (2 Samuel 12: 1-25).  The “major prophets” spoke to the entire nation about matters of national concern, including idolatry, foreign entanglements, and the need to keep the spirit as well as the law of the Torah (e.g. Isaiah 1). When they talked about the future, they were talking about the immediate future, or speaking in general terms. They were not looking centuries ahead, they were talking about the specific geopolitical and theological realities of the time. To get a really good understanding of the Jewish prophets, there’s no better book that Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book, The Prophets.

Today Jews revere the words of the prophets and read them every Shabbat because their comments and rebukes are timeless: they call us to observe the spirit of the Torah, and to remember that ritual observance alone is not enough to fulfill our lives as Jews.

For Christians, the Jewish prophets have a different meaning. While many Christians read the Jewish prophets for their ethical commentary, they also read them as fore-tellers of the arrival of Jesus as messiah. In the 19th and 20th centuries in some Protestant circles, there’s been an upsurge of interest in using Jewish prophetic and eschatological writings to “foretell” political events in the future, something called Dispensationalism. Dr. Hagee’s book about the “Blood Moons” falls into this category: he is using verses of Scripture and this astronomical event to make predictions about the future. I should also mention that not all Christians are Dispensationalists; they have gotten a lot of press in recent years because (1) they have sought to publicize their message and (2) it makes great copy for people who want to sell “clicks” in the media.

These two different ways of understanding prophecy are mostly incompatible. While Jews and Christians can agree on the ethical teachings of the prophets (don’t abuse the poor etc.), we disagree fundamentally about the role of the prophet, both religiously and historically. That means that we look a bit crazy to each other. Christian attempts to use the writings of 7th century BCE prophets plus astronomical events to “foretell the future” seem pointless and disrespectful to Jews. The Jewish insistence that nothing in Isaiah has anything to do with the 1st century carpenter from Nazareth seems stubborn and blind to Christians.

The truth is, we share some books of scripture, but we read them and use them quite differently. It would be great if we could all agree to treat one another respectfully and sit side by side to watch what is indisputably a show of marvels in the night sky. Whether you call them “blood moons” or “red moons” or “total lunar eclipses,”  they are moments of beauty and majesty.

I wish you a zissen Pesach (Yiddish for “a joyful Passover”)!