Image: The cycle of the Jewish Year, depicted as a wheel. The spring holidays are at the top, the fall months are at the bottom. (source, provenance uncertain.)
Tonight I look out my window at the waning moon of Marcheshvan. Full moon was last week; in another week, the new moon will bring in a new month, Kislev. That is one of the rhythms of the Jewish year: our months are strictly lunar. Every new moon is Rosh Chodesh, a new month; I watch the month wax and wane along with that big night light.
Too often we reduce the Jewish calendar to an overlay on the Gregorian. It leaves us feeling permanently out of joint, wondering which holidays are “early” and which are “late” – when in fact they come exactly on time with mathematical predictability. Rosh Hashanah is always on the 1st of Tishrei. Chanukah always begins on 25 Kislev.
The Jewish calendar is rooted in the ancient agricultural festivals of the Land of Israel. Our fall holiday cycle (1 Elul – 22 Tishrei) comes at the time of final harvests, just before the rainy season returns to the hills of the Galilee. Our spring holiday cycle (13 Adar – 6 Sivan) coincides with springtime and the cessation of rain. There are other holidays based in later historical events that are sprinkled around the calendar (e.g. Chanukah) but the fall and spring cycles are primary.
This connection to nature is also there in the way we count our days. For a Jew the day begins and ends at sundown, not at some arbitrary hour. The tradition lifts my eyes from my smartphone and forces me to check the horizon: where is the sun? Which day is it?
This makes life messy, of course: sundown time shifts every single day. I can use an app to calculate sundown (indeed, such tools are helpful on an overcast evening) but my connection is to something real: the sun went down. Stars came out. I am forced to notice, forced to maintain awareness.
The Jewish calendar puts me back in touch with the natural world. It demands to know: where is the sun? What does the moon look like? Is it time for rain in the Land? The calendar reminds me that I am part of the fabric of this world.