The Rabbi's Study

The Inadequacy of Calendars

Every year, without fail, people always manage to say that whatever holiday in our calendar is either late or early. I relish the opportunity to say, “Rosh Hashanah is not early, October is late!” And it’s true. The Gregorian calendar is an arbitrary construction measuring the Earth’s relationship to the Sun with the goal of fixing Easter in its relationship to the Spring Equinox.

The Jewish calendar, however, measures not only the relationship of the Earth to the Sun, but also the relationship of the Earth to the Moon, and the Earth’s relationship to it’s own axis. Because it measures all three experiences, we actually require multiple mechanisms to consider time. In our tracking of time, months are lunar and years are solar. This, then, necessitates a more nuanced view of the Earth cycles than we receive through the Gregorian calendar. We see from this week’s Torah portion that it would appear that our ancestors of the biblical era recognized six seasons, rather than our four.

עֹ֖ד כָּל־יְמֵ֣י הָאָ֑רֶץ זֶ֡רַע וְ֠קָצִיר וְקֹ֨ר וָחֹ֜ם וְקַ֧יִץ וָחֹ֛רֶף וְי֥וֹם וָלַ֖יְלָה לֹ֥א יִשְׁבֹּֽתוּ׃

So long as the earth endures, Seedtime and harvest, Cold and heat, Summer and winter, Day and night Shall not cease.”

We are, of course, familiar with our four seasons of Spring, Summer, Spring, and Autumn. But when you really think about it, the beginning of Spring is more like Winter than it is like Spring. So how does this six-season system work?

According to the Talmud:

Half of Tishrei, [all of] Marheshvan, and half of Kislev is ‘seedtime.’ Half of Kislev, [all of] Tevet, and half of Shevat is ‘winter.’ Half of Shevat, [all of] Adar, and half of Nisan is ‘cold.’ Half of Nisan, [all of] Iyyar, and half of Sivan is ‘harvest.’ Half of Sivan, [all of] Tammuz, and half of Av is ‘summer.’ Half of Av, [all of] Elul, and half of Tishrei is ‘heat.’

Photo Credit: Rich Richins

The way this six-season cycle is put down in the Torah is clearly not chronological, but rather it pairs opposites in order to show the relationship of year. Therefore, the end of the first half of Tishrei and the end of the first half of Nisan sit at opposite ends of the year. Since our months are lunar, the month begins with the New Moon, therefore the end of the first half of the month is on a Full Moon. And this is why the holidays are never late or early, but October (or April) might be. The position of the moon in relationship to the Earth is the same each and every year, however the Earth’s position in relationship to the Sun is not.

The significance of tracking time based on Earth and Moon cycles is a very important aspect to understanding our culture. One of the oldest artifacts containing Hebrew writing, the Gezer Calendar, reflects a system of tracking time very similar to that which we find in our Torah portion, as it was understood by the Rabbis of the Talmud. The text is understood to state:

Two months gathering/Two months planting/Two months late sowing/One month cutting flax/One month reaping barley/One month reaping and measuring grain /Two months pruning/One month summer fruit

The language in the Gezer calendar reflects the language of Fall Harvest in the Torah, when Sukkot is referred to as Hag Ha’asif – the Festival of Gathering. This would have been what the Rabbis referred to as “seedtime,” because we plant for the winter months after we harvest what had grown over the summer.

The way we track time in the Gregorian Calendar, only considering the relationship between the Earth and the Sun, is simply an inadequate measure of time as we experience life on this planet. We see, however, that the system codified into what we now call the “Hebrew Calendar” recognizes a much more complex, nuanced experience of time.

So next time someone says, “the holidays are late (or early) this year,” you can respond confidently: It’s right on time!

To see a rendering of the calendar showing the relationship between the holidays and the six-season cycle Click Here


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