Calendar Confusion

Rosh Hashanah 5771 begins on the eve of Sept. 8, just two days after Labor Day. In 2011, it falls on Sept. 28. Huh?

The Jewish calendar is a mysterious thing – even to Jewish people. Which helps to explain the old Jewish joke:
Esther: When is Rosh Hashanah this year?
Mollie: Same day it always is, the first day of Tishrei.

The punch line is the fact Jewish holidays have a fixed date on the Jewish calendar – e.g. Hanukkah is always the 25th of Kislev – but when these dates are transferred to the Gregorian calendar – the civil calendar that hangs on your kitchen wall – they don’t sit still.

That’s because the Jewish and Gregorian calendars are radically different. The Jewish calendar is a lunar one, and the new Hebrew month always coincides with the new moon. The Gregorian calendar is a solar one – based on the time it takes the earth to revolve around the sun. On that calendar, it’s the full moon that’s hard to pin down.

In ancient times, the new month was determined by observation. When the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court of law, heard testimony from two independent, reliable eyewitnesses that the new moon had risen, it would declare the “Rosh Hodesh,” the first of the month, and send out messengers to tell people the new month had begun.

Try putting that in an e-mail.

Both of these calendars sacrifice accuracy for ease. Though it takes 365-1/4 days for the earth to revolve around the sun, the civil calendar has 365 days. To adjust for this, a leap day is added in February once every four years.

The Jewish calendar has 12 months, but there are actually 12.4 lunar months in a year. So, a leap month – Adar II – is added to the calendar seven times in every 19 years. This ensures that Passover (also known as Hag ha-Aviv or the Spring Festival) falls in the spring. It also helps keep the other holidays in check.

Although Christmas and July 4th can sometimes creep up too quickly, they never catch us by surprise, like Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah do. In 2007, the holiday also took President George Bush by surprise: He issued a statement “wishing greetings to those celebrating Rosh Hashanah.” Unfortunately, he was a week early.

This year, the two-day period between Labor Day and the Jewish New Year just isn’t long enough. After dropping the kids off at college, we have to turn right around and drop the matzah balls into the soup. And is it legal to barbecue for Rosh Hashanah dinner?

An early holiday creates clothing dilemmas, too. As children, Ellen and her sisters have fond memories of campaigning to go bare-legged (no pantyhose) to Rosh Hashanah services on years like this one, when they were still warm and tan from the beach.

As adults, we are wondering how we can debut our new fall clothes at High Holiday services when the extended forecast says it will be 89 degrees? We haven’t even had time to buy new fall clothes. (Actually, neither of us are big shoppers. We always pull something old out of the closet and hope nobody will remember.)

Like Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah sometimes pops up way too early. This year it follows Thanksgiving by less than a week, which is better than the year it began on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend – when were still recovering from turkey and not yet ready to tackle potato latkes. Without advance planning, we would have had to venture out with the Black Friday crowd to buy Hanukkah tchotchkes.

Next year Hanukkah will fall on Dec. 21, which would allow us to schedule a family party on Christmas itself – though, in truth, we would miss the Jewish custom of celebrating with Chinese food and a movie.

Wishing all our friends and readers a Happy New Year.

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