Judaism, Calendar of

Judaism, Calendar of

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The calendar of Islam begins with a specific date, crucial to the beginning of the religion—the day the prophet Muhammad made his journey from Mecca to Medina (see Islam, Development of). The Christian calendar, appropriately, begins with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the founder. One would think, then, that the Jewish calendar would probably begin with the call of Abraham or the day Moses came down from Sinai bearing the tablets of the law. Judaism, however—first and oldest of the great monotheistic traditions, whose scriptures begin with the words "In the beginning"— traces its beginning to the beginning, the creation of the world.

Prior to the middle of the fourth century CE, only Jewish authorities knew the arrangement of the sacred calendar. They announced the arrival of special dates and advised the people about seasonal events. But the patriarch Hillel II changed all that. Using the dates and ages found in the biblical book of Genesis, he determined when the creation of the universe took place. Using that as his starting point, he began to compute dates anchored to that time. But the Jewish year is based on a lunar system rather than a solar one. The normal Jewish year consists of twelve months, each consisting of either thirty or twenty-nine days, adjusted to the phases of the moon. This falls short of the actual 365-day period it takes Earth to revolve around the sun. So adjustments have to be made. Jewish leap years occur in the 3rd, 6th, 8th, 11th, 14th, 17th, and 19th year of each 19-year cycle. Were it not for these adjustments, seasonal festivities would begin to creep too far forward of their appropriate time. It would be hard, for instance, to celebrate a feast of first fruits while the ground is still frozen hard. To illustrate further, Passover must be celebrated during the spring month of Abib (Nisan). But it cannot fall before the vernal equinox.

What all this means is that complicated adjustments are made continually, and Jewish lunar months rarely coincide with the present-day Gregorian calendar. This means that the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, for instance, always occurs in the Jewish month of Tishre. But some years it will fall in September and in others October.

No one knows for sure the exact date that Hillel II used to begin his reckoning. The one generally accepted is about 3,760 years before the common era. In other words, by adding 3,760 to the common secular calendar year, the result is pretty close to the Jewish date. The year 2000 CE, for instance, corresponds to the Jewish year 5760, or 5,760 years since the creation of the universe. (It is important to emphasize, however, that the acceptance of this date for the "beginning" is not a dogmatic requirement of modern Judaism. Most rabbis have no trouble holding to a religious date, with its appropriate symbolism, while simultaneously accepting a scientific date.) T J C

Different systems have been used to determine how to list the months of the year, or when to begin the calendar. During the years of classical Judaism, apparently two versions were in use. One considered Nisan, then called the spring month or Abib, the beginning of the calendar year. The other version, Tishre. So we are apt to find disagreement when we read a typical scriptural reference that mentions, for example, "the first day of the second month." Which "second month" is the author referring to? We don't always know. It is recorded, however, that the two days of Rosh Hashanah (which translates literally to "the head of the year") were celebrated in the fall. This is the day traditionally considered to be the anniversary of the day of Creation. So it is common to begin with Tishre, the month when Rosh Hashanah occurs. The sounding of the shofar, the ram's horn, takes place in the synagogue each day during the month of Elul, to announce the coming of the new year. And before dawn of every day during the week before Rosh Hashanah, it is the custom to recite the Selihot, or penitential prayers.

Feasts of the Lord

Another calendar is described in the book of Leviticus, chapter 23. The Feasts of the Lord are commanded—seasonal celebrations based on an agrarian calendar that are also yearly reminders of God's dealings with Israel.

As is the case with many Jewish traditions, Christians read prophesy where Jews read history. Since Christians believe themselves to be spiritual descendants of Abraham, they believe many of the events described in what they call the Old Testament really point to a later fulfillment described in the New Testament. In the case of the Feasts of the Lord, Christians believe them to be signposts pointing to the work of Jesus Christ.

In the Christian context, Passover symbolizes the crucifixion of "the Lamb of God." Unleavened bread refers to the sanctification Christ earned for them at the cross. The apostle Paul referred to Firstfruits as the resurrection, Christ being the "firstfruits" of the coming Gentile harvest. Pentecost corresponds to the birthday of the church, which occurred on that very day. Summer is the present two thousand-year period of laboring in the fields, preparing for the "harvest" of souls. The Feast of Trumpets is still to come, when "the trumpet shall sound," announcing the end of the harvest or the end of time. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, will be fulfilled during the "Time of Tribulation" Jesus referred to in Matthew's Gospel, when the earth will be forced to repent of its sins. The Feast of Tabernacles will find its fulfillment during the millennium of peace and rejoicing.

Jewish people are understandably upset when Christians "take over" their traditions, in effect relegating them to a position of mere historical prelude to the "real" work of God, the Christian Church. And Christians have too often enforced this attitude with political power and anti-Semitism.

The problem is that the conflict cannot really be avoided because it is built into the Christian religion. Christian theology sees Judaism as a preparatory building block to God's "final revelation" of the Church. This was the position of the apostle Paul and virtually every Christian theologian since. Of course Jews are bothered by this. And this difference of opinion is one of the great stumbling blocks to the two religions ever really getting along. It is at the root of wars, millions of deaths, and the hardening of present-day political positions threatening to bring even more death into a "Holy Land" too familiar with war and destruction.

When the question arises about what can be done, the answer is: nothing— unless Christians are willing to completely dismantle two thousand years of history and theology.

In addition to those listed above, two other holidays have become important in the Jewish calendar. Both celebrate aspects of freedom.


One of the reasons Hanukkah is such a big celebration is because it usually happens to fall in late December. Both internal and external forces have combined to raise the celebration of Hanukkah nearly to the level of hype associated with secular Christmas. It is common to hear greetings of "Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah," as if the two holidays were celebrations of one event by two different traditions. But they really have little in common.

Hanukkah commemorates a Jewish victory over the Syrian army in 165 BCE. Judas Maccabeus recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem, gaining a great victory over Antiochus, King of Syria. The story goes that when it came time to light the menorah (candelabrum) in the Holy Place (see Tabernacle in the Wilderness), there was only enough oil to last for one day. Runners were sent out to secure more, but there was no hope of keeping the sacred flame lit until they returned with a sufficient supply. But a miracle happened: the flame burned for eight days, until more oil was obtained.

Ever since that day, Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, has been celebrated for eight days, beginning on the 25th day of Kislev. It lights up the short, dark days of December and serves as a reminder of the Jewish patriotic spirit that can never be put out. Children, especially, love the holiday because of the tradition of giving gifts each day of the celebration. Since the holiday of gift-giving and lights takes place so close to the worldwide celebration of Christmas, with its similar traditions and broad observance even among non-Christians, it was probably inevitable that Hanukkah and Christmas would come to be seen, at least through Gentile eyes, as similar traditions.


The other holiday celebrating Jewish freedom is Purim. The biblical book of Esther tells the story of how Esther, a young Jewish woman, saved her people from destruction during the Persian captivity. This victory over anti-Semitism, going all the way back to 500 BCE, is observed with parties and feasting. Even today, in places such as Tel Aviv, the celebration takes three days and can best be described as a carnival.

These two holidays, Hanukkah and Purim, celebrate Jewish freedom against anti-Semitic forces. They are patriotic holidays steeped in religious tradition. Held respectively in the fall and spring, they are a yearly reminder to those who struggle to keep the flame of freedom alive.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.