Tag Archives: Hebrew Calendar

Secrets of Rosh Hashanah

This first of this week’s two Torah portions, Nitzavim, is always read right before Rosh Hashanah, and appropriately begins: “You are all standing today before Hashem, your God…” The verse has traditionally been seen as an allusion to Rosh Hashanah, when each person stands before God and is judged. The Torah says today, implying one day, yet everyone celebrates Rosh Hashanah over two days. This is true even in Israel, where yom tovs are typically observed for only one day.

The reason for this is because in ancient times there was no set calendar, so a new month was declared based on the testimony of two witnesses. Once the new month was declared in Jerusalem, messengers were sent out to inform the rest of the communities in the Holy Land, and beyond. Communities that were far from Israel would not receive the message until two or three weeks later, so they would often have to observe the holidays based on their own (doubtful) opinion of when the holiday should be. They therefore kept each yom tov for two days.

Rosh Hashanah, however, is the only holiday that takes place on the very first day of the month, so as soon as the new month of Tishrei was declared, it was immediately Rosh Hashanah, and messengers could not be sent out! Thus, even communities across Israel would observe the holiday for two days, based on their own observations.

Although today we have a set calendar, and there is no longer a declaration of a new month based on witnesses, two days are still observed since established traditions become permanent laws. Of course, this is only the simplest of explanations, for there are certainly deeper reasons in observing two days, especially when it comes to Rosh Hashanah.

Judgement in Eden

Rosh Hashanah commemorates the day that God fashioned Adam and Eve. On that same day, the first couple consumed the Forbidden Fruit, were judged, and banished from the Garden of Eden. Originally, they had been made immortal. Now, they had brought death into the world, and God decreed that their earthly life would have an end. Adam and Eve were, not surprisingly, the first people to be inscribed in the Book of Death. Each year since, on the anniversary of man’s creation and judgement, every single human being (Jewish or not) is judged in the Heavenly Court, and inscribed in the Book of Life, or the Book of Death.

This is the idea behind the symbolic consumption of apples in honey. In Jewish tradition, the Garden of Eden is likened to an apple orchard, with the scent of the air in Eden being like that of apples. (Having said that, it is not a Jewish tradition that the Forbidden Fruit itself was an apple!) The apple reminds us of the Garden—of Adam and Eve and their judgement—and we dip it in honey so that our judgement should be sweet.

But what happens when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat? It is well-known that there is no judgement on Shabbat. The Heavenly Court rests, and even the souls in Gehinnom are said to have a day off. This is illustrated by a famous exchange in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 65b) between Rabbi Akiva and the Roman governor of Judea at the time, Turnus Rufus:

Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva: “How does [Shabbat] differ from any other day?”
He replied: “How does one official differ from another?”
“Because my lord [the Roman Emperor], wishes it so.”
Rabbi Akiva said: “the Sabbath, too, is distinguished because the Lord wishes it so.”
He asked: “How do you know that this day is the Sabbath?”
[Rabbi Akiva] answered: “The River Sambation proves it; the ba’al ov proves it; your father’s grave proves it, as no smoke ascends from it on Shabbat.”

An illustration of Rabbi Akiva from the Mantua Haggadah of 1568

Rufus asks Rabbi Akiva how the Jews are certain that the Sabbath that they keep is actually the correct seventh day since Creation. Rabbi Akiva brings three proofs:

The first is a legendary river called the Sambation (or Sabbation), which was known in those days, and which raged the entire week, but flowed calmly only on Shabbat. The second proof is that people who summon the dead from the afterlife (practicing a form of witchcraft called ov) are unable to channel the dead on Shabbat. (I know of a person who was once involved in such dark arts and became a religious Jew after realizing that he was never able to summon spirits on the Sabbath or on Jewish holidays!) Lastly, Rabbi Akiva notes how Turnus Rufus’ own father’s grave would emit smoke every day of the week, except on Shabbat. This is because the soul of Rufus’ wicked father was in Gehinnom, but all souls in that purgatory get a reprieve on Shabbat. (Historical sources suggest that Rufus’ father was Terentius Rufus, one of the generals involved in the destruction of the Second Temple.)

Based on this, we can understand why Rosh Hashanah must be observed over two days. When the holiday falls on Shabbat, no judgement can take place, so the judgement is pushed off to the next day. This is also related to the fact that when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat, the shofar is not blown. This is not at all because blowing a shofar is forbidden on Shabbat, which is, in fact, permitted.

The simple explanation given for this is that we’re worried the person blowing the shofar might carry it to the synagogue (in a place without an eruv), and carrying is forbidden on Shabbat. The deeper reason is this: Blowing the shofar is supposed to “confound Satan”. Satan is not the trident-carrying, horned demon of the underworld (as popularly believed in Christianity). Rather, Satan literally means the “one who opposes” or the “prosecutor”. It is Satan’s job to serve as the prosecution in the Heavenly Court. The shofar’s blow confuses Satan, and prevents him from working too much against us. On Shabbat, the Heavenly Court rests, and Satan is having a day off, so there is no need to confound him!

The First Shabbat

One might argue that Rosh Hashanah should only be two days long when it falls on Shabbat; in other years, one day would suffice. Other than the fact that this would be confusing—as the holiday would span different lengths in different years—there are other explanations for the two days, including that each day involves different types of judgement (for example, one day for sins bein adam l’Makom, between man and God; and one day for bein adam l’havero, between man and his fellow). Nonetheless, our Sages still describe Rosh Hashanah as really being one day—one unique, extra-long, 48-hour day which our Sages called yoma arichta, literally the “long day”. Perhaps this is another reason for the custom of not sleeping on the “first night” of Rosh Hashanah. (The other reason: how could anyone possibly sleep through their own trial?)

Finally, the story of Rabbi Akiva and Turnus Rufus gives us one more reason to commemorate Rosh Hashanah over two days. Rufus questioned Rabbi Akiva on how he can be so sure that the Sabbath which he keeps is indeed the correct seventh day going back to Creation. If Rosh Hashanah is the day Adam and Eve were created, then it corresponds to the sixth day of Creation. That means the very next day was the seventh day of Creation, and that the second day of Rosh Hashanah always commemorates the very first Sabbath. When we celebrate on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we mark Adam and Eve’s first Shabbat, and recognize that each seventh day has been observed ever since, and will continue to be observed for another, 5778th upcoming year.

Shana Tova u’Metuka!

The Talmud on America’s Solar Eclipse

NASA image from the August 21st solar eclipse

Earlier this week, people across America experienced a unique event that has not occurred there in a century: a coast-to-coast, total solar eclipse. While partial solar eclipses are generally visible from somewhere on Earth twice a year, a total eclipse is harder to catch—the last one in the US was forty years ago, and the last to be visible across the entire span of the country was in 1918.

Despite the fact that a solar eclipse is a regular phenomenon, and one that can be predicted long in advance, the Talmud (Sukkah 29a) seems to suggest it is a sign of human misconduct:

Our Rabbis taught: When the sun is in eclipse, it is a bad omen for the whole world. This may be illustrated by a parable: To what can this be compared? To a human being who made a banquet for his servants and put up for them a lamp. When he became angry with them he said to his servant, “Take away the lamp from them, and let them sit in the dark”.

Our Sages suggest that God brings about eclipses (or more accurately, total eclipses, the only kind that would bring about the kind of darkness described above) when He is unhappy with man’s sinful ways. This apparently contradicts the notion that eclipses are a cyclical, recurring event. Yet, the Talmud is full of discussions illustrating the astronomical expertise of our Rabbis, who could perfectly calculate the arrival of new moons, knew the cosmos like the backs of their hands, and accurately estimated the number of stars in the universe centuries before scientists came up with the same numbers (see Berakhot 32b).

In fact, the current Hebrew calendar that we use was affixed by the Talmudic sage known as Hillel II (not to be confused with Hillel the Elder), who calculated the months far into the future, and was only able to accurately do so by taking into account the dates of predicted solar and lunar eclipses. That means that the sages of the Talmud were certainly well aware of the fact that eclipses are a regular, predictable phenomenon. This was also long known by Greek and Roman astronomers. So, how could the Talmud state that eclipses depend on man’s ways?

Map showing the paths of solar eclipses over a 25 year period. Most do not pass through inhabited areas.

To deal with this conundrum, multiple answers have been proposed. One of these is that the Sages are referring to visible eclipses only. The Torah tells us that the luminaries were created, in part, to serve as signs for humans (Genesis 1:14). If God wanted to make known that He is unhappy, we would obviously have to be able to see the eclipse. Although eclipses can happen multiple times a year, they are seldom visible from habitable locations. Some 71% of Earth’s surface is covered by water, so eclipses are most likely to be visible only from some marine location in the middle of the ocean. Further still, of the remaining portion of Earth that’s covered by land, only 10% is actually inhabited by humans. There could be other factors as well, like cloudy weather. Or, the moon simply does not cover enough of the sun for people to even notice. (As anyone not in the path of the total eclipse probably learned on Monday, when they were unable to look at the sun for more than a split second because it was still way too bright without eclipse glasses—which no one had in Talmudic times.) This is indeed what the Talmud later clarifies:

Our Rabbis taught: When the sun is in eclipse it is a bad omen for idolaters; when the moon is in eclipse, it is a bad omen for Israel, since Israel reckons by the moon and idolaters by the sun. If it is in eclipse in the east, it is a bad omen for those who dwell in the east; if in the west, it is a bad omen for those who dwell in the west…

An eclipse is a bad sign only for that specific place where the eclipse is visible. In His Infinite Wisdom, God pre-programmed Creation so that eclipses would be visible at the precise time and place where they are necessary to give people a wake-up call. As such, it isn’t surprising that America had a coast-to-coast eclipse precisely at this moment, with everything that’s recently been going on in the country.

What exactly is it that God is unhappy about when an eclipse occurs?

Our Rabbis taught: On account of four things is the sun in eclipse: On account of an av beit din who died and was not mourned properly; on account of a betrothed maiden who cried out loud in the city and there was none to save her; on account of sodomy, and on account of two brothers whose blood was shed at the same time.

The United States has been plagued with all of these things: fellow American citizens—brothers—at each other’s throats, “shedding” each other’s blood for silly ideological reasons; the rampant sexual immorality; the tremendous amount of injustice and apathy, where there is seemingly no one to save a “troubled maiden”.

And what of the av beit din? In early Talmudic times, the leader of the Jews was the nasi, the “president” of the Sanhedrin, and his “vice-president” was the av beit din, literally “head of the court”, the top judge of the land. (Appropriately, this week’s parasha is Shoftim, “judges”.) Last year saw the mysterious sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, whose death was unexamined and quickly swept under the rug, triggering a flood of conspiracy theories. This is a sign of far greater societal issues. All of the above is reminiscent of a famous Talmudic prophecy (Sotah 49b) describing the time before Mashiach’s coming:

In the footsteps of Mashiach, insolence will increase and honour will dwindle. The vine will abundantly yield its fruit, yet wine will be dear. The government will turn to heresy, and there will be none to offer them reproof. The meeting places of scholars will be used for immorality. Galilee will be destroyed, and Gablan desolate, and the “people of the border” will go about from place to place without anyone to take pity on them. The wisdom of the learned will degenerate, fearers of sin will be despised, and truth will be lacking. The youth will put the elders to shame; the old will have to stand before the young. A son will revile his father, a daughter will rise up against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and a man’s worst enemies will be the members of his own household. The face of the generation will be like the face of a dog; a son will not feel ashamed before his father. And upon whom is there to rely? Only upon our Father in Heaven.

With everything that’s happening around us right now, it certainly feels like there is none left to rely upon but our Father in Heaven. It is quite fitting that the solar eclipse happened at the end of the Hebrew month of Av, literally “father”, which is precisely meant to remind us of our “Father in Heaven”. As long as we recognize this, and take upon ourselves to be good “children”, there is no need to fear, as the Talmudic passage on solar eclipses concludes:

… When Israel fulfils the will of the Omnipresent, they need not have fear of all these [omens] as it is said, “Thus said Hashem: Learn not the way of the nations, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the nations are dismayed at them”—the idolaters will be dismayed, but Israel will not be dismayed.


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Is the “Jewish Calendar” Really Jewish?

This week we read a double Torah portion, Vayak’hel-Pekudei, which continues to describe the construction of the Tabernacle and its components. At the same time, we have the special additional reading known as Parashat haChodesh, recounting God’s command to the Israelites to establish the months of the year and observe rosh chodesh. Parashat haChodesh is always read before the start of the month of Nisan, since this is the first month of the calendar (although the new year doesn’t officially start until Rosh Hashanah in Tishrei). It was particularly with regards to the month of Nisan that God commanded the Israelites right before their exodus from Egypt.

Babylonian Calendar

Yet, the term “Nisan” does not actually appear in the Torah. Neither do any of the other eleven months’ names. These names actually come from the Babylonian calendar! Our Sages admit that the Hebrew calendar was adopted from the Babylonians during the Jewish exile in Babylon following the destruction of the First Temple. The Babylonian calendar had essentially the exact same 19-year cycle as the current Hebrew calendar, with a 13th leap month of Adar II added seven times throughout the cycle in order to keep it synced with the solar cycle.

Adopting the Babylonian calendar so directly actually presents a number of interesting issues. The Babylonians named their months based on their idolatrous beliefs. For example, Tammuz was the name of the Babylonian (and Sumerian) god of vegetation. In their mythology, Tammuz died and entered the underworld following the summer solstice, when the length of the days start to decline. Because of this, the Babylonians observed a mourning period in the month of Tammuz, with women in particular weeping in the temples.

In fact, this is mentioned in the Tanakh, where God shows the prophet Ezekiel (8:14-15) a vision of Jewish women mourning for Tammuz by the Holy Temple in Jerusalem!

Then he brought me to the door of the gate of Hashem’s House which was toward the north; and, behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz. Then said He unto me: “Have you seen this, son of man? Turn around again and you shall see greater abominations than these…”

‘Ezekiel Prophesying’ by Gustav Doré

This passage has God showing a number of abominable acts committed by the Jews, justifying their destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. Technically, Jewish law forbids even mentioning the name of a foreign or idolatrous deity. Yet, Jews to this day refer to the fourth month of the year as Tammuz! And to this day, Jews observe a period of mourning in that month! Of course, this period of mourning is not for the deity Tammuz, but for the destruction of the Temple. The parallels are nonetheless striking.

The Ramban dealt with this apparent contradiction by teaching that it was done on purpose, so that the Jews would never forget their exile. On a more mystical level, mourning for the Temple in the month of Tammuz can be seen as a sort of tikkun, a spiritual rectification for the sin of the ancient Israelites idolatrously mourning the false god Tammuz.

Despite this, there was actually a time when Jews did not exactly agree on their calendar. It isn’t surprising that many weren’t too thrilled with adopting a pagan Babylonian system.

A Strictly Solar Calendar

The Book of Jubilees is an ancient Hebrew text that covers Jewish history from Creation until the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The book is divided into 50 chapters, with each chapter describing one yovel, “jubilee”, the 49-year period proscribed by the Torah. (Multiplying these values suggests that the Torah was given in the year 2450 according to the Book of Jubilees, which is very close to the rabbinic tradition of 2448.) While Jubilees was not included in the mainstream Tanakh, it was traditionally found in the Tanakh of Ethiopian Jews. It is also evident that Jubilees was used by the Hasmonean dynasty (of Chanukah fame), and influenced a number of midrashim, as well as the Zohar.

It isn’t hard to see why Jubilees was not canonized by the rabbis of the day. The book suggests that those who use a lunar calendar are mimicking idol worshipers, and since the calendar is not precise like the solar one, end up celebrating the Jewish holidays on the wrong days.

A section of the Book of Psalms from the Dead Sea Scrolls

At least fifteen copies of Jubilees were discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls—more than any other text. The Qumran sect of Jews that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls were clearly at odds with mainstream rabbinic Judaism. They believed that God created the sun and planets with precise orbits, and following these natural cycles reveals His great wisdom. Meanwhile, the rabbis rely on witnesses to spot a new moon before having the Sanhedrin proclaim a new month. The witnesses might err, or it could be cloudy that night, and the calendar would be all wrong!

The Sages responded by citing the Torah (Leviticus 23:1-2):

And Hashem spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and tell them, the appointed times of Hashem, which you shall proclaim as holy convocations, these are My appointed times.

God clearly commanded us to appoint the convocations, and whenever we would do so, He would declare them as His appointed times! The Talmud elaborates that God wanted us to reconstruct our own calendar, and the Heavens will reflect our actions here on Earth. There is a far more profound lesson here that our Sages wanted to teach us.

One of the central themes of Passover is that God transcends nature. The laws of Creation can be broken, and inexplicable miracles do happen. Since human beings are made in God’s image, we too are capable of transcending nature. This is our very purpose in life; to break free from the confines of the physical and ascend ever further spiritually.

The Sages established a lunar calendar that would allow people to participate in God’s creation—and teach them that they don’t have to be subject to the strict laws of nature—while at the same time wisely syncing the calendar with the solar cycle to ensure the years don’t lag behind. Ultimately, the calendar was fixed so that we no longer need any witnesses or a Sanhedrin to establish a month. Nonetheless, we celebrate the same holidays at different times every year to remind us of the great potential that lies within each of us; that we are not meant to be slaves of nature, but masters of it.

*For a more detailed analysis of the conflict surrounding the Hebrew calendar, see the third chapter of Barry Freundel’s Why We Pray What We Pray.

The Origins of Jerusalem and the Priesthood

“Isaac Blessing Jacob”, by Gustav Doré

This week’s Torah reading is Toldot, featuring the births and early lives of the twins Jacob and Esau. After twenty years of marriage, Isaac and Rebecca finally conceive. The pregnancy proves to be a strange one, though, with Rebecca’s restless womb feeling like a battlefield. Rebecca decides to seek the counsel of a prophet to figure out what’s going on. It is revealed that she is carrying twins, each of which will go on to found large nations and kingdoms that will always compete with one another. Even in the womb, they are already struggling for dominance. It is prophesized that ultimately the elder twin (Esau) will serve the younger twin (Jacob).

The Torah is unclear about who it was that made this prophecy. In the simplest sense, it is possible that Rebecca herself received the prophecy directly from God since she, too, was a prophetess like all the matriarchs. However, the accepted tradition (and the one cited by Rashi) is that she went to consult with Shem, the son of Noah.

Shem, or Melchizedek?

Depending on how one reads the verses, Shem must have lived for 600 or 602 years. (In the past, we’ve written of the seemingly impossible lifespans of the pre-Flood generations.) The traditional year for the Flood on the Hebrew calendar (where years are designated with an AM, anno mundi) is 1656 AM, approximately 2104 BCE. Shem was around 100 years old at this time (Genesis 11:10), which means that Shem lived roughly until 2156 AM. Abraham was born in 1948 AM, Isaac in 2048 AM, and Jacob in 2108 AM, so it is a very real possibility that Shem met all three patriarchs.

In the 14th chapter of Genesis, we read about Abraham’s war with the alliance of four kings, headed by Amraphel of Shinar. After defeating the kings, Abraham is greeted by Melchizedek, the king of Salem (Shalem), who is also described as being a priest (kohen). Rashi cites the midrash that Melchizedek is none other than Shem, the son of Noah. How did Shem become Melchizedek?

Back to the Tower of Babel

A few weeks ago we wrote of the Tower of Babel and how this Tower was very different from what people generally think. In the aftermath of the Tower, the people – once all living in a single city, with a single language – were scattered across the Earth, and their languages confounded. Not surprisingly, since their languages had totally changed, their names must have totally changed, too. After all, how could those scattered to, say, China, retain their old Semitic names from a life they no longer had any memory of, and with syllables they could no longer pronounce in their new tongue?

Indeed, Rashi tells us that Amraphel, the king of Shinar – leader of the alliance against Abraham – is the very same person as Nimrod – the king who previously tried to kill Abraham by throwing him into a fiery furnace! Before the Tower, the king was known as Nimrod (in fact, many consider him to be the one who spearheaded the Tower project). Now, after the confounding of languages, he was Amraphel of Shinar. And in the same way, Shem was now Melchizedek of Salem.

The First King of Jerusalem

The Torah tells us that following the Flood, Noah brought sacrificial offerings to God. The midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 30:6) fills in that it was actually Shem who facilitated the offerings. Upon exiting the Ark, Noah was attacked by a lion and seriously injured, preventing him from performing the sacrificial rites. Shem stepped in, becoming history’s first official priest. He held onto this role for several centuries. Knowing that Jerusalem is the spiritual centre of the world, and God’s chosen site for offerings, Shem settled there. He called the place Shalem, literally “wholeness” and “peace”, and soon became its king as well.

Following Abraham’s war, it is said that Shem, now known as Melchizedek, conferred the priesthood upon him. The priesthood was then passed down from father to son through the special birthright and blessing (as we read in this week’s portion). With the sin of the Golden Calf at Mt. Sinai, the firstborn of Israel collectively lost their rights to the priesthood, which was now transferred solely to the tribe of Levi, and more specifically, to the descendants of Aaron. To this day, Jews do the pidyon haben ceremony thirty days after the first male child is born, commemorating this transfer of priesthood from the firstborn to the descendants of Aaron.

Meanwhile, Abraham would later ascend Mt. Moriah in the territory of Salem to bind Isaac in the Akedah. Following this test, Abraham called the place Hashem Yireh, literally “where God is seen”. The Sages say that since the righteous Shem called the place Shalem, and the righteous Abraham called it Yireh, God did not want to choose one name over the other, and so, combined the two to make Yerushalaim, Jerusalem.

The Return of the Righteous Priest

How the life of Shem-Melchizedek came to an end appears to be a mystery. Some ancient Jewish texts put him in the same league as Elijah and Enoch, two people who are said to have never died, but rather ascended to the Heavens alive. The Talmud (Sukkah 52b) speaks of a “Righteous Priest” who comes at the End of Days, together with Elijah and the two Messiahs: Mashiach ben David, and Mashiach ben Yosef. The midrash identifies this Righteous Priest as Melchizedek. Together, they make up the “Four Craftsmen” prophesized by Zechariah that will finally usher in a new, peaceful world. May we merit to see it soon.