The Kabbalah of Solar

This Friday evening, we usher in the new year 5784 of the Hebrew lunisolar calendar. Our calendar follows lunar months, but is synchronized to the sun over the course of a 19-year cycle. Since a lunar month is 29.5 days, each month on the Hebrew calendar is either 29 or 30 days, resulting in a year that is typically just 354 days long. The solar year is a bit over 365 days long, meaning that a strictly lunar calendar will fall behind 11 days each year. To avoid this problem, we add an entire leap month, a second Adar, seven times in 19 years. This ensures that we stay in synch with both moon and sun. The upcoming year will be such a leap year, with 13 months instead of 12.

Although our calendar is lunisolar, and Jewish holidays, rituals, and halakhot generally follow this calendar, there are exceptions to the rule. In fact, there are a handful of Jewish laws and principles that follow not the lunisolar calendar, but the solar calendar of 365 days! We will explore some of the major ones below, and then look at the Zohar’s incredible revelations about the secrets of the solar calendar.

Incense and Rain

The best-known halakhic case of using the solar calendar is regarding the blessing of birkat hashanim in the Amidah prayer. As winter approaches, we modify the text of the prayer to include a request for tal u’matar, “dew and rain”. If you look in your siddur, it says that those praying in the diaspora should insert this request starting on the night of December 4th or 5th. This was originally calculated by counting 60 days from the autumn equinox, which is at the end of September. (Recall that the equinox is a point in the solar calendar when the lengths of day and night are exactly equal, 12 hours each.)

If you actually count 60 days from the equinox, you get to the end of November, not December 4th or 5th. This is because the whole thing is really quite complicated and one has to factor in, among other things, the 10 days that were removed from the Gregorian calendar when it was fixed in 1582. Whatever the case, we see that the extra insertion for rain in the Amidah is based on the 365-day solar calendar.*

Another Torah law corresponding to the solar calendar is the production of the Temple’s holy incense, ketoret. As we read in the beginning sections of our prayers, the ketoret was made of 11 ingredients, totalling 368 portions, “365 of which correspond to the days of the solar year, and three extra portions for Yom Kippur”, when the kohen gadol would bring them into the Holy of Holies. This was the greatest and most holy service in the Mishkan and Beit haMikdash, performed just once a year by the anointed high priest. As is well-known, if the kohen was not on the highest degree of purity he would literally drop dead inside, and would have to be carefully dragged out.

The incense service had immense power. We read in the Torah how it averted a terrible plague that fell upon the Israelites following the mutiny of Korach (Numbers 17). In mystical texts, the ketoret is said to ward off all evil (see, for instance, Zohar II, 218b and Sha’ar haPesukim on Ki Tavo). This is why it had specifically 11 ingredients, 11 being a number associated with the Sitra Achra, the realm of evil. While the number 10 represents wholeness and holiness, the number 11 represents a break from that wholeness, the unnecessary dross on top, and the kelipot “husks” that cover up the sparks of holiness. It was the smoke of the 11 ingredients of incense that warded off Satan and his minions. In fact, our Sages teach that Satan is active all days of the solar year, except Yom Kippur. This is why the gematria of Satan (השטן) is exactly 364, alluding to his power everyday except one! (Nedarim 32b)

Finally, the Talmud (Makkot 23b) tells us that the Torah has 613 commandments, of which 248 are positive (“to do”) and 365 are negative (“not to do”). The 248 correspond to the major parts of the human body, while the 365 correspond to the days of the solar year. Rashi comments that this teaches us each limb of our body is calling us to go and fulfil a mitzvah, while each day of the year is warning us not to transgress a negative command. Or, we should always strive to fulfil a positive commandment when an opportunity arises, and we should be most careful not to sin all 365 days of the year.

From such examples, we see that the solar calendar also has validity, purpose, and even some sanctity. In fact, the Lubavitcher Rebbe was known to have sometimes wished people a “Happy New Year” on January 1st. He explained that it was the practice of the great Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809), who based it on Psalm 87:6 which says Hashem ispor bikhtov ‘amim, that “God counts in the register of nations”. Since all the nations of the world have agreed upon this calendar, and it no longer bears any religious connotations anyway—being simply a global standard of counting—the Heavens also recognize the “counting” system of “the nations”. This is besides the fact that we, too, use the solar calendar, as evident above, so there is no real issue in commemorating another solar year. The Zohar takes this much further, and reveals some profoundly mystical solar secrets.**

Divine Creation

The Zohar Chadash on Beresheet reminds us that God created the cosmos through the 22 divine letters of the Hebrew alphabet. He did so over a span of seven days, and this began a cycle of sevens. Just like we count seven weeks of seven days during Sefirat haOmer, the entire year goes through seven cycles of seven weeks of seven days. Doing the math (7 × 7 × 7) gives us 343 days. When we add the initial 22 Hebrew letters—each of which is honoured with its own day—the total is 365 days!*** What are the special 22 days of the calendar that are outside of the cycle of sevens? The 22 days of the High Holidays, from Rosh Hashanah through Shemini Atzeret on the 22nd of Tishrei. Following this, the regular cycle of sevens begins. Thus, the Zohar ties the solar calendar right into the Jewish calendar. However, this does present a problem:

Since a Jewish year is typically just 354 days, the following Rosh Hashanah will come before the conclusion of the cycle of sevens. In leap years, with 384 days, the following Rosh Hashanah will come after the cycle of sevens is over. It’s important to remember that over the course of the entire 19-year cycle, the two calendars do stay in synch so it isn’t a problem in the long-term. (Another way to look at it is, even when we are short, the final grouping of seven weeks still corresponds to the final Sefirah of Malkhut, which is characteristic of the entire High Holiday period in which we refer to God as our King. Either way, the energy that imbues these days is of Malkhut, God’s Kingship.)

Going back to the Zohar, each of the 22 Hebrew letters (and the 22 days they correspond to) represents a divine channel connecting the Heavens to the Earth. In light of this, we should take advantage of the special first 22 days of the year, from Rosh Hashanah until the end of Sukkot. If we live each of these days to their fullest, maximizing our time and mitzvot, and investing our complete efforts and energy, then surely the rest of the solar year—seven cycles of seven weeks of seven days—will give us a great return on that initial investment. The Heavenly channels will remain open and bless us continually until the cycle brings us back to where we started, so that we have yet another opportunity to do it all over again.

Wishing everyone a blessed new year, shana tova u’metuka!      


More Rosh Hashanah Learning Resources:

Why is Rosh Hashanah the New Year if the Torah Doesn’t Say So?

Secrets of Rosh Hashanah


*A personal story: There is a well-known principle that every Jew is alluded to in the Torah somewhere. More specifically, we tend to find ourselves encoded within the Torah parasha that was read during the week we were born in. I believe mine is related to the discussion here, so it may be worth sharing:

My birthday parasha is Ha’azinu, the first verse of which ends with the words imrei fi (אמרי פי), an anagram of my name. The very next words are ya’arof kamatar likchi (יערף כמטר לקחי), Moses saying “may my teachings shoot forth like rain”. The word kamatar, “like rain” has a numerical value of 269. I was born on the 26th of Elul, which that year was the 26th of September or 26/9. Intriguingly, the 26th of September also happens to be the 269th day of the solar year, like the value of kamatar. At first I thought that can’t be right: why would the Torah allude to a solar birth date, and not a Hebrew lunisolar one? And then I realized the words say kamatar likchi, literally “take me like rain”, ie. read this verse kamatar, as you would the halakhah of matar in our prayers, which is based on the solar calendar—on the solar equinox at the end of September—and not on the lunisolar one! So, I like to think this is where I find myself in the Torah. Have you found yourself?

**All of this might help us explain why the ancient Jewish sect of Essenes insisted on strictly using the solar calendar, and rejected the lunisolar calendar. They were wrong, of course, and their calendar failed to properly account for leap years (as explored in the past here). However, we can appreciate that they did have a good point that the solar calendar has power and validity, too, and shouldn’t be discounted entirely.

***On an ever deeper mystical level, the Arizal teaches us that there are 365 lights emerging out of the central Sefirah of Tiferet (Etz Chaim, Gate 50). Among the array of seven visible luminaries (sun, moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn), the sun corresponds to Tiferet, and this is the deeper reason why a solar year must have specifically 365 days. They are a direct manifestation of the 365 lights emerging from Tiferet!

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