From the pages of Kadima, the newsletter of Congregation Adas Emuno:
A Message From Our President
Dr. Lance Strate
The Lunacy of Jewish Holidays
As you may know, the word lunacy is derived from luna, which means moon, and originates in the archaic belief that the phases of the moon could trigger illness or insanity (remember all those stories about werewolves and the full moon?). In Old English an equivalent phrase was used, which translates to month-sickness, the word month being related to moon, originally referring to the period of time in which the moon completely cycles through its phases.
And as you probably know, the Hebrew calendar is a lunar calendar, as opposed to the solar calendar that we use in everyday life. In traditional religious observance dating back to the biblical era, the first day of each month was considered sacred, a minor holiday referred to as Rosh Chodesh, rosh meaning head, as in Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the Jewish new year. And Rosh Chodesh originally was signaled not by a counting of the days of the month, but by the first sighting of the crescent moon. Today, we commonly refer to the phase when the moon vanishes from sight as the new moon, but traditionally new moon meant the end of that phase, not the beginning.
And as you no doubt know, the lunar calendar does not match up with the solar calendar. Each month on the Hebrew calendar lasts for only 29 or 30 days, so that the Jewish year falls about 11 days short of the secular year. This requires an adjustment every few years, and rather than adding leap days, which would only makes sense for a solar calendar, we add a leap month to our lunar calendar, specifically a second month of Adar.
The result is, as we all know, that Jewish holidays fluctuate quite a bit from one year to another. And being accustomed as we are to the solar calendar, this may seem a bit lunatic, and in a sense it is. We live in two worlds, one modern and one ancient, the two connected by tradition and history, evolution and progress. This is a source of our survival and strength as a people, a civilization and culture, and a faith.
As Reform Jews, we live in the modern world, and so we commonly say that a Jewish holiday is coming early this year, or late. But really, the Jewish holidays come exactly when they're supposed to, on the Hebrew calendar, and are only early or late relative to the solar calendar. I have no doubt that this experience helped Albert Einstein to realize his theory of relativity. He most certainly understood that if Hanukkah is coming early one year (relative to the solar calendar), it also means that Christmas is coming late (relative to the Jewish calendar).
And you may have noticed that our holidays are coming early this year, relatively speaking. We celebrated Purim in February, and Passover's mostly in March. Looking ahead, Rosh Hashanah will begin right after Labor Day, on the evening of September 4th, and the first night of Hanukkah will be on November 27, the night before Thanksgiving!
This is truly a remarkable year for the Hebrew calendar, and it will no doubt require some adjustments on our part. It also has some practical implications for our congregational business, as the process of asking you for your membership dues always begins before the High Holy Days, which means that this year we would need to ask earlier than usual under any circumstances. But the truth is that we have for a long time now been late in asking for dues, and not just relatively speaking. Rather, we've been out of sync with standard practice in temples and synagogues across the nation, which is to require members to be paid in full for the coming year prior to Rosh Hashanah, rather than simply beginning the billing cycle then. We also have been late in collecting tuition for our religious school, which generates problems for planning and preparation.
So this year, we will be moving our cycle up by a few months, sending bills out a little earlier than usual. We need to get in sync for the long-term financial stability and health of our congregation. But at the same time we realize that a sudden and drastic shift in billing, like leaping ahead a year, might place a difficult and unexpected burden on families and individuals. So we'll be making the adjustment gradually, bit by bit over the course of several years. Hopefully, this will be an easy and relatively painless way to fix our financial calendar without too much lunacy, so that we'll be able to celebrate our Jewish holidays at Adas Emuno for many, many years to come!