Friday, September 2, 1994

Setting Our Clocks To Jewish Time (Jewish Week - first article)

The Jewish Week, September 8, 1994

How often have we been hearing that familiar refrain lately: "My, the holidays are early this year." Ever since Passover snuck in like a lamb last March, the crescendo has been building. With Rosh HaShanah linked to Labor Day and Chanukah set to begin on Thanksgiving weekend, the cry is sure to continue for another few months, until, mercifully, the month of Adar replicates itself next winter and we get back to normal. Except then, everything will be deemed "late."

With our brains and bodies stuck on the monotonous, relentless tick of secular time, it's natural to wonder if the Jewish holidays ever fall on schedule. But when life sways to the rhythms of the Jewish calendar, the question never arises. For most, the idea of Jewish time has more to do with tardy board meetings than an intricate system of ritual, emotion and instruction affixed to the cycles of nature. The hour has come for Jews to begin living on Jewish time. That venerated goal of Jewish continuity can hardly be served when our peak religious experiences are always being measured in secular seconds. Until we begin thinking of Rosh HaShanah as neither early or late, but right on target -- two months after Tisha b'Av and half a year from Passover -- we're grafting Judaism artificially into a corner of our beings. For Judaism to breathe, it must be lived on its own terms, on its own schedule.

That said, so nu, why is the holiday so early this year?

Since you asked, yes, it's true, Rosh HaShanah hasn't fallen this early on the secular calendar in quite some time; 19 years to be exact. It was 1975 when it last began on Sept. 5, and here's why. The rabbis calculated the lunar month to be 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes and 3.33 seconds (and they were less than a half a second off).

The year consists of 12 of those months, or approximately 354 days. With the secular, solar calendar lasting 365 days, the lunar calendar falls 11 days behind the solar -- one each year. The rabbis figured that an additional month should be added seven times in each 19-year cycle in order to keep agricultural festivals in their seasons. Passover must come in the spring and Sukkot in the fall (unless you live in the Southern Hemisphere, but let's not complicate things). The sages actually were a little off in these calculations, or Passover would be celebrated in June. Fortunately, that's one of those problems we can afford to leave to subsequent generations, like the national debt and the identity of Deep Throat.

The extra month is added during the winter of the third, sixth, eighth, 11th, 14th, 17th and 19th years of the cycle. Notice that leap years are usually three years apart, but occasionally two. Since we're now entering the 17th year of the cycle, we've gone nine years since the last two-year interval (years 6 and 8). That means we've had fewer leap years recently, therefore we've been losing more days to the secular calendar. The 17th year always has the earliest Rosh HaShanah, and the ninth year (because it's preceded by the greatest frequency of leap years) the latest. Get it? Sorry you asked?

Now isn't it so much easier just to live on Jewish time rather than trying to understand it? How often do we ask ourselves about the logic of the secular calendar, which has a new year that occurs when nothing at all is changing and new days begin at an arbitrary hour when few are awake to appreciate it? Give me a calendar that asks us to turn inward just as the weather outside is nudging us precisely in that direction, one that expels us from winter's hibernation to the pulsating poetry of "Song of Songs" and the drama of national release, and one that always promises the moon's return to ripeness, no matter how dark things seem.

To those living within the Jewish time frame, this summer's bombardment of Jupiter wasn't just a cosmic peep show; it was serious theological stuff. Why, after all, did it commence on the eve of Tisha b'Av, a day of great reckoning for the world? Next year, when the fast day coincides with the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima, the same questions will be asked again. What does it all mean?

For inhabitants of secular time, the only dilemmas occur when July 4 doesn't create a three-day weekend or Christmas falls on a Sunday. When do they collect garbage? When can they play football? When can we shop?

Speaking of football, the only thing that compares to the rhythm of the Jewish year, with all its rituals and pageantry, is the American sports calendar. As a young boy growing up in the Boston area, fall meant three things: playing football, stuffing those delicious marble cake slices from the synagogue sukkah into my jacket pocket and watching someone other than the Red Sox win the World Series. Spring meant sneaking out of school to attend opening day at Fenway, usually with a matzah sandwich crumbling in my book bag.

But this year, the sports world has upset the rhythm. With baseball on strike, one of the great rituals of autumn might be fortified, one that has always been there. Seasonal rituals don't normally die easily -- they still have May Day parades in Moscow -- because we need them as a constant by which to measure our years. We need the seder table as a gauge of how the family has evolved, to see who is sitting where this year. Our lives spin around these sacred moments. We need the World Series for precisely the same reason. Baseball -- the myth, not the business -- has never changed. The Series has always been there. The Red Sox have always lost. We need that certainty, and now we may not have it.

But not to fear. If we can trade in our bats and balls for lulavs and etrogs, the rhythm of fall can be salvaged, maybe even enhanced. In Judaism, we are all both owners and players. There are no strikes. Our festivals will always be there for us when they are expected, at least for a few thousand years. Betrayed by the gods of baseball, Jews have a chance to return to a different kind of pageantry this year, one with all the sweet smells and cool breezes of an autumn afternoon at the ballpark, complete with a ceremonial circling of the bases -- seven of them on Simchat Torah. And since Sukkot isn't controlled by the TV networks, the festivities don't always drone on past midnight, that random divider of days. They are tied not to the ratings clock but to the miraculous dance of the sun and moon. Sukkot is also cheaper than baseball. A decent lulav set costs $35, much less than a World Series ticket.

It's really not so difficult to convert over to Jewish time. It's not like Celsius or kilometers or changing dollars to shekels. There's a very easy way to integrate the Jewish calendar into the rhythm of your life: Go out and buy one.

When you do, and live by it, something remarkable will begin to happen. Your moods will shift and undulate, responding to events that occurred centuries ago. Holidays will arrive neither early nor late, and each week will flow into Shabbat none too soon.

And what is Jewish continuity but the transmission of the cadences of Jewish life from one generation to the next? I am often asked, will the American Jewish community be around in the next century? To which I respond: Who can predict? The next century is still 46 years away. There is only one thing that is certain. As long as there are any Jews left on this planet, meetings will still begin 15 minutes late.