Judaism is a religion of time. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “There is much enthusiasm for the idea that God is present in the universe, but that idea is taken to mean God’s presence in space rather than time, in nature rather than in history; as if God were a thing, not a spirit.”
Jewish tradition contrasts the routine and ordinary experiences of our lives with those occasions that are profound, unique, or sacred. In order to enter into the sacred seasons of the Jewish calendar we must first discover the personal milestones and memories of our own lives.
Ask yourself about your own markers of time and moment. What occasions of celebration, attainment, memory, or change do you mark and remember? Are they yours alone? If not, with whom do you share them?
All of us live in concentric cycles of time. Our personal, professional, family, national, religious, academic, sports, and family calendars overlap. Each season and every time frame begs us to divide our attention, to choose our priorities. Even my iPhone shows it. My work dates appear as blue. My personal dates are colored green. The holidays I mark show as red. I color special occasion reminders in purple. Looking at my calendar for each day a veritable rainbow of colors and overlapping calendar demands shine before me.
We ask ourselves over and again. Which of these calendars has real authority over our days? Mishnah Rosh HaShanah teaches us there are four overlapping calendars by which we organize our social lives: one for festivals and celebrations, one for government and taxes, one for counting the years, and one for celebrating nature’s seasons.
Throughout history, sovereign rulers achieved their authority by imposing a calendar on subjects or citizens. The Bible dates each new king’s reign as the first year of that monarchy. The Gregorian calendar originally imposed ecclesiastical, church authority.
Let me introduce you to a new calendar cycle. This Jewish year 5777 begins a new 19 year cycle for the Jewish calendar. Did you know the Jewish calendar follows a 19 year cycle?
The 19 year cycle consists of 12 regular years of 12 months and 7 leap years of 13 months. During a leap year we add an additional month, Adar, just before the spring.
The purpose of this 19 year cycle is to keep our holidays within their proper seasons because there are 11 fewer days in the lunar calendar than the solar calendar. Like most ancient peoples, our first ancestors followed a strictly lunar calendar. The Talmudic sage Samuel of Nehardea and his son Hillel II did the calculations necessary to establish calendar patterns in order to sync the lunar and solar calendars so that our holidays, though floating, occur in their proper seasons. Passover in the spring. Sukkot in the fall.
Want an easy way to identify the leap years? If you are musically inclined, look at the keys on a piano. For each whole step there are two regular years and a leap year. For each half step there is one regular year and a leap year. Whole step: 1, 2, year 3 is a leap year. Whole step: 4, 5, year 6 is a leap year. Half step: 7, year 8 is a leap year. Leap years occur in years 3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 17, and 19 of the cycle. The next leap year on the Hebrew calendar will be in 5779 when we add an additional month of Adar beginning on February 6, 2019.
As Samuel says in Talmud Berakhot, “The paths of the sky (the courses of the stars) are as clear to me as the paths of my city.” Samuel and Hillel’s calculations are rooted in the Babylonian calendar just as the later Greek astronomer Meton of Athens also observed a 19 year cycle which recognizes the realignment of the sun, moon, and the earth when they return to the same point in their relationship.
Which is precisely the point. Everything in our lives, including how we use and measure the precious and fleeting time of our lives, requires realignment. Marking the various calendar cycles of our lives gives us the chance to reflect, choose, and realign our priorities as a reflection of our values.
Judaism is a religion of time. The days, weeks, months, years, and seasons of our lives are not significant by themselves. What we do, who we do it with, and how we live our days are what give time, and therefore our lives, meaning. It is when we live meaningful moments that we find God is present.