Behar-Behukkotai: On the cycles of the calendar

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Leviticus 25:2-27:34

Jeremiah 16:19-17:14

Bizarre behavior is said to increase in the period preceding and following the full moon. Skeptics may laugh, but most emergency-room physicians will tell you that the days surrounding the full moon are the busiest. If the moon has the power to raise tides six or more feet over their usual level, then logically the moon also has the capacity to increase the pressure of fluids in the brain.

Keeping track of emergency-room admissions is one way to note the phases of the moon. Another is to follow the Jewish calendar, which typically consists of six 29-day months and six 30-day months. The exact number of days is variable because the cycle between one new moon and another is exactly 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes and 2.7 seconds. Thus the full moon is always on the 14th or 15th day of the lunar month.

Jews often note that Jewish holidays appear to be out of sync with the secular calendar and always seem to be early or late. Such wide variation is the result of a year of 29- or 30-day months, totaling only 354 days — which is 10 or 11 days less than the earth's annual 365-1/4-plus revolutions around the sun.

Imperfections in the solar or secular calendars are accommodated by adding a day each leap year, once every four years. To make up for accumulated time, leap year is skipped in years divisible by 400. The next skipped leap year will be the year 2000.

The Jewish calendar compensates for the 10- or 11-day annual loss in the lunar months by adding a 13th month — a "leap month" — seven times every 19 years. This keeps the Jewish calendar within the bounds of the 365-day solar year. Hence the great variation in the dates of Jewish holidays.

Behar, this week's Torah portion, refers to another interesting aspect of the Jewish calendar: the commemoration of the Yoval — the Jubilee year when land holdings would be returned to original owners, debts would be canceled and the land would be allowed to lie fallow. Scholars have debated whether or not the Jubilee was actually practiced or if it was an idealistic benchmark to which Jews could aspire. Rabbi Gunther Plaut (Torah Commentary, p. 940) suggests: "This…is a noble expression of social idealism and humanitarian concern. It presents complicated problems to the student of history, but its message for our time rings out with clarity and power."

No information exists about the actual observance of the Jubilee year. The actual practice seems quite far-fetched because its observance would have led to the impossible hardship of three consecutive years without agricultural harvest: in the sabbatical year of year 49, the Jubilee year of year 50 and in year 51, when the sown crops would not have been ready until the fall harvest at year's end. Noted biblical scholar Solomon Zeitlin suggested that the Jubilee year was merely a twice-a-century mini-year only 49 days long, allowing the calendar to catch up with the time the earth takes to revolve 50 times around the sun.

In spite of the seeming lack of relevance of this custom, the ancient Yoval is a reminder of the God-given resources we enjoy. We are all involved in the rush of the workday week, and we need a time to stop, step back and put aside our hurried lives to renew our vision and purpose.

"The Gates of Prayer" contains the beautiful lines, "There are days when we seek things for ourselves and measure failure by what we do not gain. On the Sabbath, we seek not to acquire but to share." Sabbaths, new moons and special seasons afford an opportunity not to have to wait seven years or 50 years for an occasion on which to share what we have, to stop and take stock.

The Jewish calendar can draw us closer to the rhythms and cycles of the seasons within the Jewish community and also within ourselves.