Behar-Behukkotai: Cycles,holidays allow for renewal


Leviticus 25:1-27:34

Jeremiah 16:19-17:14

A simple method of keeping track of the intercalation of the moon is to follow the Jewish calendar, which consists of six 29-day months and six 30-day months. The exact number of days is variable because the cycle from one new moon to another is actually 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes and 2.7 seconds, resulting in a full moon on the 14th or 15th day of the month.

The Jewish calendar is puzzling to the average Jew because its holiday celebrations always seem to be out of sync with the secular calendar. This wide variability results from the fact that 12 months of 29 or 30 days create a 354-day year, falling short by about 11 days from the 365-1/4 days it takes for the earth to make one annual revolution around the sun. Adjustments for the imperfections in the solar or secular calendar are made by adding one day each leap year, which occurs every four years.

The Jewish calendar, known as the metonic cycle, compensates for the 11-day loss by adding a leap month, an entire extra month, seven times every 19 years. Hence, the great variability in the celebration of holidays.

Behar, this week's Torah portion, refers to the Yoval — the Jubilee year when land holdings were returned to their original owners, debts were canceled and the land was allowed to lie fallow. Torah scholar Rabbi Gunther Plaut submits that it was unlikely that the Jubilee was ever enacted. He suggests that it was merely an ideal set as a benchmark for Jews to live up to: "This…is a noble expression of social idealism and humanitarian concern. It presents complicated and tantalizing problems to the student of history, but its message for our time rings out with clarity and power."

Little is known about the Jubilee year because no information exists about its observance in the time of the First Temple. However, its observance seems quite far-fetched because there would have been two consecutive years without agricultural activity: in the sabbatical year of year 49 and the Jubilee year of year 50. Furthermore, the crops planted in year 51 would not have been ready until the fall harvest, suggesting that a total of three years would have ensued until agricultural products would have been available for consumption.

Solomon Zeitlin, noted biblical scholar, suggests that the Jubilee year was merely a year of only 49 days that allowed the lunar calendar to catch up with the time it takes for the earth to make 50 annual revolutions around the sun. This twice-a-century adjustment makes a great deal of sense because the alternative to the 49-day year, a 354-day year, would have created impossible hardship in light of the extended cessation of agricultural production.

In spite of the lack of knowledge about this custom and its seeming irrelevance to the lives of modern Jews, nevertheless, there is something to be said for the ancient Jubilee, whether or not it was practiced. The Jubilee serves as a reminder that there must come a time in the rush of people's hurried lives to stop and step back to rest and renew the vision and purpose of life.

"The Gates of Prayer" prayerbook echoes this sentiment: "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."

It would be unfortunate to have to wait once every seventh year or even once every 50th year for the opportunity to care for our spiritual lives. Jews are fortunate that new moons and special seasons in the Jewish calendar afford an opportunity to be in tune with the passage of time and the opportunity for rest as our liturgy suggests: "Yis-ma-chou b'mal-ah-chout-cha, shom-rey Shabbat, v' ko-rey oneg Shabbat (Those who keep the Sabbath and call it a delight, rejoice in the Sabbath)."

The awareness of calendar and festival celebrations should serve to draw Jews closer to the rhythms and cycles of the seasons in order to stand back and then return to work, refreshed and renewed.