Shabbat and the Leap Year

February 12, 2016

Every week, Jody Hirsh, the JCC's Judaic Education Director, provides a Judaic message that is featured at the top of the JCC's weekly email newsletter. Below is the Shabbat message for Friday, February 12, 2016.


Shabbat and the Leap Year

This Shabbat is the fourth of Adar I. Yep. Adar I. Not Adar II. This is a Hebrew leap year – therefore, there is actually an extra month this year. The month that normally comes at this time of year on the cusp of the end of winter/the beginning of spring is Adar. Adar is the month of Purim which falls on the 14th of the month. However, because this is a leap year, we have two months of Adar: Adar I which started on Tuesday night (February 9); and, Adar II which starts on Friday, March 11. Purim will be in Adar II on March 24. Therefore, this month (of Adar I, February 9 – March 10) has FIVE extra Sabbaths in it! A whole extra month during a leap year? A whole month? What’s the story?

Just like in our American/Gregorian calendar, we have to compensate for extra time. As you know, our American year has 365.25 days. Therefore every four years we need to add an extra day (4 x 1/4) to even things up. This year, that extra day – February 29 – adds a day to the calendar. The Hebrew calendar is MUCH more complicated. It’s basically a lunar calendar. Each month has 28 – 30 days in it depending on the cycle of the year. If you add up the days in the lunar calendar it comes to 354 days. Since the solar year is 3665.25 days, the lunar year falls short by about 11 days. Does this make a difference? Well… YES. Normally it wouldn’t. Each year would start 11 days sooner than the last year. Sometimes it doesn’t make a difference. The Muslim calendar is also a lunar calendar, and each year DOES start 11 days earlier. That’s why their holidays rotate around the seasons. Ramadan the Muslim month of fasting, introspection, and prayer, started on June 15 last year in 2015. Five years ago, in 2010, it started on August 11. Our Jewish calendar, however, can’t permit this multi season cycle. Most of our holidays are pegged to the seasons: Rosh Hashanah is ALWAYS in the autumn; Passover is ALWAYS in the spring, Chanukah is ALWAYS in the winter (at least in Israel and the Northern hemisphere). In order to prevent this wandering through the seasons, the calendar is set up to have a leap year which adds not an extra day, but an extra month.

Simple, right? NO! In the ancient Israel, when the months were declared when witnesses reported the new moon to the High Priest of Israel in Jerusalem. Depending on the astronomy involved most months have fixed numbers of days, but two months can have either 28 or 29 days – so the calculation of the year is amazingly complicated. How do we know when to add the extra month? The leap years occur seven times in a nineteen year cycle.  This mathematical system is SO complicated, the remnants of the Jewish people living in Israel and abroad were terrified that they’d lose track of how to calculate the year after the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. It was only after more than 300 years after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, that the rabbis figured out how to calculate the year mathematically, rather than relying on the testimony of those coming to Jerusalem to report a new moon sighting.

So… this year, we add the extra month of Adar.

Happy Adar I, and Shabbat Shalom!