“This month shall be unto you the beginning of months” Exodus 12:2

By Rabbi Michael Pollak, January 18, 2013

And so the Jewish calendar, with its amalgam of lunar and solar elements, is born. It is part a solar calendar based around days and weeks, all neatly adding up to almost exactly the amount of time it takes the earth to travel once around the sun.

The verse above was interpreted by the rabbis of the Talmud as an invitation to graft a lunar element consisting of months on to the simple solar version. This hybrid eschews the simple formula of one leap day every four years in favour of the confusing seven leap months every 19 years.

That confusion was then infused with uncertainty as the rabbis added a human element. A month was to be determined by human action. The Talmud demands that time itself was to wait for human intervention in the form of witnesses who had seen the new moon and a beit din to proclaim the new month.

Why was such an ugly construct so attractive to the rabbis of the Talmud? The Dead Sea Scrolls reveal that there were opponents to the incorporation of the lunar aspects of our calendar. The calendars of Qumran were strictly solar. The Qumran calendar, devoid of any human element reflecting the certain and relentless march of time, is linked by Professor Rachel Elior with the Dead Sea Sect’s belief in the inevitability of aristocratic governance through the High Priesthood.

Our rabbis rejected aristocracy. Our role models are Hillel and Akiva, men of modest birth. The rabbis reject the aristocratic fatalism of their opponents by championing the uncertain lunisolar calendar. If time itself must wait for human intervention, then we live in a world with mankind and free will at its heart.

    Last updated: 11:15am, January 18 2013