What we were doing last time Pesach was this early, back in 1899


The last time we sat down to Seder so early in the year, the country had not long before celebrated a diamond jubilee and the community was deep in discussion about international antisemitism and the views of a pope.

This Pesach is the earliest that the festival has fallen in the English calendar in 114 years, and only the third time since 1861 that Seder has been observed on the evening of March 25.

According to UCL Professor Sacha Stern, although the Jewish calendar in theory repeats itself every 19 years, it is often a day or so out in either direction.

The discrepancy arises because the lunar calendar is slightly longer than the Gregorian one. “They operate on very different principles so there won’t be a regular synchronism.”

The discrepancy builds up over the centuries, so Pesach is likely to fall later and later as time goes on.

In 1899, it was not the early occurrence on Pesach that was of interest, but the questions prompted by erev Pesach being a Shabbat, including when to search for chametz. “The preparation for the festival must be made to-day, while leaven has to be eaten till tomorrow morning,” the JC told readers. “A domestic problem of no small concern is thus created.”

The JC of that week also devoted several columns to one of the key issues facing Jewry at the time — the fate of French army captain Alfred Dreyfus, who was to endure his fifth Pesach as a captive on Devil’s Island.

The latest twist was an intervention by Pope Leo XIII, which was highly unexpected, given that the case against Dreyfus was seen to have been built by France’s Catholic establishment.

“Thus the pope does not hold the guilt of Dreyfus as a dogma, or incompatible with the honour of the army,” the report said. “Who would now venture to deny that the vision of the martyred innocent of the Devil’s Island has haunted more than once the unquiet nights of the Vatican… For Mercy’s sake we might have wished that she had been willing to speak sooner; for the sake of Policy she could not longer defer utterance. The victory of Right is at hand.”

Elsewhere, the paper carried an advertisement for a relatively new product called Palestine Wine, which “everyone ought to have for the Seder and for Passover”. The company, of course, is now better known as Palwin.

The next time Pesach is set to fall this early is 2089, but another quirk of the calendar occurs much sooner. This November, American Jews will be lighting the menorah over turkey, as Chanucah coincides with Thanksgiving for the first time since the day was established.

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