‘These are the festivals of the Lord… In the first month, on the 14th day of the month, towards evening is a Passover [sacrifice] unto the Lord. And on the 15th day of that month is the festival of matzot; for seven days shall you eat matzot…”
The glory of the People of Israel and, undoubtedly, that which enables us to survive as a unique and creative peoplehood despite 2,000 years of exile and persecution, is the Hebrew calendar, replete with its Sabbaths and festivals.
It was specifically our joyous and sacred special days of celebration that punctuated our daily drab and difficult struggle for survival with a regal splendor, inspiring our embattled souls with the faith that we were God’s chosen people, that we would overcome every tyrant and oppressor and that we were destined to return to our homeland, Israel, and eventually bring morality, peace and redemption to a corrupt world.
But this Hebrew calendar of ours is a unique hybrid, an amalgam combining both a solar and a lunar component, further complicating an already complex system of permutation for the establishment of a perpetual calendar, which must keep the lunar dates “in sync” with the solar demands of rituals, which are seasonally dependent.
You see, our festivals are rooted in the agricultural reality of the Land of Israel: the matzot festival is our spring holiday (Exodus 23:15, hag ha’aviv
), celebrating the ripening of the first of the grains (barley) and promising the continuing ripening of all the grains and first fruits. Succot arrives exactly six months later, the harvest festival (ibid. 16, hag ha’asif
) celebrating the ingathering of the last of the produce, marking the last days the farmers would be forced to sleep in the makeshift booths temporarily erected on the fields during the heavy work period, and anxiously anticipating the winter rains that would hopefully signal a good crop for the year to come.
Now, the solar year represents the complete revolution of the earth around the sun, with the amount of daylight increasing and decreasing in accordance with the nearness of earth to sun during its yearly journey – which is approximately 365.25 days long.
Our Torah, as it records the process of freedom for the Hebrews from the Egyptian enslavement, also separates Israel from the solar calendar culture of Egypt: “This renewal of the moon shall be for you [the festival of] the new month; it [the month of Nisan] shall be for you the first of the months of the year” (Exodus 12:2). The lunar month represents the revolution of the moon around the earth, with 12 lunar months taking 354 days to complete that journey.
The lunar dates have no relationship whatsoever to the seasonal conditions on the ground, to the lengthening or lessening of the amount of sun on any given date, to the particular season on which the day will fall in any specific year. The lunar month only reflects the waning and waxing of the moon, which – after entirely disappearing and leaving a totally darkened sky in its wake – will always rekindle the lunar light.
This symbolizes the possibility each month of recreating, of new beginnings and opportunities.
For ancient cultures, the festivals were all rooted in agricultural, existential elements and therefore in nutritional factors and food acquisition; life and death depended upon sun and rain. Hence, the sun and the rain were the most powerful phenomena in their world – and so they worshiped them, as well as other natural forces. Their calendar was a solar calendar; their “religious” idolatrous acts were meant to propitiate the gods of nature whom they bribed to help them. They saw themselves as powerless before the gods of nature.
Judaism entered the world – via Abraham, the first Hebrew – with a very different outlook. There was one God who created the world, one great Power and not many warring powers who had to be propitiated, and that one God created the human being in His Divine image to develop, perfect and take responsibility for an undeveloped and imperfect world, which had to be conquered and redeemed (Genesis 1:28; 2:15). The way to do it was by being God-like, by doing good and destroying evil, and by harnessing nature through human ingenuity and scientific discovery.
God revealed His Name to Moses as “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” (Exodus 2:14), I Will Be Who I Will Be, the God of history. It is an open-ended name because, while creation was done by God alone, history must obviously 3encompass God with many human partners.
Creation itself may be seen as a work in progress, with our greatest challenge being to perfect God’s world together with God and His human creations.
Hence the solar calendar – representing the forces of nature, which are seemingly beyond our control – must be wed to the lunar calendar, which is not determined by the sun but by history, people or people and God together, such as the dates when the Hebrew slaves of Egypt were freed; when the Hebrews learned to cope with their freedom in the wilderness (Succot); when the Israelites entered Israel from the desert (Leviticus 23:39-44); and on Independence Day.
Our hybrid calendar must teach us to be proactive, to battle even the forces of nature, in order to finally perfect our world in the Kingship of the Divine. It also reminds us to be optimistic that light will always burst forth from the darkness, that a new dawn will always follow even the most blackened sky.
Perhaps that is why the commandment of matza teaches us that we must interfere with the natural process of fermentation (slavery for Egypt was a natural process), and make certain that every individual is freed even from what some societies might call acceptable, and even from what certain liberal ideologies may consider legitimate.
We must free the divinity that resides in each of us, and allow that divinity to become the master of our souls and the director of our actions. Shabbat shalom Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone institutions and the chief rabbi of Efrat. His latest book,
The Living Tree: Studies in Modern Orthodoxy, is available from Maggid Books, a division of Koren Publishers Jerusalem.