The Jewish holy days are like husbands. Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah and Passover never arrive quite when they’re expected.
Every time I get home, whether from work or after running various errands, my wife says either, “Are you back already?” or “I was ready to call out the National Guard.”
And every year, as Jewish women peruse the calendar, only two responses to the dates are possible: “I can’t believe how early (or late) the holidays are this year.”
I’ll acknowledge the possibility that men (other than rabbis) also look up the dates of the holidays and exclaim about them, but strictly out of political correctness. I’ve never heard of a man doing so. And to be honest, my best guess is that even in the case of male rabbis, it’s their wives who are flipping through the calendar and yelling, “Samuel, take your good suit to the cleaners right now. Rosh Hashana is going to be earlier than your mother when she comes for Shabbos dinner.”
The earliness of the holidays is particularly extreme in the year that began Wednesday night (Happy 5774, everybody!). Rosh Hashana arrives so prematurely that many Long Island school districts aren’t starting the year until the Monday after the Jewish New Year, on Sept. 9. Having grown up in a part of the nation, South Carolina, that is as likely to adjust the school calendar for Jewish holy days as it is to create districtwide vacations for Aztec fertility rites, this warms me.
Hanukkah will be upon us so quickly this year that the first night is actually the evening before Thanksgiving. This creates an unusual gap between the Festival of Lights and Christmas. It also guarantees my daughter will receive a gift-wrapped can of cranberry sauce as her second-night present (which beats the slightly stained issue of The Economist and matched pencil and eraser set she’ll be unwrapping on nights seven and eight).
The Jewish calendar is predicated on the moon, and a year usually has about 355 days. Every important aspect of our life on Earth, like when to plant crops, switch out my wardrobe from ski togs to tube tops, and crown champions in winter sports like hockey and basketball (mid-summer) is predicated by the sun, and a calendar of about 364 days.
Yet our balky ways of measuring time persist — out of custom, holiness and tradition, and for more people than just the Jews. It’s actually a harmless, fun link to the past.
The Jewish calendar runs in 19-year cycles, and seven of every 19 years are leap years, to which a full extra month, called Adar II, is added.
Granted, this is odd, but the Gregorian calendar we all use in real life has its oddities too: Leap year, which adds a 29th day in February, occurs in all years divisible by four (2012, for instance) except years divisible by 100, which are not leap years (1700, 1800, 1900) except for those also divisible by 400 (2000), which are. So it’s as simple as that!
Trying to run a solar world on a lunar calendar is like telling time with a thermometer. Sure, it’s usually warmest at 4 p.m. and coldest at 4 a.m. and often, using this knowledge, you’d get the hour right. But if you use the mercury to figure out when to go to work and a warm front rolls in overnight, you’re going to be very late.
And most Christian denominations have the oddest of all possible worlds. Christmas is always Dec. 25, but Easter floats around the calendar like mad. I could explain why, but I’d need a sextant, a telescope and notes from both God and Epstein’s mother.
Easter, in fact, will be on April 20 next year. That seems really late, but far be it from me to talk smack about the punctuality of other people’s holidays.
Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.