JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review Nov. 27, 2002 / 22 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Hanukkah by the Light of the Moon

By Rabbi Benjamin Blech

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | Around many Jewish homes this Thanksgiving, in addition to the requisite turkey and stuffing you will see . . . latkes?! It doesn't seem possible, but the day after Thanksgiving is Hanukkah.

What happened? Jews and Christians have different ways of marking time. We've got to agree on the calendar date when it comes to our daily lives. But in marking religious moments we differ. The Christian calendar, the one commonly accepted by the secular Western world, is solar. It has 365 1/4 days, the time it takes for the earth to make a full orbit around the sun. To compensate for the quarter-day discrepancy, every fourth year is a leap year, adding Feb. 29. Judaism counts the months by the new moon. The English language still carries a trace of this ancient tradition by calling it a "month," from the root word for "moon." The moon has a cycle of 29 days. That makes a lunar year 11 days shorter than a solar.

Muslims follow a strict lunar calendar. That means their month-long observance of Ramadan, with its daily fasting, can fall during any season. The holiday keeps coming earlier until, having been pushed back a full year, the cycle starts again. If Jews counted time solely by the moon, Hanukkah would move back from December till - can you imagine? - right next to Easter!

Judaism considers the solar calendar more accurate than the lunar and adjusts for the shortfall. To make up for the "missing" 11 days, the Jewish calendar adds a "leap month" seven times in every 19-year cycle. That's why the Jewish calendar is called lunar/solar. It has a little of both.

By combining the two, Judaism ensures that holidays such as Hanukkah fall out in the seasons most appropriate to their message. Passover is a holiday of renewal and it falls out in the spring. Hanukkah is very much a winter holiday. Obviously, Jews and Christians have different reasons for observing Hanukkah and Christmas. Christians celebrate the birth of their Lord. Jews commemorate their spiritual survival in the face of religious persecution.

Calendar tricks may ensure that Jewish holidays fall out in the appropriate season, but since Jewish scholars acknowledge that the 365 1/4 count we get from the sun is more correct, why use a lunar calendar at all, only to have to fix the mistakes?

The rabbis of old gave us a beautiful answer. The moon is a source of illumination in more than one way. We look to the moon when we count because the moon has something to teach us. The moon waxes and wanes. It goes from darkness to light. Just when it seems to disappear, it renews itself and grows full again. Its cycle mirrors the history of the Jewish people.

In days of despair, we can try to take comfort from the moon. We can believe in G-d even when things are dark all around us. We can move from pessimism to hope, from adversity to fulfillment. If we remember this idea, if we internalize this truth, if we become inspired and comforted by this thought, then we will have one more thing to be thankful for come Thanksgiving.

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JWR contributor Rabbi Bejamin Blech is the author of the forthcoming "September 11th: G-d, Let Me Ask You Some Questions" and seven other highly acclaimed books, including Understanding Judaism: The basics of Deed and Creed. He is a professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University and the Rabbi Emeritus of Young Israel of Oceanside, NY, which he served for 37 years and from which he retired to pursue his interests in writing and lecturing around the globe. Comment by clicking here.


© Rabbi Bejamin Blech