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      Judaism: The Kabbalah of Instability

      Published: Sunday, March 06, 2005 3:09 PM
      The very first mitzvah given to the Jewish people - even before their Exodus from Egypt - specified the formula by which to set the cycles of Jewish time, and it gave birth to the most complex calendar ever employed.

      The Battle

      A young scholar from New York was invited to become the rabbi of a small old Chicago community. On his very first Sabbath, a hot debate erupted as to whether one should or should not stand during the reading of the Ten Commandments.

      The next day, the rabbi visited 98-year-old Mr. Katz in the nursing home.

      "Mr. Katz, I'm asking you, as the oldest member of the community," said the rabbi, "what is our synagogue's custom during the reading of the Ten Commandments?"

      "Why do you ask?" asked Mr. Katz.

      "Yesterday, we read the Ten Commandments. Some people stood, some people sat. The ones standing started screaming at the ones sitting, telling them to stand up. The ones sitting started screaming at the ones standing, telling them to sit down."

      "That," said the old man, "is our custom."

      Sun People and Moon People

      Some of my teen-age students are stable, firm and consistent. What was yesterday will be tomorrow. They are in control of their schedules, patterns and interactions. They can be defined as sun-characters. As sure as tomorrow's sunrise, I am sure to encounter them tomorrow in the same mode I encountered them today. They shine today and they will shine again tomorrow.

      Others are moon-personalities. Some days they shine beautifully, illuminating us with their warm glow and soulful mystique. Yet, at other times, they become invisible. Sometimes I gaze at them and I see light; at other times I look at them and I encounter darkness.

      These are the moon people - those human beings whose psychological, moral and spiritual selves fluctuate continuously. Like the moon, at some point in the month they are well-rounded, wholesome and marvelous to look at. They generate light and warmth to their environment. At other times they are half-lit, half-inspired, half-involved in life. There are times when their light is thin and miniscule, barely seen and appreciated. And at some point during the month, they enter into the "dark haze", disappearing from the horizon completely, offering not a trace of light, not a glimmer of hope.

      Which one of these two personalities would you prefer to be? And if you are frustrated with your "moon" personality, should you strive to become a "sun", or should you just resign to your unstable moon-condition?

      Two Calendars

      There are two types of calendars used by most of civilization today: the Western calendar and the Muslim calendar. The Western calendar follows the solar cycle, while the Muslim calendar follows the lunar cycle. The primary features of both calendars are the month and the year. Yet, their duration can be calculated through either the sun or the moon.

      Let us go on a little journey through these two calendars.(1)

      The sun completes its orbit around the earth every 365 days.(2) That makes for a year. If you divide these 365 days into 12 sections, you get approximately 30 days in each section. This makes up the months.

      This is how the Western calendar works. The months are not defined by the completion of any particular orbit; they are a human creation, a product of the mind dividing the sun's orbit into 12 sections.(3)

      The moon, on the other hand, completes its orbit around the earth every 29 1/2 days, 12 times as fast as the sun. That makes for a month. Now, when you multiply the lunar month - 29 or 30 days(4) - 12 times, you have a year.

      Such a year, comprised of 12 lunar months, adds up to 354 days,(5) 11 days shorter than a solar year of 365 days. When a new lunar year begins (the beginning of the 13th month), the solar year has not yet finished its previous year and orbit.

      This is how the Muslim calendar works. As with the months in the Western calendar, the years in the Muslim calendar are not defined by an objective astronomical reality, but are a creation of the human mind multiplying the moon's orbit 12 times.(6)

      The Problem

      As long as you don't mix the two calendars, you're fine. But this is where the Jews came in and generated some confusion. The Jewish calendar is unique in that it integrates these two very different cycles of time - the solar and the lunar - into a harmonious system.

      The very first mitzvah given to the Jewish people - even before their Exodus from Egypt - specified the formula by which to set the cycles of Jewish time, and it gave birth to the most complex calendar ever employed.(7)

      The Torah specifies that Jewish months need to be established by the lunar orbit, not the solar orbit. Jewish years, too, must be calculated by the lunar cycle.

      But here is the dilemma: The Torah also instructs the Jewish people to celebrate their holidays (observed on certain days of the lunar month), during specific solar seasons. For example, the holiday of Passover, beginning on the 15th day of the lunar month of Nissan, must also be in the time of spring, as defined by the solar cycle.(8)

      Now, if the lunar and solar year had enjoyed an identical number of days, this system would work perfectly. The lunar and solar months would travel together side by side. But since the lunar year is 354 days and the solar year is 365 days, each passing year creates a discrepancy of 11 days between the two cycles. In the course of 10 years, the lunar year falls behind the solar year some 110 days! The result of this would be that Passover, celebrated in the lunar month of Nissan, would eventually be in the winter or fall.

      The Solution

      To confront this problem, the Jewish calendar introduced the "leap year". Every few years, a 13th month consisting of 30 days is added to the lunar year.

      This is how it works. The Jewish calendar follows a 19-year cycle. Seven out of these 19 years - years 3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 17 and 19 - consist of 13, instead of 12, months.

      Let us take a journey through this 19-year cycle.

      During the first two years of the cycle, the lunar year falls behind the solar year 22 days. Therefore, by the third year of the cycle, when 36 lunar months (three lunar years) would have set it back almost 34 days in relation to the annual seasonal solar cycle, we add a 13th month to the lunar year. Now, we are only four days behind.

      Three years later, now some 38 days behind (almost 34 from three lunar years plus four days behind from before), we repeat the process. Now we are eight days behind.

      Two years later, the lunar year accumulates a deficit of 29 days, so we add once again a month of 30 days to the lunar year. This actually places the lunar year ahead of the solar year, and now the solar year needs to do the catching up!

      And so it goes: every two to three years, an extra month is added to the Jewish lunar year. At the conclusion of each 19-year cycle, the solar and lunar years will be perfectly aligned with each other. Then, we once again resume the cycle.

      Now, the Hebrew month in which we find ourselves presently, Adar I, is exactly such a type of month - an additional 13th month added to our lunar year.

      So in summation, the Jewish people essentially calculate their time according to the moon. Our months are the moon's; our years are the moon's. However, to ensure that our lunar months keep pace with the solar seasons, we are constantly attempting to have the moon overcome its 11-day void and catch up to the sun's seasons.

      Why the Headache?

      But why the need for such headaches? If the Torah wants us to synchronize our months and years with the solar seasons, let us establish a solar calendar to begin with. Why the need to follow primarily a lunar system and then try to make up for its flaws, shortcomings and mishaps?

      The answer to this enigma is that in Judaism we measure and calculate our days the same way in which we measure and calculate our inner lives. We define time in the same way that we define our mission in life.

      Some human beings, as discussed in the opening of the essay, are "sun-people". They were bright today and they we will be bright tomorrow. No flux, no regression, no decline. They walk the path of righteousness on a consistent basis. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday - are all, more or less, the same. They are good people, doing the right thing, most or all of the time.

      But so many of us are "moon-people". Ups and downs, regression and renaissance, depression and joy, darkness and light are the fluctuating patterns of our lives. At times, our lives -- just like the moon -- are filled with luminescence and passion, bringing light to our loved ones and to the world around us. At other times, just like the moon, we wane, decline and succumb to mediocrity. Our lives grow sluggish, melancholy, numb, dark. An entire 24-hour or even 48-hour period may transpire in which we do not contribute even a glimmer of light. We lose the willingness to face the world and we retreat into hiding. We become invisible.

      It's not fun being the moon, friends, but it's the reality for so many of us. How do we deal with it?

      Celebrating the Moon

      Thus comes the moving message of Judaism, instructing us to define our experience of life based on the moon, not the sun. Why?

      Because the moon-personality, even more than the sun-personality, is the ultimate hero of life's battlefield. Here is a human being who declines, regresses, falls and goes blank, sometimes turning into a dark piece of matter. And yet, notwithstanding the enormous struggle, here is the human being who refuses to give up and die! 24 hours after his disappearance, he musters the resolve to re-appear on the face of the earth, to rise from oblivion and regain his or her position as a beacon of light in G-d's world.

      As Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel put it so movingly in "The Boxer":

      In the clearing stands a boxer, and a fighter by his trade,
      And he carries the reminders of every glove that laid him down or cut him,
      'till he cried out in his anger and his shame,
      I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains,
      Yes he still remains!

      It is this character that Judaism teaches us to cherish and embrace. Life is not about the ability not to fall. That is a unique state reserved for a few special sun-souls. The beauty and power of life for so many of us lies in our heroic attempt to rebound after we fall, to recreate ourselves after destruction, to once again scale the peaks of our full potential even after we have failed so miserably. The moon captures the human ability to experience re-birth and rejuvenation after near annihilation.

      Will We Ever Catch Up?

      But will we ever catch up to the sun? Can we ever make up all those "missing days" of light? Can we ever reach a point of genuine inner light, knowing that darkness lurks both in our past and future?

      That is the uniqueness of the leap years, through which the moon not only catches up to the sun, but at times, even surpasses it.

      What this symbolizes psychologically is this:

      It is true that the Jewish calendar does not revolve around the sun-personality, but rather the moon-individual, yet it does not tolerate a moon cycle that is completely detached and independent of the sun's stable cycle. Judaism, as much as it acknowledges and is sensitive to human struggle and failure, never allows one to become satisfied with his or her failings, shortcomings and inclinations toward darkness. Our calendar is constantly attempting to synchronize the moon with the sun. You must not become the sun, but you ought to chase after it. And in your very attempt to catch up to the sun, you fulfill the objective of your creation.

      What is more, not only can the moon personality equal the completion of the sun, but he may even surpass it, as is the case in some of the leap years. For there is a mystique, a depth and intensity in the recreated light of the moon that the stable light of the sun can only crave of experiencing.

      [This essay is based on an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shabbos Yisro, 5733; January 27, 1973. That Shabbos blessed the new month of Adar 1, one of those added months to the lunar year.]


      1) For a full understanding of the subject below, see Understanding the Jewish Calendar (Feldheim Press).

      2) To be exact, the solar orbit is slightly less than 365.25 days.

      3) Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra puts it thus (Exodus 12:2): "The sun has no month."

      4) Since the moon completes its orbit, as mentioned, every 29.5 days, and we don't want to have a new month beginning in the middle of a day, six lunar months out of a year consist of 29 days, while six other lunar months are comprised of 30 days.

      5) The exact figure may be 353, 354 or 365 days.

      6) Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra puts it thus (Exodus 12:2): "The moon has no year."

      7) See Rambam, Hilchos Kedush Hachodesh and references noted in commentaries.

      8) The start of spring, also known as the vernal equinox, is the point when the sun's center crosses the equator from South to North, March 21 on the Gregorian calendar.

      [My thanks to Shmuel Levin, a writer and editor in Pittsburgh, for his editorial assistance.]