Rabbi YY Jacobson
Rabbi YY JacobsonIsrael National News

Two Roads

Two roads diverged in the long voyage of our people. There were “Solar Jews” and “Lunar Jews.”

There were always the people whose primary focus has been on holding on tenaciously to the past, with little or no change. Just because Voltaire gave us Enlightenment, Nietzsche taught us about the Will for Power, Tocqueville explained to us democracy, Freud discovered the subconscious, and America is changing by the day, this group argues, our core values—what makes us human and Jewish—still do not undergo change. Learn from the sun, they say. It has been doing the same thing for millennia and still casts its light and warmth effectively.

In contrast, the lunar Jews focus on the constant changes in history: The fluctuating trends, the cultural developments, the novel inventions, the technological revolutions, and the newly discovered wisdom. These Jews allow their ears to absorb the sounds of progression and the alterations in the climate. They aspire to define a Judaism—or a philosophy of life—that would be relevant to the contemporary conversation of humanity in its journey toward progress. “Learn from the moon,” they exclaim. Every day it is different. It waxes, it wanes; it even disappears once in a while. It forever assumes diverse shapes.

Often, they mocked their elders who were unchangeable. Their lunar anthem was this:

Rooted in the tombs of yesterday

Growing, thriving toward the sky.

Not satisfied with answers carved in clay

Give us new life or we will die.

In some ways, it was this perspective that gave birth to the contemporary Jewish world. As the winds of modernity swept Europe, as Enlightenment and Emancipation cast their glow on a downtrodden nation, millions of Jews felt that clinging to the lifestyle and traditions of their ancestors would impede their bright journey to a new world order. In the process, they bid farewell to the old to embrace the new; they said goodbye to the yore to embrace the “your.”

Then came the Holocaust and changed everything. A shattered people observed in unfathomable horror how the most enlightened European nation with the most PhDs, the crown jewel of the sciences and arts, was capable of sending one-and-a-half million children into gas chambers, with no qualms. As our nation struggled to regain its bearings and rebuild, confusion emerged.

The solar Jews focused on the fact that if you are not anchored in absolute values, traditions, and faith, you may forfeit continuity. In your passion to remain relevant today, you may forfeit the wisdom of yesteryear. In your ambition to grow tall, you can't detach from the roots that keep you alive.

“By the time a man realizes that maybe his father was right, he usually has a son who thinks he's wrong,” Charles Wadsworth once said.

The lunar Jews accuse solar Jews of monotony and dogma, stifling the new energy of today. In their hope to continue the chain of history by adding their identically matching link, they fail to leave room for creativity and self-expression.

Two Approaches to Business

Often, the conflict between the lunar and solar personalities emerges in a company, a business, or an organization.

The CEO, David, is adventurous, creative, courageous, and fearless of risks. He feels that the company has to embrace a new model to bring it over the top, though it has not done things this way since its inception. Yet the senior Vice President, Henry, adheres to a different code: Conservative approaches and investments, calculated growth strategies, continuing the models of yesterday which proved successful.

At a board meeting trying to reconcile between the two, strong words are hurled: The VP accuses the CEO, thirty years younger than him, of being volatile and impetuous. “This young know-it-all arrogant leader will take a successful company, earning its fixed annual revenue, and run it into the ground because of his irresponsible and youthful decisions.” The CEO does not remain silent. “Henry is an old man. He moves with the speed of a turtle. His consistency and regularity have led us to paralysis, stagnation, and deadness. With him at the helm, we will become irrelevant.”

Two Spouses

Often the dichotomy flares up in a marriage:

She is spontaneous, fun-loving, bursting with ever-changing moods and emotions. Occasionally, her luminous personality shines like the full moon; equally frequent, however, are periods of sadness and inner struggle. She waxes and wanes. And sometimes she wants to disappear from the world for two days, just like the moon.

He is solid, dependable, consistent, as regular as tomorrow's sunrise. When he has a flight, he packs two days before and shows up at the airport 3 and-a-half hours before his flight. He has been leaving the house at the same minute—8:19 AM—for the past 36 years to catch the 8:30 train. At work, he's efficient, productive, and a stalwart upholder of company policy. He has not been late to an appointment since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Even the Landing on the Moon did not excite him enough to stay up later than usual. After all, he is a sun… He goes to bed, with one book on his night table, because he never picks up a second book before he finishes reading the first. That, in his mind, is frivolous and irresponsible… (His wife, on the other hand, goes to bed with six books, so that when she gets bored of the first book—usually after three pages—she can pick up the second book.)

Or sometimes (maybe more often) it is the other way around. She is made of steel. She is solid, reliable, and dependable. He is moody and unstable. He may be an “artist,” but he’s out for lunch. And lunch never ends with him. Either way, as can be expected, theirs is not an easy marriage.

Who Prevails?

Each of us tends to deal with this conflict differently. But the common denominator for most is that we try to overemphasize one of the two approaches so that we can form some sense of identity. Sometimes as a society we give one approach exclusive power when the other has dominated our attention for a long time. It becomes a pendulum swing from one extreme to another: Embracing art and creativity until we’ve totally lost all sense of moral truth, and then giving total control to discipline and dogma until there is no distinguishable personality left in us.

Judaism, in its profound understanding of human nature and the process of history, challenges us to embark on the road less traveled.

Two Calendars

There are two types of calendars used by most civilizations 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 solar orbit (the orbit of the sun around the earth, or of the earth around the sun) is completed 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. 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 an artificial creation, a product of the mind dividing the solar orbit into 12 sections.[3]

The lunar orbit (the apparent orbit of the moon around the earth, or the earth around the moon) is completed 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]

This is why Ramadan—the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, which is the Islamic month of fasting, in which participating Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, and intimate relations for the entire month from dawn until sunset—can fall out either in winter or summer, or any other season. Sometimes Ramadan is in hot August, and sometimes in cold February (in 2022 it will begin on April 2 through May 2). Why? Because the Muslim calendar, unlike the Western calendar, has nothing to do with the sun and its seasons. It completely revolves around the moon.

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 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. Simple enough. Yet 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 the spring season (a product of 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 end up in the winter.

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 way the “lunar year” catches up to the “solar year.” This is done approximately every three years when the discrepancy between the lunar and solar year reaches 33 days. The added month synchronizes them, more or less.[9]

Now, this year in the Jewish calendar, 5784, is one of those leap years. And the Hebrew month in which we presently find ourselves, Adar 1, is exactly such a type of month—an additional 13th month added to our lunar year. The additional month is always added to the month of Adar, ensuring that the following month, Nissan, the month of Passover, is in spring, since the lunar year has now “caught” up to the solar year.

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

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 it establish a solar calendar to begin with! Why the need to follow 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. And our mission in life is not to become either lunar or solar, but to integrate them.

Sure, the synthesis of two celestial beings which possess differing patterns is never easy; it always requires tuning, fine-tuning, checks and balances, adjustments, vigilance, humility, and the readiness to challenge ourselves. But any other way would be neglecting a vital component of our design and of our objective in life.

To run from your spouse because they are so different is short-sided. Sure, to synchronize two personalities is not always a smooth journey, especially when one is a sun and the other—a moon. Yet it is in this attempt to bring together two orbits in which we can fully realize our inner potential and become the people we were meant to become.

Truth can never be captured via the moon or the sun on their own. We ought to utilize our innovative ability to its fullest, and yet, for our creativity to be productive and life-affirming, we must have a structure in which to operate. If I forfeit that structure in the name of liberty and self-expression, it would be akin to water escaping the “boundaries” of the pot in order to come into direct contact with the fire beneath the pot. The results? No fire left.

To lose touch with time-tested values of the past in the name of creativity is akin to playing a football game on a massive roof of a tall building, lacking a firm fence. Instead of enjoying a thrilling game, we become too timid to play, because we know how dangerous it is, or conversely, we become reckless. The best thing we can do is to construct a fence, and then we can enjoy an awesome game.

Let’s take the marital structure. Some may argue for completer lunar passion and romance, without the limitations imposed by the “solar” stable commitment to one person with no red lines crossed. The marriage-without boundaries may sound exciting, but the results are well known: It undermines rather than enhances the love and trust between a husband and wife, and the person often ends up with nothing.

We love the moon. We must be fresh, creative, passionate, and explore and actualize all of our individual resources. We ought to celebrate the new and the creative. But the leap year teaches us, that our inner moon—our inner lunacy—must, once every few years, be synchronized with our inner sun.

We need to anchor our spiritedness in time-tested values to define what is right and what is wrong. Our creativity blossoms best on the soil of commitment and tradition. The structures of morality and the laws of the Torah are similar to the laws of biology. If in my attempt for creativity I ignore the intricate "laws" that govern my organism, I will end up damaging myself.

You can’t ignore the rhythm of the soul. Only in the struggle to synthesize the sun and the moon, can the full capacity and majesty of the human being be expressed.[10]

Now, as Jews are once again facing such adversity and hatred, it is time to reclaim our tradition, our Torah, Mitzvos, and faith -- the spiritual weapons of our eternity, coupled with its creative fearless vigor, empowering us to heal ourselves and the world.


[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 is 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 Kiddush 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.

[9] Specifically, 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. This is why once in 19 years your English and Hebrew birthdays will finally be on the same day. Then we once again resume the cycle.

[10] This essay is based on a series of talks I heard from the Lubavitcher Rebbe during the month of Tishrei of 5744 (1983), which was a leap year. See: The public letter of the Rebbe dated 6 Tishrei 5744; Sichas 6 and 13 Tishrei 5744. The Rebbe then gave many more examples and illustrations of these two “orbits” in human life and in Jewish life.