The cycles of time in Torah law go from days to weeks to months to years to sabbaticals and finally to jubilees. Leviticus 23 instructs us, “on the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest,” and of the holidays, “you shall proclaim them in their appointed season.” From this we understand that G-d has fixed the days and weeks, but the months and the years have been given to the People Israel to schedule (within certain confines).
The Lunar month has roughly 29½ days, and there are roughly 12 Lunar months in a Solar year. It’s that word “roughly” that gives Jews not only the authority but the duty to mold the Hebrew calendar. Nobody can decide that Sunday should follow Friday, but the Jewish people can decide (and, indeed, have decided) that Adar II may follow Adar I, instead of the normal Iyar, or that Cheshvan may have either 29 or 30 days in various years. This discretion has proven pivotal in shaping a Jewish identity that is, as a paramount consideration, grounded in a common sense of time and its observances.
While the Temple still stood, the months would be declared based on the testimony of the New Moon, given by two witnesses to the Sanhedrin (the Great Council). It was the testimony—and not the fact of the New Moon itself—that began the month. When Rabban Gamliel accepted the obviously-false testimony of two witnesses in Tractate Rosh Hashanah 25a, Rabbi Yehoshua was greatly distressed. In order to comfort Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Akiva laid down the principle that, “whether you have proclaimed them at their proper time or whether you have declared them not at their proper time, I [G-d] have only these Festivals, as established by the representatives of the Jewish people.” Sforno took this principle a step further and declared that even if the new month is falsely- and maleficently-declared, it is the new month nevertheless.
It is difficult to overstate the power thus entrusted to the Jewish people—even to determine the date in which the world is judged! Jerusalem Talmud Rosh Hashanah 7b teaches that, once, G-d had prepared to judge the world on the day that Rosh Hashanah was appointed to occur. G-d had assembled the heavenly court to preside over the judgment. But, due to whatever oversight or obstruction, the New Moon was not sighted, and the People Israel did not proclaim the month. G-d then dissolved the heavenly court and re-assembled it the following day, saying to the Jewish people, “If you have proclaimed the holidays, they are My appointed times, and if you have not proclaimed them, they are not My appointed times.”
This incredible power holds not only for Rosh Hashanah, but for all holidays. In The Thirteen-Petalled Rose, Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz notes:
[H]oly days are connected to significant historic happenings, such as the Exodus from Egypt on Passover, the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai on Shavuot (Pentecost), or the wanderings of the Children of Israel in the wilderness on Succot (Tabernacles). These holy festivals are not intended simply as memorial days to keep alive the memory of the events; they are divinely appointed times dedicated to a renewal of the same revelation that once occurred on that day in the year, a repetition and a restoration of the same forces. So that the sanctity of the holidays is derived not only from a primal divine revelation but also from Israel’s continual resanctification, in the way it keeps these days holy, of this revelation.
This then means that the very alignments of the worlds do not happen at predetermined times, but by the will of the People Israel. The proclamation of the holidays—and especially their proclamation at a uniform time throughout all Jewish communities—is so fundamental that, when the Byzantine Empire dissolved the Sanhedrin in 4119 (358/9 CE), Hillel the Nasi assembled the Council in secret one final time in order to codify the calendar that we know today.
Though the months were appointed to us to mold, rabbinical Judaism has pushed the envelope even further to change the very season of the New Year. We are approaching the Passover, which begins on the fifteenth day of Nisan, the month of the exodus, and the month which G-d commanded in Exodus 12:2 to be the first month of the year. Indeed, in biblical times it was. Rabbinic law re-instated the beginning of the year to occur six months later (or alternatively earlier, I suppose) in Tishrei, the month of the creation of the world, during a holiday we now know as “Rosh Hashanah,” meaning “Head of the Year.” In Torah, this holiday is known alternatively as “Yom Truah” or “Yom HaZikaron,” and Tishrei was referred to as “the seventh month.” This calendar shift goes hand in hand with a revised counting of the years. It used to be the Hebrew custom to count beginning with the exodus (e.g., I Kings 6:1). We now count from the creation of the world. In short, our ancient sages switched from reckoning time based on liberation to creation. How did this change happen, contrary to unambiguous Torah law?
Tomes have been written about this question, but here’s one Jew’s angle:
It is not a matter of how we see the year, but how we see ourselves. What is the defining moment of our existence? Marking time based on the exodus means measuring one’s life based on an escape from trauma. In the exodus timeline, the defining moment of our identity is reactionary. This is a narrowness of spirit. On the other hand, when we mark our years from the creation of the world, we see ourselves as whole human beings with a purpose in this world that transcends the degradation of the Land of Egypt. For my sake was the world created (Sanhedrin 4:5). The Nisan Jew sees her default state to be one of slavery and celebrates a sort of freedom by grace. The Tishrei Jew understands that the plan from the very outset was for her to serve G-d; serving Mitzrayim was just a detour.
Of course, this will not stop us from sitting down at our Seder table and eating matzah and maror. We still do commemorate the Passover and the great miracles by which Hashem rescued us from bondage. The end of something so terrible is still worthy of celebration; but the disappearance of evil is not truly as miraculous as the emergence of good. Our sages were only able to shift our new year once there had been a true healing from the intergenerational trauma of slavery. Through a new calendar, which signaled that we were not only free but worthy of freedom, they pushed our collective observance and our self-shaped conscience from pivoting around the exodus to an even greater liberation: the creation of the world, which was the liberation from nothingness.
We have operated for almost two-thousand years based on the calendar laid down by the Great Council. This speaks, of course, to the incredible foresight of our sages, but such a level of ossification was never the intention; this calendar was supposed to be an intermediary fix until the Great Council could assemble again. Jews were made to be masters of our own calendar, but we are operating on auto-pilot. For one matter, we are seeing a seasonal drift of the calendar and we need a new generation of sages to remedy it.
There is already an (admittedly controversial) attempt to re-establish the Great Council, so that we may fulfill the commandment to proclaim our own holidays. One leader of this movement, Rabbi Hillel Weiss, has said, “Reinstating the new month and witnesses appearing before the Sanhedrin will be the true beginning of this redemption. The new Moon is G-d sending us a sign of new beginnings, and for us to establish Pesach (Passover) in its time.”
Who knows what great future is in store for the Jewish people, who only continue to climb higher and higher in our relationship to G-d and to one another? The calendar as we have known it for two millennia may yet be ready for another change. We may yet be ready for a greater liberation.
Dr. Yonathan Reches is a Program Manager in the US Space Force in El Segundo, CA and a member of the Ikar Community. During his undergraduate studies, he was involved with Hillel at the University of Oklahoma and formed a lasting bond with the Dallas Jewish community. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the Space Force or the United States.