Galilee Diary: Catching Up
Our rabbis taught: A year may be declared a leap year on three grounds: on account of the premature state of the grain crop, or that of the fruit trees, or on account of the lateness of the equinox. Any two of these reasons can justify declaring a leap year, but not one alone.
– Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 11b
If you have been wondering whether this Hebrew year will be a leap year, I can put you out of your suspense: From our bedroom window we have a clear view over our neighbor's almond tree. It has not even begun to think about blossoming yet – and I am writing this during the first days of the month of Adar – over two weeks after Tu BiSh'vat, the day we celebrated by singing "The almond tree is blooming..." which, of course, it wasn't. Moreover, if we were to continue with the regular succession of the months, Pesach would come out a week before the spring equinox, so it would not be "Chag Ha'aviv," the festival of spring. So, were the Sanhedrin still in charge here, they would take into account this discrepancy in the date of Pesach – and my observation of the almond tree – and decree that after Adar, there would be a re-run, a second month of Adar, in order to push Nissan – and therefore Pesach – back to where it belongs in the cycle of seasons.
This system is an example of Israel-centricity in the halachah. The decision about the calendar is universal, affecting Jews everywhere. And yet, the determination was made based on the conditions in the land of Israel (well, actually the equinox is not a local phenomenon...). When the rabbis decided to declare a leap year (in Hebrew, the term is "pregnant year"), they sent letters to the diaspora communities announcing their decision. When Jews in Australia celebrate Pesach, "the festival of spring," it is autumn outside their windows; the spring they observe is the one in Israel. Over the centuries, there have been (and still are) arguments over the centrality of Israel and its religious authorities in Judaism. But no one ever suggested that the declaration of the leap year should be based on conditions elsewhere – not even Babylonia.
However, in the fourth century, the rabbis realized that a calendar based on observation would be an endless source of controversy and of struggles over authority, so they created a perpetual calendar into which the difference between the lunar and solar cycles was built mathematically, eliminating the need for obtaining witnesses to the new moon, or observations of the delay of spring. The difference between a solar year and a lunar year is eleven days, so if we add seven months in the course of 19 years, we come out even (7 * 30 = 19 * 11 [almost]). The law that was set was that years 3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 17, and 19 are "pregnant." So divide the Hebrew year by 19; if the remainder is one of those numbers, there will be two months of Adar. It is now 5774, so we're in year 17 of the cycle. (Your 19th, 38th, 57th, 76th, and 95th birthdays on the Gregorian calendar will coincide with the Hebrew date on which you were born.)
This formula neutralized the direct centrality of Israel in the calendar, allowing Jews everywhere to live in synchronization without an authority in Israel to look out the window and issue calendrical decrees. This can be seen as an advance, and as a boost to Jewish unity. On the other hand, something's gained and something's lost, as it also represents one stage in the ongoing disconnection between diaspora Jews and the land of Israel – a process that in our day has reached the point at which for many if not most Jews, the visceral, geographical and calendrical connection with the land, its seasons and its landscape, its weather and its agriculture, has almost completely faded away, leaving us with only the sense of obligation (or not) of loyalty to the modern political state of Israel.
Prime ministers and their policies come and go, but the annual flowering of the almond tree is forever.